I spend at least 40 hours a week working for a non-profit devoted to improving policing—mostly in the U.S. I’m also a former pastor of 13 years and a seminary graduate. That mix shapes how I look at the recently re-ignited controversies surrounding U.S. policing and leads me to four observations.
1. We obviously can’t do without police.
The Christian worldview recognizes some realities of human nature and society.
- There isn’t a person on earth “who does good and never sins” (Ecc 7:20).1 This has profound moral consequences, but …
- Human beings still have law “written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15) and can tell right from wrong most of the time.
- God has authorized human government to use force (Rom 13:4) “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet 2:14).
For those who understand the world this way, it’s obvious that we can’t do away with police. We might restructure police departments to focus more on public safety and community service. We might call them something else in order to rebrand. But in the final analysis, human beings are going to continue to break laws, sometimes in extreme ways. We’re going to continue to have agents of the government who are authorized to intervene and take these violators into custody. We’re going to continue to have individuals who are authorized to use lethal force against aggressors in order to prevent others from being killed.
But is it possible that police are making crime and violence worse?
Given the complexities of human interaction and clashing cultures, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that, sometimes, law enforcement causes crime. Cops are flawed human beings, too, and the city councils, mayors, county and state legislatures, and governors they work for are “unrighteous,” just like the rest of us.
Highly-publicized, poorly-executed police interactions with minority community members can lead to more violations and more poorly-executed interactions (more on that later).
None of that erases the fact that human individuals need the restraint of humans acting as a society. Without that, human existence is, as 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”2
2. Police Reform has been going on in the U.S. for a long time.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police has been working to make policing more professional, fair, disciplined, and ethical for more than 100 years.3 Many other organizations have been working for years as well. A few I’m familiar with:
- Police Foundation, founded 1970
- Police Executive Research Forum, founded in 1976
- Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, founded in 1979
- International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, founded in 1987
- Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, founded 20084
- American Society for Evidence Based Policing, founded in 2015
In addition, many state Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) organizations have long labored with similar goals. Federal efforts have not been trivial either. These should be well known examples:
- The National Institute of Justice and its parent Office of Justice Programs
- Office on Community Oriented Policing Services
- Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Let’s not forget, too, that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division wasn’t born yesterday (1957) and hasn’t been sitting on its hands in reference to policing for the last several decades.
Anyone who googles “ethical policing,” and scrolls a bit will also find a good number of multi-year local police agency efforts to improve procedures and training.
Politicians, media personalities, and celebrities who declare that it’s “time to do something” reveal a profound ignorance of the ongoing police reform trends in the U.S.
A fact you’re unlikely to hear on the news or see in a headline: Police shootings are not increasing and have probably been on the decline for years.5
3. Police reform has been moving slowly, but that’s mostly a good thing.
We’re seeing a lot of impatience with police reform these days. I sympathize. I really do. In the midst of all the information noise, it takes some work to get to a somewhat accurate view of what’s happening. And we’re all starting that effort from different entry points. As a white male, my journey to Understanding-Policing Land launches from a very different shore than the average minority individual in a big city or large suburb.
The narrative someone starts out with is where they are, and they probably never chose that context.
But there’s a vital truth in all this that doesn’t depend on a political affiliation or policy agenda, or view of social justice. It’s older than all that. It’s the old wisdom that haste makes waste. The phrase may be traceable to a 16th century white guy (look for John Ray) but you can find the concept at least as far back as Proverbs 19:2. I’m sure there are versions in many languages and cultures.
The progressive mindset has a bias in favor of change. The idea that society needs to keep evolving from worse to better is mostly assumed, so “change is desperately needed and is sure to help” is the default lens for looking at almost any social problem.
They’re not entirely wrong. Life is better than it used to be in a lot of ways in a lot of places. Plus, conditions change and we don’t thrive unless we change to some extent with them. The seasons teach us that. Aging teaches us that.
But wisdom teaches us that change can be disastrous if we don’t take the trouble to understand some things first, as well as we can:
- What is, in fact, actually happening?
- Why are things the way they are/why have we “always done it this way”?
- What might be the unintended consequences of making a change?
- What sort of change best fits the nature of the problem?
Police reform might be advancing too slowly, but I’m skeptical. For the most part, when it comes to change, slow is good.6
The only way to ensure that change in policing is actually progress is to follow a patient, evidence-based path.
4. The current minority-advocacy + media + police-misconduct dynamic is complexly self-defeating.
The policing-related headlines in my feeds are more discouraging than usual lately. So many voices are bent on stoking the flames of grievance and discontent. There will be more errors made by police. Some of them will be cases of blatant disregard for life. Some might even be truly racist. The current emotion-focused, fact-negligent rhetorical dynamic from advocacy groups, news media, corporations, and politicians virtually guarantees that there will be more riots, destruction of property, and related injuries and deaths.
And that will just make the whole mess worse.
The demonstrably false “cops are hunting down black people” narrative is making matters worse in at least five ways:
- Black Americans are increasingly afraid, resentful, and angry, which fuels increased hostility and resistance during encounters with police.
- White cops are increasingly afraid of black suspects, leading to escalation during encounters.
- Fewer good people want to become police officers. This increases pressure on departments to hire below standards, increases workload for current staff, increases the fatigue of current staff, all of which increases poor decision-making in encounters with suspects.
- Among leaders and the general public, higher levels of negative emotion inhibit the kind of clear thinking essential for real improvements.
- Higher levels of negative emotion fuel protests and riots, which fuel even higher levels of negative emotion, further inhibiting real solutions.
We’re in a downward spiral, characterized by far more heat than light—and so far, the majority of influencers are still feeding the spiral.
My prayer is that the voices of reason will find ways to be heard above the din and that they’ll prevail. It can’t happen soon enough.
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out,
and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.(Prov 26:20-21)
1 Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
4 The founding date comes from https://www.owler.com/company/cebcp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidence-based_policing, and other places.
5 Even Vox admits this (though it credits BLM) as does Scientific American. See also Washington Post. If you squint the right way, it’s possible to read the data as “unchanged,” but even a flat trend is counter to the currently popular narrative on the subject. Though I have less confidence in Heather MacDonald than I used to (see this), this is also worth a read: There is No Epidemic of Racist Police Shootings.
6 Yes, we used to be able to call this “conservatism.” But the term has been all but ruined. I think I just want to call it “wisdom” now.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.