Healing In A Broken System

how do we fix a broken system?

For a while now I have been relatively silent on social media regarding recent events in Ferguson and New York City surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Up to this point I’ve tried to post articles and pieces written by people I respect and who have more insight than I do on the complex issues of race-relations, theological reflection, and social justice.

Why?  Because I need to admit that I am not an expert here.  Furthermore, I know that my own perspective is limited and I have not been as involved in addressing issues of systemic injustice and racial reconciliation as many of my colleagues.  So, I’ve tried to lift up and point to voices that I respect and who I think can help bring healing and perspective to a very deep and long-standing problem in this country.

However, there is a trend that I have noticed recently on social media.  While countless people of a variety of racial backgrounds have decried our law enforcement system as broken, I have not seen as many people addressing how to bring about healing or change.  More often than not I’ve seen expressions of anger, hurt, pain, and frustration.  I’ve heard phrases like, “White people need to listen!” and “Our leaders need to bring change!”  And yet very few of those who are angry and hurt have offered solutions or ways forward.

Now, hear me clearly, I bring this up not because I want to “get over” or “move past” the pain and anger of those who have been hurt and marginalized by what has happened.  I’m fully cognizant of the fact that I am a white man addressing an issue that is deeply personal and painful, especially for my brothers and sisters in the black community.  Furthermore, I know that it has often been the tendency of my own community to minimize and move past the hurt and pain that those in the black community have expressed, and I don’t want to further that trend.

I think that there must be a place to voice anger, pain, and hurt.  Furthermore, I think that those of us in the white community need to be willing to listen to the voices of our black brothers and sisters as they share their stories of pain and anger over racial profiling and injustice directed at the black community.  In her recent post, “The Intellectual Condescension of White Liberals”, Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein highlighted the disturbing trend among those of us in the white community to rationalize, marginalize, and ignore the pain of the black community over the violence we have seen.  In a particularly poignant passage she writes:

Perhaps taking to the streets is not your style, or is not possible for you. For many white folks, the longest and most important distance to travel in our claims to be an anti-racist, justice-seeking people may be from our heads to our hearts. Our longest march may be the one that takes us down from the dais of of competitive debate and rational inquiry to the common ground of listening, witnessing, mourning and embracing.

And she’s right.  This is a time to seriously examine ourselves and take up the call to listen and embrace compassion.  And we dare not move past the pain too quickly or with haste.  Doing so only further marginalizes and trivializes the pain of men and women who have and continue to be the victims of an unjust and unequal system.

So why am I writing this post?  Well, because I want to know if there is a way to both mourn and heal?  My fear is that people in my own community will, without a clear call to move forward, begin to shut their eyes and ears to the pain.  I’m afraid that my white brothers and sisters will begin to suffer from what Dr. Weinstein calls “compassion fatigue” and just engage in further expressions of rationalizing and ignoring the voices of their black neighbors.  Now is the time to begin having this conversation.  As such, I think we have to ask the question, “Is it possible to begin working toward reconciliation and change even as we shed tears and listen to one another?”

Maybe I am naive, but I think that there is.  And this is my own small attempt to begin to address the need for concrete steps in changing our broken system.  What follows is nowhere near exhaustive, and it isn’t an attempt to be.  Rather, these are a few thoughts that I had, especially as I have considered the long-standing history of mistrust and fear that exists between police officers and black communities.  Furthermore, I’m going to try to restrict my comments to how police departments can begin to build positive relationships between their officers and the communities that they serve.

I’m hoping that those who read this will suggest their own solutions as well.  I’m hoping that wiser people and more educated minds than mine can offer deeper healing and change.  But here are my own humble thoughts and I offer them up for honest and gracious discussion.

RECLAIMING THE MOTTO:  “Protect and Serve”

Language is a powerful thing.  It has a the ability to stir our imaginations, shape our consciences, and redefine our realities.  In short, what we say and how we talk affects our attitudes and actions.

When I was growing up I was told by a local police officer that his job was to “Protect and Serve”.  He said that the reason he wanted to be a cop was because he wanted to help his community become a better place for the people and families living there.  It was a simple and powerful motto, and one which is often painted on the sides of police squad cars.

However, in the media this phrase is seldom used.  Often when we talk about the police we call them “Law Enforcement officials” and so forth.  And I think this language has an effect.  For example, what happens in the mind of a police officer when he thinks of his role as “law enforcement” rather than “protecting and serving”?

I think that what happens is police officers and their superiors begin to see their role as enforcing rules and regulations over and against serving and protecting the people in their communities.  Yes, the law is there to do just that:  protect and serve.

However, when the idea of protecting and serving human beings is subservient to the call to enforce laws and ordinances, a process of depersonalization begins to take place.  And when depersonalization happens, people become “obstacles” to peace and order that must be removed or eliminated rather than the objects of service and protection.  When the calling is to protect and serve ALL members of the community, how police officers begin to interact with and address men and women on the street (even the offenders) begins to change.

So how do we recapture this call?  I think there are a couple of concrete steps that police departments can begin to take.

STEP ONE:  Walk A Beat & Build Trust

“Walk a beat.”  It’s an old phrase, but an important one.  It used to be the case that new police officers were required to literally walk through the neighborhoods where they were assigned.  Block after block they would have to interact with the men, women, and children who lived there.  On a daily basis they learned names and faces, heard stories and local gossip.

Over the years, though, walking a beat has taken on a different form; one in which police officers drive through neighborhoods rather than walking or talking with those under their care.  As such, when a police officer eventually does get out of the car, it is only to write a ticket, issue a warning, or make an arrest.  The impact on the community is profound.  No longer are officers a part of the community.  They are outsiders who only come in to punish and remove.

Likewise, the impact on the officers is profound.  When you don’t know the names, faces, and stories of the people in the area where you are assigned a patrol it is easy to de-personalize and objectify them.

Officer Deon

Officer Deon Joseph. Image courtesy of http://www.WitnessLA.com

Conversely, when police officers begin to walk the beat again, amazing things happen.  There are chances to get to know one another.  To learn each other’s stories and faces.  Trust begins to be built as human beings interact with one another.  One of my favorite pictures of this is the example being set by Officer Deon Joseph of the Los Angeles Police Department.  Officer Deon regularly walks through and talks with the men and women of Skid Row.  The result has been profound.  As he has interacted with those in the neighborhood he patrols he has built trust and brought change.  He is no longer seen as an intruder, but as a part of the community.  Likewise, he has grown to love and care for all those in his neighborhood, even the most difficult members of his community.

STEP TWO:  Deep & Sustained Cross-Cultural Training

The second step is a more internal one.  It involves training police officers in cross-cultural interactions and relationships.  But this requires so much more than a couple of seminars or lectures on the subject.  The most profound cross-cultural training I have ever had involved conversations, storytelling, meals, and relationships.  They brought men and women of different racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds together to talk about the issues that unite and divide them.

Image courtesy of NPR

Constance Rice. Image courtesy of NPR

Furthermore, they challenged me to address the racism, prejudices, and fears of my own heart as I thought about people of other races and cultures.  In an incredible interview with NPR, civil rights attorney Constance Rice talked about how she built trust with members of local police departments and began to address issues of racism.  She said that a key step was listening to and creating a safe space in which both cops and members of the community can name their own fears.  She highlighted the fact that, oftentimes, it is unnamed, unaddressed fears and misconceptions that cause situations to escalate into violence.  Here is how she has begun to address this problem as she has worked with police officers:

I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren’t overtly racist. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men…

…They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me.”…

…So what I’m saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots and scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops. You have to be able to distinguish between all of those human experiences and bring them together.

This kind of model must be implemented across the board in police departments.  It will take honesty and vulnerability, but it allows police officers and community members to face the reality that, deep down, we all have fears and prejudices that emerge violently when the pressure is on.  Furthermore, naming and owning this is the first step in ensuring that these fears do not drive our interactions in tense situations when police officers are serving their communities.

STEP THREE:  Connect with the Community

A third step is also needed, and that is sustained and intentional engagement between local police departments and their communities.  At the end of her interview, Constance Rice said that she always challenges police departments to earn the trust of those they are called to serve.  This means being committed to developing those communities in which they serve.

Some of the best relationships that I have been privileged to see are when police departments and community leaders have long-standing, well-established working relationships with one another.  In one of the communities where I lived it was the regular habit of the police department to host community open-forums, coffee hours, dinners, and panel discussions.  These were well-publicized and open to all.  Conversations would range from topics as serious as the rising crime rate among juveniles to those as light-hearted the police chief’s favorite Thanksgiving recipe.  The result was a heightened level of familiarity and trust between the police department and the people in the community.

But it has to go further than this.  It involves police officers and departments working together to build parks, lead youth sports leagues, and working with aldermen and community leaders in long-term sustainability and development projects.

STEP FOUR:  Recruitment & Hiring

This last step is one which will only truly begin to take place when the above steps are put into place, but it involves how police officers are recruited and hired.  I believe that the only way that a system can truly change is when power and authority are shared across communities.  What this means for police departments is that they need to recruit and hire men and women from the communities that they are called to police.  Furthermore, departments need to reflect the demographics and the diversity of the neighborhoods they patrol.  The only way that this can happen is if police officers are viewed positively by the young men and women of the communities they serve.  It can only happen when being a police officer is seen to be a legitimate and honorable line of work.  This is why the first three steps are so essential.  But police departments need to actively recruit and hire men and women of color from the communities they are called to serve.


As I said at the start of this post, I know that what has been suggested is not exhaustive.  But, hopefully, it is a start.  As I look over what I have suggested, one key theme that emerges is the theme of relationships.  Relationships are needed to bring healing.  This is my firm conviction as a Christian.  It is a view informed by God Himself, who came and made His dwelling among us in order to bring forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.  As such, I think that relationships, and specifically the relationships between police officers and the communities they are called to serve, have to be at the heart of the change that is being called for.

However, I want to hear what the rest of you think.  What would systemic change look like?  What steps would you offer and suggest as we move forward as a country?  I offer the comments section here for discussion.  All I ask is that it be gracious and honest.

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