Thursday, May 07, 2015

The problem with the police

Police violence, particularly against black men and boys is a serious issue and must be addressed.   The fact that Baltimore has a black mayor and black police chief clearly shows that police violence against black men is not so simple as blaming a bunch of white racists for acting inappropriately but race cannot be ignored as a factor (see more below).  Race is not the only issue though and as some of my racist friends are quick to say, "White people get killed by the police too." 

Let me begin by saying that for most of my ministry I have had police officers who were members of my congregations.  To a person they were dedicated, conscientious people who took their jobs very seriously and truly wanted to do the right thing.  Still, the officers I have known well struggled with the issues below.

Back in seminary I did a stint as a student chaplain in a mental hospital.  It was a formative experience for me in many ways and I learned more from my supervisor, Bob Cholke, than I could begin to share.   One thing he said was very relevant to the problems we're seeing with the police today.  After working a few weeks at Haverford State Mental Hospital, Cholke said, "Be careful... if you spend much time here, you'll see everyone as crazy."  It was true.  As I spent more time with the mentally ill folk in the hospital I began to see that they really weren't that different from everyone else I knew.  It was a short jump to seeing everyone else I knew as like them... crazy.  I think the same is true with police officers.  They spend a lot of time with bad people and it doesn't take long until they see everybody as bad.  They would argue that at times their very lives depend on seeing the worst in the people they encounter.  That may be true, but it does change the way they see everyone and the ways that they interact with the public.

Race is clearly an issue in our culture and we often characterize criminals as being people of color.  You see a violent crime drama on television and there is a good chance that the criminal is not white.  Turn it around and people of color are seen as criminals regardless of what they have done.  This happens even with police officers who are black.  Add this to the sense above that everybody is a criminal and you've got a recipe for problems. 

The militarization of the police intensifies everything.  I remember hearing a commentator watching the police in Ferguson who said that when he was in Afghanistan, he was less heavily armed on patrol than the police were on the streets of Ferguson.  When the police arrive in full combat gear, that elicits a response that is not good.  It intensifies the sense of an us/them divide.  It escalates the potential for problems.  We all know that the police are supposed to protect and serve but the military is there to engage an enemy.  Some years ago I heard Ray Bakke say that the future of urban ministry was in the hands of women because men tended to escalate the potential for violence.  The softer approach of women lessened the tensions.  How much more true is it that a heavily armed police force in full combat gear escalates things as opposed to a softer presence?

The solutions are not simple and they are not without cost.  A softer police presence may indeed make the job of the police more dangerous.  It may also make the general public less likely to suffer from violence by police officers.

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