News recently broke that Michael Rosfeld, a Pittsburgh police officer, has been charged with murder for shooting unarmed teen Antwon Rose Jr. Rose was fleeing a possible arrest when Rosfeld shot him three times in the back. The community around Rose quickly rose up and demanded consequences for Rosfeld, something that has become more common when citizens are killed by police officers.
As of today, American police officers have killed 504 civilians in 2018. At least 10% of those people were unarmed when they died. In our polarized, pluralistic society, it’s easy to demonize the cops and/or the people they kill. As Christians, however, we should seek to understand the motives of both officers and the killed. We should be seeking true justice and righteousness for our officers and for those they interact with.
Here are three things all of us should understand about police use of force:
1. Police officers are not racist (but most humans are)
Cops, in general, are no worse than the average person. I would venture a guess that most cops actually have more integrity than the average person. As a group, cops are brave, honest, and trying to make their communities better.
Cops are also human, which means they are not perfect or above making mistakes. A mistake that all of us humans make, including cops, is ignoring our own biases.
Police officers shoot at black men more quickly than they shoot at white men. The reason they do this is known as implicit bias. Basically, implicit bias is the unconscious feelings and attitudes we have towards others. Our true and genuine belief that all people are created equally, both white and black, can be contradicted by our implicit biases.
Did you have equal reactions to both photos above? I did not. My initial reaction is to fear the boys on the right, and think about how silly the guys on the left look. I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with either group, but one reaction is motivated by fear and the other by arrogance. I initially feel more intelligent and eloquent than the guys on the left, and fearful of and pity for the guys on the right. That is my implicit bias.
You may not have the same reactions I do, because my biases are mine. You have your own. The point is we all make assumptions about circumstances and people and posture unconsciously. We can’t control it and we’re rarely responsible for it. However, we are responsible for recognizing it when it happens and for our choice for what we do with those initial, fraction-of-a-second thoughts.
Unless I acknowledge my implicit bias, I cannot overcome it.
The vast majority of police are not racist, but they all have implicit bias. The difference for cops is they do not have time to overcome their biases consciously much of the time. They must make life-or-death decisions in milliseconds, and sometimes their biases get the best of them. The good news is with extra training, they can overcome it and coach themselves to have the same initial reaction with both whites and blacks, or whatever their personalized implicit biases are.
You can take your own implicit bias test here. I scored as having a “moderate preference for white people over black people.”
2. The police are not doing anything illegal (and that’s a problem)
After Timothy Loehman shot and killed Tamir Rice in Cleveland, many people thought Officer Loehmann should have been charged with murder.
– Tamir Rice was only 12 years old and he was playing with a pellet gun.
– The 911 caller told the operator the gun was probably fake.
– Loehman fired at Rice within seconds of giving him a warning
The standard for police using deadly force is an objectively reasonable belief that there is a threat on their life. Since Officer Loehmann had no way to know for sure that Rice’s gun was a toy, and Rice was reaching for it, Loehmann was legally justified in killing Rice. Loehmann’s lawyer said:
Enhancement of video from the scene had made it “indisputable” that Tamir, who was black, was drawing the pellet gun from his waistband when he was shot, either to hand it over to the officers or to show them that it was not a real firearm.There was no reason for the officers to know that, and Loehmann had a reason to fear for his life.
As much as I believe Tamir Rice suffered an unjust death and was murdered, putting Loehmann in prison would not be justice. Loehmann did what his training required him to do. I believe that Loehmann has a great deal of anguish over what happened. I’m sure he would undo what happened if he could.
Understanding that officers are doing their job as they’ve been trained to do and understanding how unfair and dangerous those principles are is essential to having meaningful conversations. Demonizing the police officers does not do anything but encourage disobedience and retaliation. Ignoring the injustice and pain of the events only encourages louder and more forceful reactions.
Usually, the cop that fires the gun and the person that takes the bullet are both victims of a demeaning and corrupt system.
True justice is not to punish the police officers that are doing their job. Putting Loehmann in prison will not save the next black boy’s life. True justice is found in changing the system. It’s in rewriting the laws of when lethal force is acceptable. It’s in training the officers to overcome their biases. True justice is in comforting the mothers, fathers, and children of those who have died.
Our fight is not against the police. Our fight is not against #blacklivesmatter. Our fight is against a broken and twisted world, that tries to force us to choose one injustice over another. We Christians have a better way, though. We serve a God who is able to restore our world and rid it of all injustices.
True justice is found in all of us working together to achieve shalom, through compassion, empathy, and understanding.
3. #blacklivesmatter is probably not what you think it is (because it’s so many things)
#blacklivesmatter started as a hashtag on social media in 2013 and has evolved into a complicated movement that includes marches, protests, official platforms, and social media rants.
One of the most important things to understand right away about #blacklivesmatter is that the official organization and movement do not promote violence. There are people who promote violence, but they are to #blacklivesmatter what Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity.
Another vital thing to remember is that saying or writing #blacklivesmatter is not a racist statement. It is not pro-black and anti-white or anti-cop. It’s statement that is highlighting something much of our culture seems to have forgotten.
The reason #blacklivesmatter needs to exist is because our society already agrees that #whitelivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter. When Micah Johnson shot the officers in Dallas, he did not go home to his family that night. When Robert Dear killed officers last December, he was immediately arrested and charged.
When Loehmann killed Tamir Rice he was placed on administrative leave, which feels like a paid vacation to many. If someone shot and killed your 12 year old son for playing in a park, then went home and had dinner with his children you would be furious and overwhelmed with grief.
#blacklivesmatter exists to remind us to mourn with those who mourn and to pursue justice everywhere we can.
Lastly, #blacklivesmatter is an official platform with a 10 point initiative that will benefit all American citizens.
As we struggle towards peace and unity in our nation, it provides an enormous opportunity for us, Christ’s church, to share the good news of the Gospel.
We can redeem the pain, confusion, anger, and distrust and transform them into joy, gentleness, faithfulness, peace, and love.
We can reconcile the disparate and warring segments of our society.
We can restore our systems to their intended purpose of protection and justice.
All we need to do is to listen, empathize, pray, and defend.
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