Rethinking Police in America

One of the major headlines of the chaos that was 2020 was concern over the role of police in America. Movements such as #BlackLivesMatter raised the awareness of the unjust nature in how the police treat minorities.

Last year, when I preached about concerns of inequality in our justice system and then marched in a peaceful protest, many people assumed I was anti-police. The reality is that I served as a police chaplain for years. I continue to have many friends in law enforcement today. And I can honestly say that most police I know have a desire to serve others and a willingness to put themselves at risk to do it.

Yet I think it’s time we broaden the conversation to acknowledge that something needs to change. What we are doing collectively isn’t working, especially to the vulnerable among us. I don’t say this because of any issue I’ve personally had with the police. I say this because I’m learning to listen to many others who have.

To begin rethinking the role of police, we need to avoid something called narrow-framing. That’s when we present our options as fewer than they really are. For example, I don’t think our only options in this conversation are to be entirely against police or entirely supportive of police. In fact, I would discourage either position.

For comparison, I would offer the church in America as another example of a topic like this. I personally think it’s time to rethink the structures and models of how we do church. But I don’t say that because I’m against the church. Rather, I’m for the church being healthy and I’m for people no longer being hurt and abused by the church.

The challenge is that the language we use in these types of conversations often gets heard in extremes. As a case in point, the popular phrase “defund the police” has garnered no small amount of debate. Rather than simply offering a critique, my desire is to help us find healthier ways forward. While it can be helpful to find ways to improve a community’s view of their police, I think we need a far more substantial change.

In that vein, I recently read a book called The End of Policing by Alex Vitale (see: Amazon link). Unfortunately, I don’t think this was the right choice for the title as it definitely implies an anti-police stance. Yet the book itself takes an honest critique of the role of police and then offers substantial arguments for reform moving forward (without calling for an abolishment of the police force). Vitale navigates nuance in his suggestions, such as when he says that “We must move beyond the false choice of living with widespread disorder or relying on the police to be the enforcers of civility.”

While the book unpacks a number of specific topics such as homelessness, mental illness, the war on drugs, and gang suppression, a few overall observations stood out to me.

First, police are asked to do too much in this country. I think this is partly because we collectively have a high view of the police force. While that may not seem to be an inherent problem, we have since come to rely on the police for roles that would be much more effectively carried out by other systems of support in our communities. “The primary face of local government in poor communities is the police officer, engaged primarily in punitive enforcement actions. Why not build community power and put non-punitive government resources to work instead?”

Second, anyone who brings the threat of state-sanctioned violence with them at all times will inherently default to and be seen in a punitive role. You’re not likely to meet with an unarmed officer in real-time, and this brings with it an underlying threat of escalation. The author quotes Kristian Williams’ observation that “The police represent the point of contact between the coercive apparatus of the state and the lives of its citizens.”

Unfortunately, I think we lack the imagination to see ways in which nonviolence may offer us a better way forward as we often default to the worst-case scenario. Yet this comes at a cost. “The nature of police is to be a force for order and control. Even when they attempt to be positive mentors, it is always backed up by the punitive and coercive capacities that distinguish them from teachers and counselors.”

Regardless of how you lean when it comes to your view on the police, most of us can unite around a desire for justice. What we are really debating is how to achieve the justice we want. “The best way to avoid political violence is to enhance justice at home and abroad. Rather than embracing a neoconservative framework of retribution, control, and war, we should look to a human rights and social justice framework that seeks to ensure universal health care, education, housing, and food as well as equal access to the political process—goals we are far from achieving.”

I’d encourage us to look to Jesus for our understanding of justice, rather than how the world may define it. As Vitale notes, “Part of the problem is that our politicians, media, and criminal justice institutions too often equate justice with revenge.” This is not of Jesus.

Instead, this is the example Jesus offers us: “He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly” (1 Peter 2:23).

Regardless of how you lean when it comes to your view on the police, most of us can unite around a desire for justice. What we are really debating is how to achieve the justice we want. Click To Tweet

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co. https://linktr.ee/JeremyJernigan

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