In a culture of increasing awareness of terms like diversity and inclusiveness, the ironic result is often an exclusion of some of our great American traditions, including asking God's blessing on public events. This is not necessary under the establishment clause of the First Amendment and often injures the free exercise clause. Today's event deals in essence with death, and how its shadow informs the police officer's life. It is fitting then, that such a sober contemplation of things immortal, transcendent, and eternally significant be attended by calling upon our Creator to lend attention to this moment.
I invite you to join me as I do that or to engage in whatever pose, attitude, or thoughts that give honor to this occasion. My prayer is this -
Dear God, we gather today to honor servants of mankind who have given to us their last full measure of devotion. As we gather to honor the dead I pray that the light of their sacrifice might illuminate our own purpose; that as their life was too swiftly extinguished that it will yet fuel our dedication to peace and service.
May we as peace officers be renewed in our thankfulness to be numbered among heroes, and refreshed in our desire to faithfully serve others. As no greater love has any person but to lay down their life for another, let us so love - to love justice, to love our community, and to embrace our family and those who love us with active, purposeful demonstrations of love.
We pray that while we are wholly accountable for our actions that the critic' voice will be softened by voices of encouragement from our good citizens. We pray for wisdom for our legislators and leaders that they will never lightly employ our coercive power so that we shall never be a hand of oppression but always an instrument of peace.
Guard our liberty, Oh God. Guard our hearts Oh God. Guard our honor Oh God. In the name of the One who hears our petitions and has the power to grant them I pray. Amen.
Friday, May 11, 2018
Monday, May 7, 2018
A highly educated, intelligent, and moderately conservative acquaintance recently posted a story on his Facebook from a woman who had a police encounter to relate. The woman used social media to tell of a car stop of a vehicle in which she was a passenger and her boyfriend was the driver. The officer and the driver engaged in an escalation of tension ending with the officer pointing a gun at the driver. Upon their complaint to the officer’s supervisors, the officer reported that he had his Taser out and not a firearm, and there was no finding of wrongdoing. The woman decried that nothing had been done to discipline the officer. Her version was the only one presented. My acquaintance made this introduction to his sharing of the woman’s account: “Some of our police are heroes worthy of honor. But we need to reign in those who think that a badge and a gun make them lords among men.” That statement is factually true but bathed in the not so subtle prejudice that implies the worst of most officers. It sounds suspiciously like "I have a ____(black, gay, muslim, etc) friend and a lot of them are fine people....
There was a time when critics of law enforcement were scofflaws and lawbreakers, or those who had personally experienced an unpleasant encounter with the police. Now we have ordinary and outstanding citizens who vicariously join ranks with the harshest critics, damning with faint praise with statements like “some of our police are good.” Losing the support of solid citizens who succumb to prejudice against the police is a blow to quality law enforcement.
How did the narrative of deeply flawed policing catch fire at a time when police officers have never been more carefully selected and trained, with higher education levels and more professional leadership than ever? Why do the carefully edited and selected videos proffered by the media and anti-police activists gain superior credibility over scientific studies on the realities of violent encounters? Why is Michael Brown still a hands-up-don’t-shoot hero when every investigation says exactly the opposite?
The answer to these questions of how prejudices develop is in psychology. The answers to why is in politics.
Origins of Prejudice
Prejudices are just one way that the brain processes information seeking to enhance pleasure and avoid danger. We are programmed to generalize and predict. When we get information, we use that to establish templates for decision making. What is familiar to us does not alert strong feelings of fear or disgust. What is unfamiliar we approach with caution.
Another factor is the human inclination to associate with groups or tribes. We know who our friends are and who else is like our friend group. We develop a sense of who is in and who is out and, further, we begin to build real or imaginary walls and defenses against the out-group for our protection.
Throughout our lifetime we accumulate the information that our brains use to decide if something is safe and familiar or foreign and potentially a threat. We tend to pay attention to information that verifies our existing conclusions, but our experiences and new information can eventually change our prejudices. Prejudices are not based on mathematical probabilities. Most sticks are not snakes. Most berries are not poison. Most cops are not jerks. But if very many things you thought were sticks turn out to be snakes, you will hate both sticks and snakes.
Changes in prejudices seldom happen immediately and completely. If, for example, a person has an embedded mistrust of police, they can have a positive experience or friendship with a law enforcement officer. The person will consider that positive relationship an exception to the rule rather than an endorsement of all police officers in order to hold on to their preconceptions. A more general trust or appreciation of the broader group will take more intense experiences and positive information.
The Politics of Prejudice
Whether intentional or not, the playing and replaying of controversial videos of violent encounters with law enforcement feeds information to a public increasingly willing to interpret those images negatively and apply them broadly. Because department spokespersons are usually not the first to frame the story or are rendered silent by legal issues, those negative first impressions get more attention from the brain of the civilian.
Viral videos, whether on traditional mass media or social media, are often shown in edited form and with a sensationalistic narrative. Untrained observers are likely to be repulsed by the intensity of the encounter and immediately begin a mental process of denial to deal with the images. The denial process allows the civilian to believe that they wouldn’t act like the suspect or the officer, thus immediately making the persons in the video part of an out-group. And, if they identify with the suspect in some way, it places the law enforcement officer further away from the public’s embrace.
Even events that are eminently explainable from a police perspective get imprinted as negative and no amount of scrubbing will convince most people that their first impressions were wrong. Those who profit from sensationalism, and those who benefit from opposition to the police, jump on these many opportunities to fan the flames of misinformation. Individuals come to believe that those negative impressions are the norm, providing more validation to an already existing bias. A police officer, who sees those in their in-group getting unfairly treated, is prone to respond defensively and angrily, often playing into the hands of critics ready to paint defensiveness as guilt.
Can the good guys win the perception wars?
If the frequency of confusing images and negative messaging is a major cause of anti-police sentiment, the cure may be more frequent positive messaging. Police agencies may no longer be content for the occasional feel-good newspaper article or community relations program. Consistent, persistent, positive messaging through multiple avenues is a new essential in law enforcement leadership. Constantly building credibility with the public is not a distraction from fighting crime, it is an essential element in effective contemporary policing.
Posted by Dr. Joel F. Shults at 12:57 PM