Changing law enforcement

A week ago, I turned in my badge to the Pennington County Sheriff. The action had nothing to do with the protests in the street. It was what a chaplain does when retiring. I also turned in my dress uniform, my proximity card that functions like a key in the public safety building and jail, and my key to the chaplain’s office. I am no longer officially associated with law enforcement in our city, but it is a role I have assumed for several years. Having worked to serve those who serve in law enforcement, I think I have a unique perspective. It is a perspective that is not often recognized.

In May those who are on the email list for regular updates from our United Church of Christ received a message celebrating the role of chaplains in hospital settings. These often unsung heroes continue to serve on the front lines of our response to the pandemic. Having a hospital chaplain who is a member of the congregation I serve, I am acquainted with the work of that calling and I have deep respect for the specialized training and unique contributions of that form of ministry. I agree with the message we received that we should give special recognition to hospital chaplains.

Over the years, I’ve been aware of efforts by our denomination to bring more recognition to military chaplains as well. However, law enforcement chaplains don’t receive that kind of attention. That’s OK by me. I didn’t go into law enforcement chaplaincy for recognition in the first place. I got involved in law enforcement chaplaincy through my work on our county’s LOSS team. The LOSS team is a first-responder group who provide resources and referral to those left behind when a suicide occurs. For years, I took my turn at being read to respond 24 hours a day to a suicide. I visited scenes of suicide, homes of survivors, hospital emergency rooms, the public safety building and a lot of other places so that I could be with those who were experiencing this traumatic loss. Along the way, I spoke to a lot of investigators and officers who had been called to the scene of a suicide. I soon discovered that these people were themselves survivors. They witnessed death and its aftermath in ways that affected them. From that realization, it wasn’t a huge step for me to begin volunteering as a chaplain and working with officers.

I know a little bit about how law enforcement agencies look from the inside. As such, I think that we are in a unique position to make some important changes in how we conduct policing in our country.

Law enforcement agencies are paramilitary institutions. They have ranks and titles that reflect military organization. Some of the training received by officers is essentially military training. Some of this training is important. Physical fitness and athletic training helps to make officers more efficient in their work and better prepared to endure the stress of the job. Those who use weapons in their work need the best training possible in the use of those weapons. There has been, however, a definite change in the militarization of police in the US over the past 30 years. The first Gulf War, fought in 1990 - 1991, resulted in huge amounts of military equipment being placed on the surplus inventory. Barley-used equipment was replaced by new equipment through the special funding for the war. The surplus items were made available to police departments across the country. Armored personnel carriers and other specialized war vehicles were obtained by many law enforcement agencies at no or minimal cost. During the Clinton administration communities received federal funding to boost the number of police officers on the street. This additional funding also allowed for additional equipment. Following the 911 attacks additional federal support and aid directly from the military poured into local law enforcement agencies. These resources are often deployed to assure overwhelming force in situations where such equipment is not necessary. Last year when protestors gathered on the Standing Rock Reservation to resist the installation of an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, local law enforcement responded with automatic weapons and armored personnel carriers to close roads and prevent the movement of unarmed and peaceful protestors. We were able to see first hand how the disproportionate application of power increased tensions and danger in a local situation.

We now have the opportunity to demilitarize our police forces. There is an important difference between the military and local law enforcement. In addition to the federal military, we have the National Guard to provide military assistance to states and communities when needed. Unlike the military which is deployed in special situations of extreme threat, local law enforcement officers need specialized training in how not to employ weapons. Law enforcement agencies have less lethal weapons and need to understand how to use them effectively. And, in most cases, officers need to know how not to use weapons. Intimidation may be appropriate in rare occasions, but most of the time the role of police is to calm and diffuse situations.

Diffusing anger is not something officers do well. Their weapons and uniforms act as barriers, but so does their training. As a chaplain, I know that many officers are not trained at diffusing their own tensions and experiences. I’ve spent more than a few hours listening and helping officers regain control of their own emotions. I’ve seen officers who resigned because of the stress of their job. When a person is frightened and unable to accurately assess danger, that is the wrong person to give a lethal weapon.

Law enforcement agencies have introduced more diversity training and some courses in deescalation, but much more could be done to provide officers with the resources they need to decrease violence. Current training encourages officers to be afraid, shoot first, and think later. Officers who have chosen not to shoot have been reprimanded for their choice, being told they placed themselves and others at risk, when there is no evidence that this is the case.

The protests in our country are giving us the opportunity to re-think law enforcement training and equipment. There are solutions to our problems. I hope we use common sense to make the changes that are necessary.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!