Good Police Officers Speak Out; Can We Afford to Lose Them?
Nanci and I were both born in Portland, Oregon. She was raised there, and I grew up in the Portland suburb where we now live. If you’ve seen the news, you know about the nightly riots and looting and protests against the police in downtown Portland, thirty minutes away from our home. There has been a heavy toll on the officers and their families, and the lack of police presence and resources in other areas has also affected people in the city: Portland had 15 homicides in July, the largest number in a single month in over 30 years.
As I write this, there have been protests for more than 90 consecutive nights, frequently involving vandalism. Hundreds have been arrested, but due to limitations placed on police by the city, at times they have been unable to perform their duties effectively.
The disruption is mostly concentrated in small pockets of the city, including two blocks around the courthouse and some police precincts. The national media portrayal of Portland as a city in flames is exaggerated, as most of it is peaceful, but there has been a lot of looting, devastation, and acts of violence.
A fire was set in August at a police union building, a labor union representing members of the Portland Police Bureau. Violent protestors injured three officers and two were taken to a hospital. The federal courthouse in Portland has been the target of nightly violence. U.S. agents were sent to protect these facilities, and thousands of protestors came out.
I have personally talked to Christian officers who have been pelted with rocks and bags of urine and human feces. Others have been attacked with frozen and hard-boiled eggs and commercial-grade fireworks, trash can lids, and nearly everything you can imagine.
Like I mentioned in Empathize with Good Cops in This Time of Rightly Calling out Bad Ones, I believe what was done to George Floyd was unjust and evil (see also Racial Justice and the Image of God, with thoughts from Dan Franklin). At the same time, it’s tragic and unjust that good cops, and there are many of them, are suffering because of the actions of bad cops. That’s why I think it’s important to give a voice to all good cops, and in the Christian community we should honor the men and women who seek to honor Jesus as they do their very difficult jobs.
Recently, I’ve had a number of interactions by text and email and on the phone with current and former police officer friends here in the Portland area. These are solid Christ-followers, good men and good cops. I reached out to four of them I know well with some specific questions about recent events and how their jobs and lives have been impacted since George Floyd’s tragic death back on May 25. I’ve also had email exchanges with a few other Christian officers who I haven’t personally met, but who reached out to me when I invited them to do so on my blog. (This is another long blog that I found impossible to split into to or three segments. If it interests you, take your time; I highly recommend you check out the links, especially at the very end of the article where you will see and hear cops telling their own stories.)
For obvious reasons, while quoting them accurately I will not share names of the officers I’ve talked with, as they are understandably concerned for the welfare of their families. It’s not easy for cops to fly under the radar, but they are normal people who would like some semblance of a normal life off the job, which has become for some (where we live at least) nearly impossible.
I just got off the phone with a police officer friend on September 1, the day before posting this blog. He needed to fill out reports and found a quiet place backed up against a fence where aggressive behavior from anti-cop citizens would be more unlikely and easier to deal with. He told me that police work has gotten progressively more difficult, the level of disdain and distrust has risen significantly, and cops are uncertain what they can and should do. He said, “The cumulative effect of over three months of this is wearing us out. I know several good cops that are actively looking to change careers. The risk versus reward ratio has gotten way out of proportion.”
A pastor friend just told me a heartbreaking story he heard from a brother who serves as a Portland police officer. (This is a secondhand story so the details may be off, but the gist of it is true.) The cop told him that he and his wife have a favorite Portland restaurant they’ve gone to for years. They are generous tippers and had developed what appeared to be a great friendship with the owner. Recently the owner said, “All this time you’ve been coming here, and I don’t even know what you do for a living!” He replied, “Well, I’m a police officer.” The owner’s response? “Please leave. You’re not welcome here.” At first, he thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
It should not be controversial to point out that every single vocation in the world has good people and bad ones, people who excel at their jobs and people who perform them inconsistently and poorly. That’s certainly true among pastors, writers, teachers, pro athletes, store owners, investment managers, mechanics, attorneys, plumbers, pastors, and politicians. We should not be any more surprised that cops are capable of making bad decisions than anyone else is. Of course, the consequences of a cop’s sins or even his mistakes (not always the same) can involve life and death and therefore, like surgeons or pilots, an officer must be held to a higher standard.
One officer wrote me echoing what I’ve just said: “I am a Christian and spent over 30 years in a police uniform (and still do part-time). I know that bigotry exists within some police officers, but I would challenge anyone to find a profession that doesn’t have the same problem. Where you have people, there is prejudice in the human heart.”
Unfortunately, people’s distrust of police can result in adversarial behavior that puts everyone at risk. It may put officers, and sometimes the public it’s their job to protect, at greater risk as people become more aggressive toward them, holding them accountable for wrongs committed by other cops.
A minority Portland officer wrote, “…during the peaceful hours, I engaged in conversation with people along the fence line. Whether I engaged them or they engaged me first, the conversations all followed a similar suit. The question would arise, asking if I supported their movement and if I believed Derek Chauvin was wrong, to which my response was ‘yes.’ I always knew that the next question to follow would be some sort of, ‘then why are you a cop or on that side of the fence?’ My answer was always the same: ‘To be in support of a movement to further the better treatment of blacks and to be a police officer, are not mutually exclusive. You can be both and it is paramount that we are.’”
You may not agree with everything these officers say in what follows. Yet I ask you to listen to their perspectives, understanding that daily they and others like them put their lives on the line to protect your family and mine and the families of those in minority communities. For every injustice cops do, some with heartbreaking results, there are countless cases of justice done and lives protected. Let’s be slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen (James 1:19). Let’s show them the same grace and open-mindedness we would want shown to us. Here are their answers to my questions:
How have recent events, starting with the death of George Floyd and the subsequent riots, affected you personally and professionally?
SA: When I first saw the videotape, I felt like I got sucker punched. Policing is an honorable profession, grounded in solid values that we strive to uphold. When the actions of our own officers violate our code of conduct, there is a true sense of betrayal felt within the organization and loss of trust with the community we protect and serve.
…I had a very hard time trying to understand how the officer could possibly believe he was justified in the tactics he displayed. Also, how could he not be mindful that most encounters of this type are being videotaped by members of the public, the media, and even other police officers? …I used to caution officers that if they were about to make a decision that could be detrimental to themselves or the agency, to picture themselves on the front page of the morning newspaper with an article that they never wanted to see.
PT: The result has been second guessing myself, my career, being able to provide for my family. I see the emotions related to this and know there are those who support the police, but wow are they quiet. The vocal people are very vocal, and it is very hard.
How have these events affected police morale and general well-being?
RT: In an agency in which morale was already low it is sadly low—unprecedented levels of low, and I feel sorry for those men and women. They feel completely unappreciated and are questioning why they do what they do. For agencies that have good morale, as our department does, morale is down for sure, but I don’t think those feelings are as intense as with other agencies. (I talked with someone in that department today and he said, as you would expect with what’s going on in Portland, morale has continued to decline.)
JS: I read that 600 NYPD officers are considering resigning. I believe a line has been drawn in the sand and police officers see who will and who will not support them. Fuji bikes, who has been a maker of police bicycles, is stopping production of police bikes to draw attention to police brutality. I believe we will see a steady exodus by police officers from law enforcement agencies.
Do you believe that because the statistics show a higher rate of crime among black men (and sometimes women), that this results in different assumptions or biased treatments of blacks by NO cops, SOME cops, or MOST cops?
JS: I would say “SOME cops.” This could be more or less depending on the city, the demographics, the racial history, the individual officer’s history with other races, and the relationship between the police department and the minority races. Any officer with more than a few years on the job would be negligent if they ignored an “assumption” based on their training and experience that could be a crime in progress.
RT: I think there is some evidence and studies that indicate that this does affect some cops. I think it’s hard to completely separate one’s lived experience from one’s assumptions. We tend to think things are the way they are because of what we know (or think we know) as well as what we’ve experienced. That being said, in my small part of the world I have NEVER seen an officer treat a black person unfairly or with what I believed was some bias because of his/her race. At its core, our job evaluates and investigates behavior. You really don’t need to see somebody’s race (other than perhaps in an initial description) in order to do that.
SA: Some cops.
PT: This is a great question. I can’t say NO cops, that’s not feasible in our broken world. So SOME cops. I have not experienced this myself but no doubt it happens.
…I can say with 100% certainty during training my department does not look at skin color when looking for criminals. We look for clues in people (the way they act when they see us, the way they walk, index a concealed weapon, or drugs).
Being in several different units during my career I have worked with outside agencies a lot. The cops I have worked with are the same. In the narcotics world we look for addicts and follow them to the shadowy place while they meet their dealer, who we follow to the parking lots to meet up with their bigger supplier. The supplier was often Hispanic due to where the drugs come from, but our job was to look for drug suppliers, who happened to be Hispanics. We did NOT simply follow Hispanics.
What good do you see coming out of the national reaction following the George Floyd situation (for the country in general, and specifically for police officers)?
RT: I think there are clearly some agencies that need reform. I think that could come from this. I think officers’ level of empathy and sensitivity may or should increase because of this and that helps in the delivery of our service.
PT: Re-examining of things that are done well and things that could improve. …Hopefully an honest conversation about race, once the rioting stops and the knee-jerk reactions stop or slow. Legislators have talked about requiring weekly counseling sessions for every officer. Not reality, there aren’t enough counselors to make that remotely possible. Could there be better screening? I suppose, but what does that look like? Who is qualified to do on-going screening for racism?
I know there are calls we should not be called for and I am in favor of having another service respond. We have a mental health team who has a mental health clinician ride with them full time. This is a good thing!
What harm do you see coming out of the national reaction to the George Floyd situation (for the country in general and police in particular)?
RT: So I realize I’m seen as part of the problem or at a minimum, in a system that’s part of the problem, so I don’t feel like this perspective or this question is being considered. But I believe the attempts to reform some areas of policing are good, with noble intentions and needed. I also believe there are some other ideas (defunding police, eliminating qualified immunity, etc.) that have been floating around for quite some time. The difference is that they weren’t taken seriously because, frankly, they aren’t serious ideas. And yet, now these are real conversations. I see this as catastrophically bad for the people it purports to help: the poor and marginalized as they will be victimized even further by predators.
JS: The number of officers killed and injured in the past months is astounding. Hundreds of NYPD officers were injured in the riots. A young officer in our area was called in to deal with an altercation because the city police force was dealing with the riots. This brother was put in a situation where he had to use deadly force and killed a man. …So sad, one man’s life lost, and another’s changed forever. Who knows what would have happened if the city cops had been able to stay on their regular patrols instead of being called into the city center to deal with nightly riots?
SA: Police agencies are having a difficult time hiring people to fill the current vacancies. Low staffing is a police and community safety issue. This case will have an additional negative impact on police agencies’ ability to fill the vacancies.
Effective policing requires a partnership between the community and police. Community members must be willing witnesses in cases for successful prosecution. This is why gang cases are more difficult to successfully prosecute. Without the cooperation of the public, investigations don’t gather the needed information for court cases, so many grow stale or sit on a shelf. Offenders are not held accountable, many of whom are emboldened by the ineffective justice system, only to perpetuate their criminal lifestyle.
People are calling for change and change is coming. However, when it gets to the point, as it has in some communities, where people are asking the government to disarm their police departments, sound the alarm.
I’m very concerned about our officers becoming targets of revenge.
PT: The continuation of “defund the police” talk. What does that mean? Some think it is not having police; some think it re-directing resources as mentioned above about the mental health team.
Police ambushes. Guys are scared to walk outside in uniform and are on constant alert.
The effects on families. Doxing of wives or family members is happening now. My wife felt she had to delete her Facebook page.
It has been a concern since becoming an officer, but people knowing where I live places my family in danger.
SM: I am a retired police officer. …I belong to a Facebook group of retired law enforcement officers and what I see posted is a general sense of alarm and despair. ….Most of us, however, feel that there is a bigger agenda at play. …As a Christian I know that our enemy, the devil, is the author of confusion and deception. That is what I personally see at play here. Even though I look at the news, talk to those currently on the “line” and not only see, but feel the frustration in the “ranks,” I am comforted in the sovereignty of the Lord. …I’m trusting that this time in our lives and history of our country will be a faith builder for all who call on the name of Jesus.
If you knew people would listen to you, what would you say to them about the issues of racial injustice and unnecessary force by police officers?
RT: From my personal experience, I don’t know of any group to whom black lives matter more than American police officers, at least those I have personally worked with. Despite extreme provocation, anger, resentment that is fueled by an untruthful media, officers sacrifice and risk their lives daily to assist, protect and serve this community. Traditional media and social media do not tell this story.
JS: The complaints of unnecessary use of force are very rare. The standard of proving that unnecessary force was used is very high. …I have had people screaming as loud as they can, “He is trying to kill me” as I am placing them in handcuffs. I have had people yell at bystanders to please record the arrest when the arrest was going just fine. I have experienced many arrests where the person being arrested was screaming that I was hurting them when there were no pain-compliance holds being used. Then after I put them in my vehicle and their audience was gone they calmed down and acted normal.
…I have met lovely and kind pro-police black citizens who express their support for law enforcement. I am sad to say that many of my law enforcement contacts with blacks ended up with me being called a racist and many other choice words.
…My call as a Christian police officer was to represent Jesus in my dealings with people. I had success, and I had failure. I really tried to arrest people the way I would want to be arrested. I tried to interview people the way I would want to be interviewed. I tried to care for the hurting, frightened, and vulnerable the same way I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes. I viewed victims as if they were my wife or family members. It changes the way you investigate a crime if you ask yourself, “If this victim was my wife how would I want this crime investigated?” That was a game changer. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
…I am convinced that the answer to any racial divide in our country is a strong multi-ethnic church that teaches God’s word strongly and worships fully. No government can fix the divide. No social service can mend the fracture. No international aid organization can fix our racial ills. …A multi-ethnic church that lives out the radical teachings of Jesus will change every community around it.
PT: Every death is horrible. Officers don’t want to go to work and shoot someone. It is the last thing they want. We see the media, the impacts on the deceased family and the communities we live in, the side effects on the officer’s psyche, and the list goes on.
There are always things to improve on, and I know every member of my department welcomes those improvements. …A rational conversation needs to take place with Jesus at the center.
SA: That which divides us, can, and must, bring us together. One by one, each of us must be willing to make a sacrificial commitment to become actively involved in solutions to this complex issue. We must come together with the common goal of paving the way for future generations to live in peace and harmony. Too many times we make mistakes by acting on false assumptions. Most of the time, people who know each other can work through differences of opinion and respect each other’s viewpoints. The gap that exists by not knowing each other is a trap for misunderstanding, mistrust, and emotional distress, leading to a potential crisis. The gap must be filled by creating relationships with common goals and mutual respect.
Places of worship can play a key role in facilitating relationship building in our communities. Teams representing city and community leaders and members must develop a comprehensive plan that brings people together in long-lasting, positive relationships. As these relationships grow, police officers will better understand the needs of the community and the community will better understand why the police do what they do.
Whether you are a dedicated police officer or a committed community member, we can work together to create a more peaceful community. I believe it will require each of us to have the courage to look within ourselves, develop a servant’s heart, and be willing to sacrifice for the good of all.
From Randy: I appreciate these men (and the many women who serve alongside them) who I know and trust, and I believe there are many more like them. When I hear their concerns about the safety of their families due to the heightened disrespect for and violence against police, my heart is heavy. When I hear about them looking at other job opportunities where they would not be constantly assumed to be violent or corrupt or racist, that hurts.
I’m told many good cops are retiring early, because their jobs have become impossible. It’s hard enough to go to work knowing every day that you are putting your life at work, but to be “rewarded” for this by people yelling names at you, throwing rocks and bags of urine, is too much to ask. We are already losing good cops. I fear we are going to lose many of our very best police officers, or that many who once considered entering law enforcement will choose a more rewarding and less dangerous profession. According to some, the number of applicants to enter law enforcement is sharply declining. This is truly sad. As much as I hate unnecessary violence against citizens, and as much as I truly believe that sometimes racism is involved, I also believe that most of the cops I know (and many like them) are truly seeking to love God and love people and protect them. I encourage you to lift up good cops of all races in general and Christian cops in particular in prayer and ask God to intervene and keep them out there protecting our children and grandchildren and ourselves. God bless all you good cops, and thank you for the sacrifices you make for all of us.
P.S. Milwaukee, Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke has been speaking out for years against the anti-police rhetoric that cultivates disrespect for police and thereby puts more citizens at risk. Some will dismiss his perspective as a conservativism-driven overstatement that minimizes racial injustice. But given the flood of anti-cop media and social media, I believe Sheriff Clarke’s voice is an important counter-balance. Yes, he opposes the organization Black Lives Matter, but he does so because he believes black lives really do matter and blacks are not being made safer but put in greater danger by BLM’s failure to point out the tireless work of good cops in addition to the wrongdoing of a minority of cops.
Here is a Portland police sergeant on the job listing in four minutes all the ongoing situations that have resulted in calls to the police which they are unable to respond to because most cops have been sent to deal with the ongoing nightly disturbances.
Finally, I highly recommend you listen to four Portland police officers who speak up in this article, and also are on video telling what they have been experiencing. Normally they are not permitted to speak with this amount of freedom, but the degree of violence and targeting police has resulted in more attempts to show them as human beings who are struggling against hate.