Monday, July 27, 2015

Law Enforcement and Racial Tensions: The Chaplain's Perspective

Law enforcement in America is under severe scrutiny. Simmering racial tensions between police and the citizens they are called to protect and serve have reached a boiling point in communities across America.  At the urging of a good friend and colleague, I am going to comment on such tensions.  My perspective is rather unique. I have been a law enforcement chaplain for over 25 years.  In that role, I am called to provide pastoral care both to officers and victims of crimes or other traumatic occurrences.  I have spent hundreds of hours riding with officers on patrol during their shift at all hours of the day and night since 1990.  What can I add to this dialogue? I am going to list a few things that I hope will prove to be helpful.

·       Are you well qualified?  When I was an undergraduate student, I worked for a gentleman that would ask me if I was “well qualified to discuss” a particular subject.  In the wake of events in Ferguson several months ago, I was literally stunned at the ill-informed comments being shared on social media. Ignorance appeared to be widespread. Individuals posted thoughts that on the surface sounded good, but in reality were not based on fact.  Such postings fuel the divide that exists between law enforcement and citizens.  Don’t post about a controversial event if you really don’t know what you are talking about. Your ignorance is destructive.

·       Will you admit your biases? I am biased. I readily admit it. I have worked with hundreds of well-trained, highly professional police officers for a long time. I have grown to love these men and women that have answered the call to protect and serve. But I also know my biases get me in trouble. I asked a veteran police officer what his thoughts were regarding events in Ferguson not long after the death of Michael Brown.  His response was not what I expected.  He said: “I really don’t know. I wasn’t there.”  I expected him to stand up quickly for a fellow officer.  But he told me that he didn’t have enough information regarding what actually occurred to form an intelligent opinion. This guy bleeds blue.  He is the consummate professional. He is loyal to his fellow officers in ways most people have an inability to comprehend.  He forced me to examine my own biases. He encouraged objectivity and fairness by his example.  I would urge everyone involved in this dialogue to do likewise.  Biases are destructive.

·       Are you an expert in police training?  I have a friend who is an engineer at NASA.  I have no clue what his role actually entails. But I thoroughly enjoy hearing about his job and absorbing what I am able. I don’t give my opinion on matters of which I know nothing about.  Be cautious about making rash statements about a police officer’s role until you have done good research.  Befriend an officer. Ask intelligent questions about his job.  Ask her about her role in the department. Inquire about training and standard order of procedure.  If your community allows citizens to do a ride-a-long, by all means take advantage of the opportunity. It will change your perspective dramatically. If you are not an expert in police training, refrain from armchair quarterbacking.

·       Can a video tell the entire Story?  Police officers work under a constant microscope. Dash-cams and now body-cams for some departments are constantly reviewed by police supervisors. They can be helpful in prosecuting certain crimes.  They can also reveal police misconduct.  But there are still some inherent pitfalls.  The NFL is figuring out that reviewing football plays via video is helpful, but not without issues.  Two things stand out regarding video.  The media often releases a couple of minutes from a police video that is commonly much longer. The entire story is seldom told by showing a fraction of the actual footage. The story is most often completed by eye-witness accounts and other forms of evidence that complement what is revealed by a video.  Don’t draw conclusions without sufficient evidence.

·       Are the police Infallible?  I have strong biases, but I as a minister I am also a reasonably good student of human nature.  Police officers make mistakes. Officers make grievous mistakes that often end up ending their career.  And when they do fail, it frequently affects a lot of lives. Another officer’s safety is compromised. Citizens are not served well.  People get hurt. Lives are even lost.  I have served departments over the years that do an exceptional job addressing internal issues. But I know that is not the case everywhere. I am a strong proponent of meaningful accountability that is enforced by individuals of integrity. Such a commitment is imperative during such a time as this.

·       Can racial bridges be built?  Racial bridges are going to have to be constructed.  Racial tensions are destroying any hint of trust that existed between minority citizens and the police. Negative and biased rhetoric is pouring gasoline on that fire.  The times call for non-anxious and objective voices from all sides of this issue.  All of us (including chaplains) are going to have to move beyond the realm of our relational comfort zone and contribute to the construction of relational bridges that will lead to the safety and well-being of officers and citizens alike. Police training has actually improved in this area substantially over the years.

I realize there are a lot of other things I could share here.  I just wish the average citizen could be exposed to the acts of kindness, heroism, and protection I have seen officers provide.  The words of a dear friend who lost his precious daughter in a car crash are ringing in my head.  He said: “Before my daughter was killed I understood the “protect part” of “protect and serve.”  After my daughter’s death, I now have an appreciation for the “serve” part.   I would write more, but I am thinking in terms of how we can build bridges that have been blown up by the bad behavior of a few. 

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