I’m a creature of habit, so my daily routine is the same most days: I get up and drink my coffee while surfing through the daily news stories. What is also true, in a far more tragic sense, is that among those daily news stories it has become rather routine to see more and more stories of police shooting unarmed people.
The violent policing of America is a cultural shift we cannot ignore. Like the hyperbolic frog in the kettle who didn’t pay attention to the fact the water was getting increasingly hot, far too much of American culture is either oblivious or accepting of the fact that our community police are growing more and more violent.
Whether it is shooting a medical professional sitting in the road with a patient who wandered out of the facility, shooting a young man who was deaf and trying to communicate to the p0lice using sign language, or people getting shot for unbuckling their seatbelt, it has come time for us to accept a difficult fact about our culture: police in America have a policy of shooting first, and asking questions later.
Instead of a profession where lethal violence is a last resort and used on only the most dangerous criminals, we have allowed those we entrust to protect and serve us to become modern executioners who are willing to execute citizens for the slightest perceived threat. When they decide to use this power to execute a citizen, some in culture raise objections, but many rush into defend and justify the behavior. Chief of which is the system itself, which from a practical standpoint, offers no accountability for these life and death decisions.
How did we get here? Where do we go?
First, I think culture has instilled a fear in our nation’s police officers that is beyond the level warranted. We often treat our police officers as if they have the most dangerous job in America, when it’s not actually true. In fact, when you list out the most dangerous jobs in nation, being a police officer isn’t anywhere near the top. A statistical analysis by TIME a few years ago shows that it’s actually ranked 15th, right behind being a supervisor at a landscaping company, and behind professions like garbage collectors and even taxi drivers:
When we convince people they have the most dangerous job in the world, the natural instinct is a need to mitigate that fear. To do so, we have taught our police officers that they are justified in executing a citizen whenever they “feel” threatened or in danger. Since we have filled our police officers with fear instead of encouraging bravery, many of them bring this fear into encounters with citizens. Thus, when they see a citizen reaching down to unbuckle their seat belt or reaching into the glove box for their registration card, they interpret these reasonable movements as being somehow life-threatening, and they instinctively shoot.
This idea that (a) you should be very afraid and (b) when you’re afraid and think someone might harm you, a reasonable first step is killing them, is what leads to our growing problem of police homicides.
Instead of encouraging our nation’s police officers to be brave and to be creative thinkers, we have taught them to be afraid and that the first go-to solution is to kill.
In this regard, we have somewhat misdiagnosed the problem and the cure: our problem isn’t so much with violent police officers, as it is a problem of culture.
Our culture has given us an endless supply of guns. Our culture has told us to be very afraid. Our culture has told us that when we have a “reasonable fear” of someone, it’s ethically justifiable to kill them.
Naturally, within such a cultural framework, one would expect gun-toting police officers to be quick to kill– and, it certainly seems these days they are.
To reverse this self-destructive cultural trend we must treat the problem on all levels, both with our police officers and with culture at large. We must remind our police officers that yes, their job is necessary and respectable, but that the danger level is statistically on par with people who mow lawns for a living. Thus, they need not be living in a constant state of panic, ready to shoot the slightest perceived threat to their own safety.
We must also begin teaching our police officers (and ourselves) that regardless of what the law says, it is not good, right, or even in the best interest of society to adopt a cultural position that encourages a shoot first and investigate the threat later mentality. Instead, we must re-teach ourselves that there is a long line of creative options before one skips straight to lethal violence. We must also demand that our nation’s police begin learning from other cultures who are successful at maintaining law and order, and who do so while very rarely ever using lethal violence. We must equip them with non-lethal options, and we must build a culture that demands they use these options long before they take a human life.
We cannot expect the police to change before we change– because the police are ultimately an extension of us. They represent what we, as a culture, believe and hold true.
Right now? It certainly seems that what we hold true as a culture is that we should be afraid, and that when we are afraid, it is ethically justifiable skip straight to lethal violence.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.