Rector's Ramblings June 10, 2020
I’ve always had an affinity for shows about police and detective dramas. I’m not alone; it’s one of the most popular genres on television. I remember watching Hillstreet Blues as a kid. There was NYPD Blue, Law and Order, CSI Miami, and more recently Southland, Longmire, and Narcos. Truth be told, there are a lot of others that I’ve watched and forgotten, or only seen some of. I watch such shows because I enjoy them for the entertainment value.
These sorts of shows are indeed entertaining. We like to watch the good guys get the bad guys. If they can do it with great dialogue and snappy one-liners, all the better! Some shows use the genre to tell stories that parallel headlines. They may also play off of the good cop, bad cop motif, but largely, and rightly, they lift up police and prosecutors as heroes. They are heroes, in the sense that they play a vital role in the order and just-ness of our society. Anyone who dedicates their lives to serving others is engaging in heroic behavior. Yet police shows apply Hollywood techniques to their stories, which means they’re not often realistic. I know this is true because there have been a few shows about pastors and priests, and they aren’t realistic in the true-to-life sense either! Neither genre shows the mundane parts of the vocation for police or pastors, for example. It’s just the way it goes.
Entertainment, while manufactured, can still echo reality, and it can influence reality, too. Just as those who haven’t served in the military may think they understand service from movies and stories, many of us who don’t wear badges and carry guns think we have a pretty good idea of what life is like for police officers because we saw every episode of NYPD Blue! We don’t. Not really. It’s a hard and dangerous job, and at times a bureaucratic nightmare. It is not a vocation for the faint of heart.
As I shared last week, I have police officers in my family; one with the Pennsylvania State Police, and one with the Las Vegas Metropolitan PD. I’m very proud of their vocations and service, and I support the work that they do wholeheartedly. I know both to be good, moral men, who have answered a calling to serve others. I know that their day to day life is not like what we see on television dramas. The docu-drama COPS, which has just been cancelled after more than 30 years on the air, captures some of what their life is like, but even that show has its limitations when it comes to reality. I am usually able to separate television from the reality of police life, but sometimes I admit that I blur the two.
Regardless, I am, overall, a supporter of the men and women who serve as police officers, and grateful for what they do on my – on our – behalf. I am also able to agree that there are places where reform is necessary. I don’t think bad cops should be used to represent all police. Good cops should be celebrated, while bad cops need to be held accountable. So too, does any system that allows officers to get away with or repeat behavior that is not legal, humane, or just. It is this reality that is at the heart of recent protests. Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric and the extremist views of the minority, there is widespread support for police and criminal justice reform. It is not reform because police are inherently bad or immoral, but because in the midst of the complexities of this and many communities, law enforcement systems and institutions simply don’t always function the way we want or need them to.
The recent calls to “defund the police” are certainly employing hyperbolic language. On the surface it would seem that many want to do away with uniformed law enforcement. Apart from a fringe minority, however, that’s not really what the movement is about. Instead, it is shorthand for a type of reform that seeks to balance out societal needs in a holistic way. Like many of you, I am working and reading to get up to speed on the history of policing and how philosophy and practices have changed over the last one hundred years, since professional policing really began to take shape in a way that is recognizable today. It’s a fascinating evolution, not all bad, but not all good, either. We will always need law enforcement servants, but we might want to use them differently.
One of the growing realizations is the extent to which we deal with difficult societal problems in this country by criminalizing them. We often call upon police officers (and the justice system) to deal with mental health problems, addiction problems, poverty problems, and a host of other issues that could be dealt with in other ways. Such problems are already handled differently around the country. It’s hard to be part social worker and enforcer at the same time, yet that’s often the two roles (among others) police have to play. It simply doesn’t work well. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world and have far outpaced our peers in the Western hemisphere on this measure. Still, we seem to lament problems with crime. We also know that poverty and race are correlated indicators of incarceration and violence within our justice system. We have very little to lose at this point in considering a different way to tackle our societal problems.
Defunding the police is not really a concept to abolish police forces, but to rethink how we address difficult problems, fund such work, and the role we ask police to play. There are examples of community-based policing and how it leads to less crime and less unsolved crime. Efforts to house the homeless and treat addicts similarly impact crime and violence. Despite what we know to be true about such initiatives, we have a hard time addressing the non-criminal side of these problems. One illustration in this regard is the prevalence of police officers in schools. Many schools may not have nurses, counselors, or support staff to deal with discipline issues, but they do have police officers on site. As the saying goes, when the only tool we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Some are suggesting that we might be able to spend our policing dollars a bit differently, by investing in social programs that can help stop some crimes before they happen. We might also find better measures to evaluate the success of the justice system than merely rewarding arrests and convictions. Just as the healthcare industry is learning, rewarding outcomes (perhaps reduced recidivism in policing) over billed services (arrests in policing) can actually provide a much better overall result. We need similar creative thinking applied to policing.
The calls for police reform are coming most loudly from the black community and its supporters right now because of the long history between policing and civil rights, (poverty also correlates with both), on display again after a series of high-profile systemic failures involving persons of color. It’s hard to watch the video of George Floyd’s death and not see that something went terribly wrong; not just because one officer acted so terribly, but that other officers on the scene didn’t stop the situation. It’s not an isolated event, sadly, but one that has been repeated again and again. There are some real problems that must be dealt with for benefit of our entire society. It’s unfortunate that many of us feel stuck between the people who only see bad and refuse to acknowledge the good, and those who insist that there is no bad, and pretend everything is fine. It’s not fine. And it’s not all bad. These are complex issues that need careful, honest deliberation to resolve. There are no easy answers but doing nothing is not an option either.
I hope we will all support police officers who serve ethically and to the best of their ability. I also want us to be able to name and condemn police brutality when we see it. I want us to support the idea of police institutions, while also acknowledging there is a need for reforming those institutions who don’t hold officers accountable and by so doing erode public trust or worse. I pray we will recognize the important role police play in our society, while also recognizing we have asked them to take on so many conflicting roles that it’s almost an impossible set of expectations. I also pray that we learn to apply our faith in God’s Kingdom to this particular realm of our earthly kingdom. We are called upon to respect the dignity of every human being. So too, should the institutions that serve on our behalf. That calling is applied to those who commit or are merely accused of crimes. It’s also to be applied to police officers of every stripe.
As we strive for justice and peace among all people, we need a reasoned, holistic approach, based on our love and respect for one another. We must find a way to shift from symptom management in policing, to preventative initiative. The old story reminds us that if we never go up-river to see why folks are falling into the river, we have no choice but to keep pulling people out of the river. Nothing will change if that continues to be our approach. Policing is just one piece of the puzzle. It should not bear all the sins or the weight of the system in which it operates, yet it can be a place to start.
We’re not living in a drama that will find things resolved in an hour, or maybe two with a good cliffhanger in the middle. That’s Hollywood, not real life. The real work is much messier, and far less entertaining. It’s vital, though. I ask God to bless and keep the men and women who serve in all law enforcement roles, and to draw them and us to continued loving service of all our neighbors. Together we can get closer to what I envision God expects from us.
Almighty God, who has called us to serve one another, and whose Son taught that there was no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another, let us pray together for the people of our community and our nation;
for those in law enforcement who approach their job with dignity and honesty and goodness, that they would be affirmed in their service and safe in their labors;
for those investigating police misconduct, that their investigations will be swift, thorough, open, and honest, and that it will help our communities and leaders to find ways to address systemic injustices;
for those who call for reform and justice, that their voices would be honest and fair, respectful and productive;
for us, what we would be united in prayer for immediate and lasting healing, especially between members of our communities and law enforcement who may be at odds with one another, that such healing might be brought about by dialogue, mutual respect and understanding.
We pray that in the days to come, protesters will voice their views freely and openly but without violence, which only deepens and prolongs injustice.
And finally, may we pray together that God will stay close by us on this journey, so that our broken nation can once again be whole and that our minds and our hearts will be open to peace and love.
Grant our prayers, O God, as your kingdom of justice and mercy comes and your will is done on earth as it is in heave; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Adapted from and inspired by a prayer offered by Archbishop William Lori, Archdiocese of Baltimore in 2015.