Engaging a transforming conversation about policing in America
In this ongoing series we reflect on the spiritual truths and principles that undergird the fight for racial justice, the Spirit that animates the fight and the spiritual practices that sustain us in this very human struggle. One of those practices is the willingness to listen to one another and learn from each other’s differing life experiences and the differing perspectives that emerge from those experiences. No one post will be the full word or the last word but, taken together, diverse voices will seek to illuminate a spiritual path forward.
In this installment, two of our board members reflect spiritually on the difficult issue of policing in America—Rev. Dr. Phaedra Blocker speaks from within the Black community about what she knows and what she doesn’t know in a very intimate sharing of her own wrestlings with God. This is followed by Rev. Dr. John Knox’s spiritual reflections on the same topic drawing from his experiences as a law enforcement chaplain. Taken together, these articles represent a fruitful and synergistic conversation between friends who care very deeply for one another, who respect each other and who are facing into the fight for racial justice and healing, each in their own way.
Creating space for a transforming conversation
Offering these articles together highlights the complexity of these issues and we do not attempt to tie them up neatly with a bow on top at the end. Instead, we trust that when deeply thoughtful, spiritual people seek to know the truth and speak the truth in the context of committed relationships, Jesus himself draws near and becomes the transforming presence among us. These are the kinds of mutually influencing conversations we engage in over and over again in Transforming Community.
As we risk opening up one of the most difficult issues facing us today in a more public forum, we ask you to 1–read to the end of both articles before reacting and take both perspectives into your heart and soul, listening for what God has to say to you there. 2–If you find yourself feeling defensive, argumentative, or even threatened, feel all your feelings AND ask “What does my reaction say about me? Is this a place where God is knocking on the door of some closed place in my heart?” 3—See if you can hold more than one perspective at a time, trusting God to use a more fully-orbed awareness of truth to lead us towards freedom and justice in all aspects of our life together.
~Ruth Haley Barton
My “Cloud of Unknowing”
by Phaedra Blocker
My beloved late uncle was a sheriff, and a minister. He died some years ago, but I still remember the story that the current sheriff at the time—a strapping, youngish White man of military bearing whom my uncle had trained—told at my uncle’s homegoing service. The story was about an incident that occurred when the current sheriff was a young rookie. They had gone out on a call about a disturbance at a local bar, and when two men (who were intoxicated) were confronted by the officers, they got belligerent and started cussing at the officers. Before my uncle could say a word, the rookie launched in to “respond” and a fracas broke out. Eventually, order was restored, and the men were taken into custody. No one was seriously hurt, but the men, the rookie, and several other officers ended up with some bruises and scratches.
Back at the office, my uncle pulled the rookie aside and walked with him through the incident. “Look at yourself. Look at your colleagues. Do you really think that was the best way to handle that situation?” When the rookie started to protest and offer excuses, my uncle stopped him. “Listen,” my uncle said to him, “in this job we are often encountering people at their worst moments. That doesn’t make them horrible people, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t treat them with dignity and respect. We’re here to protect and serve them, too.” The current sheriff told us how he always remembered that wisdom, particularly because of the way my uncle modeled it, and how it had shaped his own approach to being an officer.
This I Know for Sure
As I see report after report after report…after report of Black people being harassed, brutalized, and killed by law enforcement officers around the country, I often think about that story—and I see the tearful, dignified face of the White sheriff, mourning the mentor he admired so much, as he told it. I also see the faces of my other friends and family who serve with compassion and integrity in law enforcement. I lament—particularly for those who are themselves people of color—how much additional stress they must carry while already doing a stressful and sometimes dangerous job. I pray for them. And frankly, I become even angrier than I already was at what’s happening in this country. Because I know that the vast majority of these incidents did not need to happen.
I know (because there are numerous videos documenting this reality) that law enforcement officers across the country are quite capable of apprehending White people—armed and aggressively threatening White people, at that—in the very act of committing serious crimes, alive and relatively unharmed. Somehow those officers (sometimes in the same jurisdictions where they have shot and killed unarmed Black people) have not “feared for their lives” and therefore felt compelled to employ lethal force when apprehending suspects with a different skin color.
I also know that White people are not generalized into a group when they commit crimes; in fact, all manner of verbal and mental gymnastics are employed to make it clear that the criminal act is the work of an individual—and for good measure, there is usually some appeal to mental illness to further distance the person from the general White population. White people, therefore, are not portrayed as inherently criminal (a narrative that finds its origins in the days of slavery and that was inflated and embellished during Reconstruction and its aftermath).
I know that the everyday lives of White people in this country are not monitored, constricted, dictated to, and held to the often-absurd expectations of behavior and emotional response that are routinely required of Black people—with law enforcement agencies used as the vehicle for surveillance and control. White parents do not have to have “The Talk” with their children the way that Black parents do, in hopes of making sure their child survives even a chance encounter with police officers.
I know that, for the most part, police presence in less resourced White communities is not experienced as an “occupying force” where people can be randomly stopped and questioned while going about their daily business, and even the smallest infraction can be used to materially change their future. (And where any mistakes in your past, no matter how distant that past or small the mistake, are taken to provide justification for your brutalization and execution in the present).
I know that White people are assumed to belong wherever they choose to be. Black people, however, are routinely required to have an explanation for being wherever Whiteness does not expect (or want) them to be. And police are routinely used as a tool of interrogation, exclusion, and punishment to enforce those perceived (and often invisible) “boundaries.” Too often, the covert (and sometimes overt) message is given that law enforcement exists to protect and serve White citizens from Black people (and any other “undesirables”). Again, that message has historical origins.
The Evidence (and Pain) of Things Not Seen
And so, here is what I don’t know: I don’t know how long it will take to dismantle the systems and structures that make this situation possible. I don’t know how long it will take for us to move past the place of just talking about “more and better training” and face the reality that, as the FBI warned decades ago, white supremacists have actively sought positions in law enforcement, with the intention to circumvent the hard-won legislation against the principles, practices, and domestic terrorism of Jim Crow. And they have now deeply influenced the culture and ethos of departments and related entities around the country. I don’t know how we will completely unseat these folks from their deeply entrenched (and often authoritative) positions and related organizations.
I don’t know how we protect the law enforcement officers out there who have integrity and who are, rightly, afraid for themselves and their families and so decline to speak up, speak out, and demand change from within. I don’t know how we help heal officers of color from the racial self-hatred that leads them to cooperate in (and even perpetuate) the brutalization and killing of their own people. I don’t know how we move beyond just telling heartwarming stories about “the good ones” (and yes, there are many of them) to actively, consistently, holding “the bad ones” accountable for their actions. And here is where my anger turns to frustration: people’s lives are being ruined and ended while we figure it out.
The Substance of Things Hoped For
Surprisingly, however, in the midst of this particular kind of “unknowing,” my frustration reaches out to touch hope. Even though I am clear that there is a segment of the U.S. population that willfully clings to denials and false justifications that demonize the victims of police abuse of power and distort the truth of our present (and historical) reality. Even though I plainly see how hard those who are intent on maintaining the status quo are fighting ferociously against needed reform and reorientation. Even though I recognize that the issues we face around policing and the criminal justice system in this country are only one part of a much larger problem.
But in spite of all these things, I have hope. I confess that it hangs by a very slender thread some days, but it has not fallen away. Because I do believe in the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, who announced that He came to liberate, restore, and move all Creation toward God’s shalom again. I have hope because I see glimpses of the power of Christ’s intent manifesting in these days—and my hope tells me that these glimpses, these sparks of God’s work in the world through people and situations, will not be extinguished, despite the forces—human and spiritual—arrayed against them.
Cleaning Out Our Attic
Over the last few years, I have often said to people that this country and the Church are at a place of reckoning. We cannot stay as we are—we will either go forward into the light of a new day of justice, equity and compassion, or we will ricochet further back into an age of darkness, division, disparity, despotism and despair. As Phyllis Tickle indicates in her book, The Great Emergence, every so often the Church is invited to “clean out its attic.”
I choose to believe that—instead of allowing those who are threatened by the lifting of oppression and the establishment of equity to shove the dysfunctional and dangerous “possessions” burdening us (as a Church and a country) back into dark corners—there will be enough mature, love-grounded Christ-followers in this age who will stir themselves, roll up their sleeves, pick up their crosses, and set to work dismantling structures and clearing out systems that are based on values antithetical to the teaching, preaching and modeling of Christ Jesus. And they will do that work with others: with people who don’t believe exactly what they believe, and don’t think exactly as they think, but who do embrace the idea of our calling and responsibility to a shared humanity and equitable world. “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.” (Lamentations 3:21-22)
This is what I know.
Rev. Dr. Phaedra D. Blocker is an Affiliate Professor in Leadership & Formation at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, and holds a Master of Divinity from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Transformation from Northern Seminary in partnership with the Transforming Center.
Thirty Years in the Front Seat of the Patrol Car: Perspectives from a Law Enforcement Chaplain
by John Knox
I broke one of my standard rules last Sunday. I viewed social media prior to preaching that morning. I was immediately made aware that two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, ages 31 and 24 were shot in an ambush-style offense. I have sons who are 31 and 24. I was unable to turn off the tears that morning.
Policing in America is exceedingly difficult right now. The reasons for such difficulty are not necessarily what you would assume.
Along for the Ride
I have been a law police chaplain for over 30 years. At the present time, I am serving three law enforcement agencies in a rapidly growing area just outside Fort Worth, Texas. My responsibilities include responding with uniformed officers to suicides, homicides, and all unattended deaths. They are there to investigate, and I am present to minister to families facing such crises.
Chaplains also accompany officers to deliver death notifications and serve families at the scenes of fatal car crashes. I also serve on the crisis negotiation team. We are on call 24/7. Additionally, a police chaplain’s ministry entails serving the officers and their families. I have spent hundreds of hours riding out with the officers in their patrol cars at all hours of the day and night. That experience is often heartbreaking.
Speaking from Experience
Officers are exposed to more human suffering during a 12-hour shift than many people experience for a period of decades. Thirty years in the front seat of a patrol car has shaped my understanding of compassion. Can you imagine how an officer’s heart is impacted after decades of such service? Do not think cops don’t cry when children are killed in senseless crashes. I have been with them on the side of the road as the tears flowed.
What about recent events? You have seen media accounts that chronicle abuse of power. Those called to serve and protect have been charged with felonies. People of color feel genuine fear that is well-founded. There are so many things about law enforcement that must be corrected. What perspective can a law enforcement chaplain offer?
I would urge you not to draw conclusions about police officers based on limited experience. There are a lot of good officers out there. Many of them are Christ-followers, who view their profession as a meaningful way to serve in the name of Jesus. Such officers have no tolerance for colleagues who abuse their power. Keep in mind, I am speaking from years of experience.
Here are a few things I witness on a regular basis. Officers use their own money to purchase food or other necessities for homeless people they encounter. They provide courtesy rides to people walking in inclement weather. I vividly recall a white officer holding on to a young black woman who had just witnessed a loved one killed by an oncoming train. His compassion for her was real. These kinds of events often take place in the middle of the night when there are few witnesses to observe such actions.
The events that have occurred this year have made the lives of the good and decent officers more difficult. Law enforcement officers are receiving death threats and many of them have children living in their homes. Officers on duty have been refused service at chain restaurants. Others have eaten food that has been purposely tainted. In fact, it has become increasingly difficult for an officer to stop for a quick meal break before the next call goes out. I do not recall how many times we left half-eaten meals on the table, so we could run to someone’s aid.
Secondly, my experience has been that most officers are there to serve people regardless of their race. When they are running full code (lights and siren) to a call where someone’s life is in jeopardy, that individual’s race is not on their mind. They are there to save another human being’s life. It happens every day. I have jumped out of a patrol car more than once with an officer, as we ran as fast as we could to extend life-saving measures to someone in need.
Changes Must be Made
Policing is difficult in America today partially because of a pervasive disregard for authority. I have ridden out with officers in very affluent areas. And, I have spent my fair share of hours accompanying officers in parts of the city that are plagued with poverty. I have had the privilege of serving people that come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. I serve in Texas, so I have worked diligently to learn as much Spanish as I can. There are a lot of Spanish speakers in our community who are still struggling to learn English. I have never had a Hispanic person laugh at me when I make a mistake!
I continue to find that the most disrespectful people officers and chaplains alike encounter are white and affluent. Entitlement is an appropriate word to describe such encounters. Officers are cursed and threatened with imminent retribution from such individual’s favorite city leaders when traffic citations are issued. This is a daily occurrence. My officers also deal with white supremacist groups that are known to be violent and dangerous. White privilege assumes many forms. As a result, police officers of all races consistently experience the arrogance associated with white privilege.
I am not blind to the issues that exist today. I know changes must be made. The officers I serve recognize that too. Training needs to improve. This year, I have had the privilege of teaching officers a state-mandated course in crisis intervention training. It is a 40-hour required class. The curriculum is excellent. CIT training, as it is called, includes strategies for de-escalating potential volatile situations.
Engaging Communication in Community
Lines of communication must improve. Police leaders must be willing to engage all facets of the communities they serve in meaningful dialogue. Cities need to staff their law enforcement agencies sufficiently so that officers have time to play a pick-up game of basketball with the neighborhood kids or take time off their beat to enjoy a meal at a church with a group of believers. When the citizens the officers serve can put a name with a face, good things happen.
I have served with officers over the years who worked the same “beat” for a good portion of their career. They took the time to really get to know the people in their assigned area. I often teased them that they knew the people on their beat better than I knew the members of my church!
Racial injustice is real. I was 6 years old when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. There are days when I wonder if our society has made any progress at all since 1968 in the ongoing journey to racial reconciliation. I am feeling pretty discouraged at the present time. But I am reminded of the importance of listening to each other.
Refuse to jump to hasty conclusions. Get to know the officers that serve your community. Put a name with a face. Positive change cannot occur unless we take the time to get to know each other.
Ready to Sacrifice
In 2013, one of my officers was shot and killed by a man accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. That officer died protecting that girl and her family. He gave his life for a group of total strangers. Officers in your community stand ready to sacrifice for you.
When I read about another officer injured or killed in the line of duty, I cannot help but shed tears. I love these servants. Many of them are the ages of my sons. How I pray that we can move forward on these difficult issues with a spirit of community and mutual respect for the humanity of all people.
Dr. John Knox lives in Texas where he serves both the church and the law enforcement community as a police and fire chaplain. John additionally serves as an adjunct instructor of psychology for Dallas Christian College, and holds a BA degree in Speech Communications and master’s degrees in Biblical Studies and Clinical Mental Health Counseling. He received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Abilene Christian University.
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