The police problem

by D.C. Innes

Posted on Monday, August 18, 2014, at 4:31 pm

When I was a boy, they told us in school that a policeman is your friend. There are communities where that does not appear to be true. Those communities also tend to be especially troubled by crime. That complicates the relationship. Ferguson, Mo., seems to have one of those complicated policing relationships.

This northern suburb of St. Louis has had a high crime rate, but not everyone in Ferguson is a criminal—far from it. Not even most young people. Aggressive policing has reduced the crime rate but increased tensions within the community, as people walking on the right side of the law get swept up at times with the outlaws.

After the Michael Brown shooting, resentment burst into the streets in protest, unintentionally providing cover for the criminal element to loot. The police then responded with a stance and presence more suited to the Battle of Fallujah. There is no conceivable reason a sniper should be posted on top of an armored vehicle on an American street. A local police force equipped with arms designed for fighting foreign wars becomes more of a threat to public safety than a protection.

A police force itself is a complicated institution. We can’t live without them, but they’re dangerous to have around. Because men are not angels and some of our neighbors are inclined to take our stuff, rough us up and take our stuff, or just rough us up for the fun of it, we need uniformed people authorized to arrest and incarcerate, and even to use deadly force, if necessary, to protect the peace.

The complication is that the police officers we recruit for this role are subject to the same human frailties that affect us all. So they themselves can become a threat. The power to protect is also the power to assault. So we screen our police cadets. We train them and we screen some more. And we subject our police officers to strict rules of conduct and to elected political oversight. In Ferguson, the police chief answers to the mayor who in turn answers to the voters.

Police officers are trained to deal professionally with intense conflict and stressful situations. But they have their human limits. The mayor tried to elicit sympathy for everyone involved when he reflected,

“I am confident that all the law enforcement agencies that are participating are professionals, and if there [are] some videos that show someone losing their temper in a highly stressful situation, I’m sure they’re under a great deal of stress and though it does not make it okay, they are human and I can understand their frustrations as well. Just as the protesters are frustrated.”

When a law enforcement officer has to deal regularly with vicious sociopaths (there are some in every community, in some more than others), it is tempting for him to view the whole community as an enemy, especially if the community is not his community, is ethnically homogenous, and not his ethnicity.

The political, economic, and social situation in Ferguson is extremely complicated and its interpreters should resist easy explanations like poverty or racism. Human government is difficult. Trust is fragile. Statesmanship is rare. This is why we pray for all those in authority, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1–2).

D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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