Another week, another reckless shooting by a police officer. Another apparently innocent citizen dead. I know that these instances do not represent the many police interactions with the public that turn out well, but a recent American report found that up to half of all people killed by the police are, in the study’s words, “mentally disabled.” This was followed shortly by a Toronto study that showed that nearly half of the people who had been Tasered by the police were those who were “emotionally distraught.” Police forces are often called into situations when mental health personnel would be more appropriate, or when both public services could be working together to resolve a challenging situation.
Even if the mental health system is inadequate, there is still something the police could do differently. We are sometimes told that the average cop experiences fear on the job, and that is understandable, especially in some places. But what if, even with fear, the police were required to be peaceful? That may sound odd, even inconsistent, but think about it. What if the aim and guiding principle of a police force would actually be pacifist: nonviolent intervention in order to maintain the peace? Would insistence on that principle really be so much in conflict with what the perceived role of the police is now?
One of the chapters in a book of essays by C.S. Lewis, entitled The Weight of Glory, starts with the heading “Why I am not a pacifist.” Although boldly creative in his thinking, Lewis could also be quite conservative, and so it came as little surprise that he uses all his superior learning and powers of reasoning to tell us that pacifism is rationally inconsistent and not according to the best authorities in history, with the possible exception of Jesus. But at the end of the chapter, he acknowledges that “moral decisions do not admit of mathematical certainty, (so) it may be, after all, that pacifism is right…”
This is what I appreciate about Lewis, a cracker of a sharp thinker but typically a humble one, who knew there were limits to his reasoned positions. This could be called his “useful inconsistency.” It is perhaps why he never considered as an enemy someone who had a different belief or idea from himself. It did not stop him from being strong in his own views or persistent in advocating them with all the logic at his capable command, but throughout it all, he was able to see an opponent as a fellow human being who deserved respect. It was not unusual for Lewis to share a friendly drink with him. I could wish more people were like that.
Only a really peaceful principle can prevent the increasing unnecessary use of lethal force by “peace officers” in our communities. For sure, a strong response is sometimes needed on our violent streets, but only if a police officer is basically committed to a pacifist understanding of the job, can it be safe to use a weapon when dangerous circumstances require it. The thought of a “pacifist police” may sound inconsistent with a police “force,” but it’s a useful inconsistency, and it could be seen just as a matter of sensible balance. While not implying any criticism of individual officers, the present difficulty is that more and more police detachments in the larger centers seem to be evolving a culture and excuse of fire-arm use. The beat-walking boys-in-blue of yesteryear are becoming the helmeted men and women in black, almost a para-military force.
The sad truth in confrontations with the public is that a person with mental health problems may not be capable of a reasonable response to being surrounded by police officers who are shouting orders, especially not when illicit drugs or alcohol have been added to the mix. And such a person may be suicidal, actually hoping that police will use their guns. These people have their serious personal issues, but they are rarely the enemy of society. They are part of the public that the police are sworn “To Serve and to Protect.”
In order to keep this popular motto of many North American police forces from becoming too abstract, it has to be applied in all specific cases. C.S. Lewis said in that same essay of his, “You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this-or-that good to this-or-that man.” It has to be specific or it is merely a slogan. “Serve and protect” should be taken out of the realm of public relations management and brought back into the streets as the daily and hourly working principle of police forces in almost all situations they may face. The next life this will save may be yours.
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See the next blog next Thursday.