A critique of law enforcement does not equal hate or disdain for them. It is a desire to see them more consistently live into their oath to “protect and serve.”
Unfortunately, we continue to receive confirmation that there can be a tendency to fully protect and serve some while seeing others as people to be policed more severely.
In my 2018 book, Police on a Pedestal: Responsible Policing in a Culture of Worship, I briefly examined data from a 2017 study conducted by researchers from Stanford University that showed there was a dramatic difference in how police regularly interacted with white and Black citizens.
In that study, participants were first allowed to hear the recorded audio of officer and citizen interactions without knowing the ethnicity or age of anyone involved.
Then, study participants determined how respectful or disrespectful the officer and citizen were to each other.
After participants made their determination, they were then allowed to see the bodycam footage of the interaction to learn the ethnicities of the participants.
The study revealed that regardless of the race or age of the officer or citizen, or the circumstances surrounding their interaction, police regularly disrespected Black citizens while treating white citizens favorably.
The data also showed that whites received better treatment by law enforcement officials, regardless of whether that white person was the victim or the perpetrator of a crime.
Concurrently, Blacks received harsher treatment from officers, even when they were the victim of a crime.
Consistently, police treated white people with a high level of respect and compassion, even when they were criminals, while treating Black victims with disdain.
Some may respond to this information and claim that those findings were over-exaggerated because police patrol neighborhoods and communities equally and are professional enough to set any personal prejudices aside as it relates to how they interact with various citizens.
Unfortunately, the data continues to show that this is a misguided belief.
In an update to the 2017 study, instead of allowing participants to hear the voices of officers and citizens as they interacted, participants read transcripts of the conversations that occurred.
Researchers found that their original findings remained consistent. Law enforcement consistently interacted with white citizens in a more professional and compassionate manner than with Black citizens.
The way an officer treats someone during an interaction goes a long way to affirm or change a person’s perception of police and how they treat certain people groups.
If an officer consistently shows respect and tact during both simple and stressful interactions, regardless of the citizen’s ethnicity, the citizen may not appreciate having to interact with the officer, but they will likely have a more positive response to the interaction.
You may be wondering why any of this should be important for the church to consider?
Consistently seeing God’s image in all people is one of the first duties of those who claim Jesus as Savior. And, like Jesus, we all have a responsibility to advocate for those who powers and authorities slight, whether that slighting is intentional or unintentional.
The following are a few simple steps that all of us can consider adopting as part of a comprehensive plan to address the lingering disparities mentioned above:
- Acknowledge the reality that law enforcement still exhibits a different standard with white citizens when compared to those who are Black and Brown. Acknowledging this disparity does not equal acceptance or agreement with it.
- Learn the stories told by people who are different from you and try to understand their view of life based on their experiences. If there is a consistency with how a group of people describes their lived experiences, their view should be believed and honored.
- Become aware of your preconceived beliefs about any people group that is different from your own and try to understand where you get those perceptions from. Are they based on your personal interactions with that people group or are they influenced by what you read on social media or view on television, all of which exist to entertain more than inform?
I am not asking anyone to take a particular side in this discussion.
Instead, I am challenging us all to become aware of the preconceived ideas we hold about people who are different from us, honestly ask where we learned those ideas and do the work to understand why we continue to hold on to them.
Doing these things can lead to us having better relationships with others and a more faithful testimony.
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.