31 for 41: About the Police

Dear Donovan,

I remember going with a woman to court where she asked for an emergency domestic violence protective order, the 50-B in North Carolina.  I think it was actually the first time I accompanied a woman on that new job as Court Advocate.  The judge granted the order, but the woman then was directed to go see the Warrant Squad in the county where we were, as was the procedure there.

I already knew the story, so I knew just how unstable and dangerous this man was who was to be the recipient of the 50-B.  The order would evict him from my client’s home and require him to surrender his firearms, including the loaded arsenal she had discovered in the home just that morning.  I remember the warrant officer gently asking the frightened and traumatized woman, “Is there any reason to believe that when we show up to serve the order, he will be aggressive or violent?”

“Well,” the woman paused, “when I asked him to leave the other day, he told me that the only way he would move out of my house is if he is carried out in a body bag.”

My breath caught in my chest, and I looked at the warrant officer’s face to see if his fear matched my own.  All I saw was calmness and kindness.

“Okay, ” he said.  “We’ll go serve him, and we’ll call you once he has been served.”

My client and I walked out of that police station, reviewed her safety plan, and made plans to meet for the follow-up hearing.  Only later did I have time to process the shock of the warrant officer’s calm response, but also his job position.  This man does this five days a week?  I knew that it was dangerous work.  Just a few years before this time, Randolph County had lost Deputy Toney Summey when he was killed while serving domestic violence warrants.  Now, though, I saw the danger in a new light.

I saw the face of a woman who needed a dangerous job to be done on her behalf, and who deserved to have her life protected.  I saw the face of a man who deserved to go home alive to his family that night.    I had a new appreciation for the work of someone who risks his life for people of all walks of life, on a government salary, while also having his profession constantly critiqued and his motives questioned.

Donovan, make no mistake about this… people make mistakes, and someone has to do the job of responding when mistakes are made.  Remember this, too:  There are evil people in our communities.  So, there is a need for a trained and organized group that can work swiftly and efficiently to restrain evil.  

Just in my relatively short time working with crime victims, I have heard the sadistic voice messages of a stalker.  I have seen the bruises, lacerations, and bite marks that are the handiwork of abusers and violators.    I have positioned myself between a client and her husband in court as he coldly and calmly threatened her, after he had already promised her he would “kill our kids while you watch, then kill you and myself and we’ll all go to hell together.”  I have scheduled times to receive phone calls from an immigrant woman who was basically being kept as a prisoner in her home.

I will not oversimplify the issues surrounding policing in the United States, nor will I ever make excuses for any authority that abuses its power.  There is much work to be done.  Still, there are a few thoughts on the subject of police that I would like to share with you, my son.

Although I could never fully understand all that police officers contend with, as a public school teacher, I do understand what it’s like to have your profession constantly used in political power plays by politicians on both sides who have never done the job.  I find that almost everyone I meet has a strong opinion about teachers and about police, but far fewer concerned citizens seem interested in allowing highly-decorated and highly-respected teachers and police lead the discussion about how things could be better.

And trust me, good teachers and police want things to be better.  I have seen “bad” teachers at work more than the average citizen because I am a teacher.  Because I believe in the importance of my profession, and because nothing about my acceptance of this work load to salary ratio is because I want children to be hurt, it follows that I vehemently denounce teacher behaviors that harm children.  I constantly search my own set of teacher behaviors to try to avoid hurting children through some neglect or mishandling of a situation.  By the same token, good police officers believe in the importance of their profession, and they did not accept their work burden to salary ratio, nor the danger that comes just by putting on the uniform, because they want to hurt people.

The brave men and women in blue that I know and respect are individuals who vehemently denounce bad police behavior.  They also have ideas for how to make things better, but few are asking for their insight.  This is a loss to all of us, as their insight has its source in their years of experience within specific communities, and in their sincere desire to protect and serve.

If “all police are good” is an illegitimate argument (and I certainly think it is), then so is “all police are bad.”  Rather than take my side with either extreme argument, I see it through the same lens that I see arguments about the teaching profession.  If we can restore the honor of and support for the profession through a collective agreement about its value, then we can recruit the best of the best to the profession.  School principals do not like having to be “beggars” to fill empty positions in mid-August because they want the best possible people in place to teach our future.  Similarly, police departments want to be able to pick and choose the best of the best to serve their communities, and they do not want to keep officers who refuse to follow procedure or who find pleasure in power trips.  But how easy is it to recruit the best of the best to teaching or policing these days?

You know I am a person who both looks for the flaws in systems but is willing to work with others to authentically address the flaws.  On behalf of teachers and police who are like me, I want to shout, “Ask us!” when the national debate swirls around me.  The national debate about policing in the United States no doubt will continue to swirl.  As improvements are considered and implemented, of course various stakeholders with a vested interest should be included.  Still, I hope you understand the logic of giving an amplified voice to the people who actually do the job, and more specifically, to those who have proven through the years that they are doing it for the right reasons and with equal treatment toward all citizens.

I do not have all the answers about how to develop a stronger community where neither the mothers of black men nor the wives of men in blue wait up in fear on a nightly basis.  I pray that our community can move forward with both a sense of urgency and careful attention to truth and balance.  I will offer two ideas, though, for how our communities could be stronger and healthier.

Give the police more partners.

I love the idea of a community leader in uniform who can get the bad guys, help a struggling alcoholic, and mentor the local youth all in a day’s work as much as the next Andy Griffith fan.  But even our relatively small town is no Mayberry, and our local police forces face a whole host of social problems that the best of both government and private organizations struggle to address and contain.  Many police officers would love to have more frontline partners when they respond to homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, child pornography, missing children, neighborhood disputes, impaired drivers, identity theft, suicide attempts, wellness checks, and death notifications.  Many police officers would welcome a more comprehensive and resource-backed response when they find a three-year-old and four-year-old who have been left at home alone for two days.  By the way, many would also welcome a way to not keep seeing those two sets of terrified eyes every time they try to sleep for the next few weeks after that discovery.

Get the bigger fish.

What a surprise that you don’t hear this discussed more… the reality that where there are corrupt police, they are often supported by and working with corrupt judges, city council members, business owners, traffickers, and politicians.  My son, do not forget that some of these seemingly upstanding community leaders will suit up and march with the people, but they have no true interest in rooting out the very corruption that lines their pockets.  And no one holds those individuals in higher disdain than honest police officers who understand better than you and I just how often the innocent pay for the crimes of the unprincipled powerful.  

A police officer should not be a “respecter of persons.”  A police officer should never be judge or executioner.  But we need brave men and women in blue, willing to accept the call to protect the innocent, help the injured, and hold the line.  Be a man who is sensitive to both the weary officer and to the one wronged by an officer.  Be a man who upholds just laws and never sides with the lawless.  Still, be a man who remembers that none of us has kept the law in every point, and that there must be a balance between law and grace.  After all, it is at the ultimate intersection of law and grace that we find the cross of Christ.

It is joy to the just to do judgment: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity.  Proverbs 21:15

I love you forever,

Your mom

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