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AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

A Seattle Police officer rides a bicycle as people pack up their belongings from a homeless encampment. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Sophia's World

Rushed answers don’t solve complex policing problems

Slogans and social media posts oversimplify complicated issues

I first learned about the “defund the police” movement, like many others, via social media—that place where everyone has a platform to post or repost very complex ideas into 280 characters or a square box. So when I saw people I follow call passionately for defunding the police—whether it’s outright abolishing them or diverting parts of their budgets to social services—what I saw wasn’t well-thought out ideas so much as a call to reimagine a better world. 

I have no problems with people getting together to imagine making the world a more just, more equal place for everyone. I believe that’s noble and even necessary—so many societal ills come from a failure to imagine outside of prescribed narratives and narrow-minded understandings of complex issues. But when I saw “defund the police” advocates proposing to divest money from the police and put it toward homelessness and mental health issues, I sighed in frustration: Why would we take money from a flawed system and give it to an even more broken system? Anyone who’s worked long and honestly in the homeless or mental health sector knows that both are also tragically broken systems. 

Before COVID-19 and protests spun our news cycle into a crazy, never-ending hamster race, I had been reporting on the broken mental health system in California. I followed Julian Canales, a Los Angeles Police Department officer who now works as the senior lead officer of the Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU), an operation within LAPD that works with people with mental illnesses. I ended up featuring Canales in my recent story on defunding the police. 

A little background: MEU uses a co-response model, which means both police officers and mental health clinicians together respond to mental health calls. They occupy the same floor at LAPD’s headquarters. At any given time, up to 16 co-responder teams are dashing across LA in response to 911 calls. The goal is to provide a “humane, cooperative, compassionate, and effective law enforcement response” by connecting those with mental illness to services instead of arresting them—or worse. Last year, the system received 20,758 calls for service, handled 7,871 of them, and put 6,281 individuals on an involuntary hold (called a “5150 hold” in California). 

Sounds good, right? Much better than deploying police officers with no training on mental health issues to handle people suffering psychotic breakdowns. Much better than the old-school approach: cuffing a screaming, delusional person. Or, as Canales put it, “just grab them and put them on a gurney.” All it takes is for that man or woman to wield something that looks like a weapon, and any police officer would feel justified to shoot that person on the spot. But that poor person may be helplessly reacting to a biochemical sickness in the brain. If we’re going to talk about the injustice of police shootings: In 2015 and 2016, one out of four police shootings involved someone with a mental illness, some studies show. 

So, isn’t something like MEU what some “defund the police” folks are advocating for right now? Many people rightly point out that police officers shouldn’t have to deal with everything society fails to take care of, such as mentally ill homeless people who in the vast majority of cases are not violent, dangerous, or criminal. Even police officers I talked to agreed. One officer in Texas told me, “Most officers would welcome someone who’s an actual professional coming in and taking the calls for all the mental health problems.” He suggested creating a 24-hour response team of social workers to deal with mental health issues. Well, MEU is a 24-hour program, and it includes mental health professionals. 

I found Canales to be a pretty compassionate, friendly guy with great bedside manners—and a heart full of frustrations at the reality of his limitations after eight years of working at MEU. 

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Sophia Lee

David Herrman and Shalom (Sophia Lee)

Sophia's World

Getting along like cats and dogs

Even minor issues can become important marriage lessons

I heard the first year of marriage is always tough. That made sense to me: You have two separate lives joining into one, and that will require some painstaking sacrifices and compromises. What’s more, both my husband, David, and I got married in our 30s. We’ve enjoyed more than 30 years of independence, and with that comes our own rigid habits and hard-to-break lifestyles. I just never expected that the one major conflict we’d have in our marriage would be over my cat. 

I brought my cat home from an adoption center seven years ago when I was single. She was only 6 weeks old—a tiny, frail, jet-black kitten with a white, furry belly and soft, snowy-white paws. I must confess that I brought her home with selfish intentions: I was getting lonely living by myself in a little studio apartment in Los Angeles. So what’s the quickest, most convenient, least committal way to remedy that? A furry companion, of course. I named the cat Shalom, hoping she’d bring peace and wellness into my house. 

Well, now she’s bringing conflict and disorder. While I adjusted well to life with David in our new house, Shalom has been having a harder time. The day I dragged her into a car and drove 45 minutes to our new house, she yowled the entire way, piteously and indignantly. After living most of her life in a space of 400 square feet, I brought her to a whole new world that was much noisier and larger than her tiny imagination even found permissible. The cat was traumatized! 

And so, the problems began. From then on, Shalom eyed David with an evil look every time he passed by—oh, she knew. She knew he was the reason her entire world changed, that he was the reason she could no longer curl up next to me in bed at night. It didn’t help that David sometimes swung the vrooming vacuum brush her way while cleaning the house, chortling out loud when she leapt 6 feet into the air in fright. For Shalom, David was Public Enemy No. 1, and she made sure he knew it. Every time he drew close, she hissed and waved a paw at him like a threatening fist.

Her revenge? She started marking her territory. She peed on the couch. She peed on the rug. She peed on our bags. And she peed on our bed, making sure always to pee on David’s side. Twice she peed right on his pillow, and urine soaked all the way through the covers and deep into the mattress. We tried everything. We bought her an anti-anxiety collar. We sprayed the house with cat-calming spray. We paid her more attention, fed her treats. We made her a cat house outside, but she meowed all day and night until we finally let her back in. 

It didn’t work. The second time she peed on David’s side of the bed, he howled. He had had a long, stressful day and was eagerly climbing into bed when he felt the telltale dampness on his skin and smelled the disgusting, sour funk of cat urine. Have you ever smelled cat urine before? If you have, you can imagine David’s facial expression as he stormed out of the bedroom, shook the stinky, stained bedsheets in front of me, and bellowed, “That’s it! I’ve had it with that cat!” 

And that was when we went right back to the Garden of Eden as the first married couple, Adam and Eve: We blamed each other. He blamed me for bringing the most obnoxious cat ever into the house, and I blamed him for leaving the bedroom door open when we had agreed to keep it closed to keep Shalom out. And there was Shalom sitting with her tail curled neatly around her fluffy bottom, peering up at us, that cunning devil in the form of a cat. 

“You need to do something about this cat!” David yelled.

“You need to stop terrorizing her with the vacuum!” I yelled back. 

“She needs to be gone!” he shouted. 

“She and I are a package—deal with it!” I shouted back. 

Ah, marriage. There is no lack of things reminding us of the challenges of becoming one. Any seemingly minor thing can become an issue. I remember my mother telling me her first major conflict with my dad early in their marriage happened when he poked his head into the kitchen, fixed the chopsticks so they stood upright, and fussed with imaginary spots on the countertops. He drove her so crazy she eventually banished him from the kitchen. They had the biggest argument over the way they squeezed toothpaste: He liked to carefully press the toothpaste tube from the bottom up, while she just squeezed—and it drove him nuts. 

I remember a friend telling me about a major fight that erupted his first year of marriage because his wife tried to trick him into eating mashed cauliflower when he was expecting mashed potatoes. Five years into the marriage, they’ve now compromised: They mash half potatoes, half cauliflower.

That night Shalom peed on our bed for the second time, we turned our back at each other but silently got down to work together, stripping off all the wet sheets, pressing paper towel after paper towel onto the stain to soak up as much urine as possible, and staying up late into the night to wash and dry the pillow, pillowcase, bedspread, and covers. Though we didn’t talk much, our tempers and irritation slowly melted away. As upset as we were over the whole situation, we were still in this together. 

When I told a friend about what happened with Shalom, she sighed: “That’s true love, right there. After all that, he’s still willing to stick by you, peeing cat and all.” 

She was right. My husband is not the most lovey-dovey romantic man in the world. We don’t cuddle like those giddy couples in movies; we don’t hold hands when we go on walks. But we demonstrate genuine love to each other by sticking by each other, no matter what.

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Sophia's World

A hope for more empathy

Journalism can topple barriers to empathy

Two years ago, I asked a black pastor from Harlem what I can do as a Christian journalist to better report on racial issues for WORLD. At the time, as I am now, I felt frustrated at the divisions within the American church over racial injustice, systematic racism, or even the basic concepts of “racism” and “race.” 

The pastor asked me about WORLD Magazine’s readership. I said most of our readers, from what I know, are white conservatives. He sighed and told me, as gently as he could, that most of these readers would never change their minds, and it may not be worth my time trying to pry their eyes open to another perspective. He encouraged me to write for a different publication. 

Although the response I got from the Harlem pastor was discouraging at first, I decided to continue reporting and writing for WORLD. I didn’t want to leave a publication and staff I respect, whatever our flaws, for another publication in which I’ll feel more comfortable and shout mutually affirming words into an echo chamber. But I have to admit at times I’ve felt incredibly frustrated and discouraged. I also have to confess those times when self-righteousness, self-defensiveness, and pride let loose a lot of unedifying thoughts in my mind and heart. So many times I’ve wrestled against that sinful nature mostly alone, crying out to God for the humility, wisdom, and patience I don’t naturally have. I still fail multiple times, but I’m battling against my sinful self by the fresh mercy and grace of God.

For a long time, WORLD has upheld a colorblind mentality toward race, but that might also have unintentionally contributed to a lack of diversity in our staff and readership. As one of just four non-white reporters on a staff with 13 full-time reporters, I know my experience as a Korean immigrant makes it impossible for me to be colorblind. I might have been colorblind while living in Singapore as part of the Asian majority, but not here as a minority in America. I’m not complaining about it: My background gives me a unique perspective. It’s not better than anyone else’s, just different. We all need different perspectives to sharpen our discernment and widen our understanding of multi-colored humanity. 

But the Harlem pastor was also right: I can’t change people’s minds. I’m a journalist, not an activist, and who’s to say my opinions are always right? Who’s to say I know the answers to the world’s most tumultuous and complicated problems? 

Over time, I have changed my goal from trying to change people’s minds (only the Holy Spirit can do so) to trying to break down the barriers to empathy for someone with a completely different experience. That someone might be the alcoholic homeless man on the streets with no social support or hope to lift himself out of addiction and poverty. It might be that Honduran single mother who wept as she sent her child by himself across the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping he can find safety and refuge even if she cannot. It might be the second-generation Asian-American struggling with her “neither here nor there” split identity and culture. Or it might be the black woman who mourns the untimely, unjust death of yet another black man, thinking of her own black father, brother, or son who trembles every time he encounters a police officer. 

This year is the first time I’ve seen so many non-black evangelical pastors, leaders, and friends speak out against racial injustice and call for a collective lament. 

And I’ve seen empathy work. This year is the first time I’ve seen so many non-black evangelical pastors, leaders, and friends speak out against racial injustice and call for a collective lament. I’ve seen some people express suspicion: Where was this outpouring of evangelical support for the black community in 2012 with Trayvon Martin? In 2014 with Michael Brown and Eric Garner? In 2016 with Philando Castile?

But personally, I feel hope. Many white evangelicals say they started becoming more aware of historic and present racial injustices through deep relationships with their black brothers and sisters in Christ. Their eyes opened not because someone wagged a finger in their faces calling them racists, but because when someone they love hurts, they hurt too. That’s the beauty of being part of the body of Christ—when the toe hurts, we all feel it and cry out in unison.  

Does empathy solve injustice? No. Nor does journalism. That’s why the more journalists I see take an activist stance—shutting out opposing voices and championing groupthink—the more I fear for my industry: When the media gets to choose who deserves a voice or empathy, and decides what is “fact” when sometimes the facts aren’t all that clear, then they’re only reporting one side of the prism of Truth. Most issues are complex, nuanced, and multi-faceted. If there’s one reason so many people don’t trust the media anymore, I suspect it’s not because the media delivers fake news per se, but incomplete news. When people see that their own perspectives and experiences are not represented accurately or even represented at all, why would they trust us, the media? 

So I’m still reporting and writing for WORLD, not because I hope I’ll change minds that don’t align with mine. But I do hope that we who share the spirit of truth and love also share the ability to empathize with others, and the same desire to love and honor them well as we love and honor God. As of now, that hope is still greater than any discouragement or frustration I may feel. 

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