Police and Community: Building Peace

Late one night in March 2001, in Hackensack, New Jersey, two young men—reputed gangsters and lifelong buddies—got into an argument. One shot the other dead.

The next night, at about the same time, the survivor stood in the street in front of the house where the murder had occurred and began firing an assault rifle into the house. Officers of the Hackensack and Bergen County police departments quickly arrived and, keeping their distance, surrounded the shooter, using what cover and concealment they could find. They repeatedly ordered and begged the shooter to drop his weapon, without returning his ongoing fire.

The shooter retreated up the block, still firing at officers. As he neared the end of the block and the perimeter that was to contain him, he passed within a few yards of two county officers who were concealed in shadows with very little cover. Recognizing their peril, the two officers returned fire, initiating a barrage from all around. The young man went down.

One of the nearby officers walked quietly forward and, as he reached for the fallen man’s rifle to remove it, the wounded man lifted the weapon and fired one shot, point-blank, at the officer’s head. It narrowly missed. The return barrage that followed ended the gunman’s resistance and life.

The two county officers who were at the center of the violence never returned to duty—both retired on psychological disabilities. A third county officer retired on psychological disability some time later, citing this incident as a large part of the stress that was preventing him from continuing as a police officer. Two of the city officers who participated also applied for disability retirement, although I never heard the outcomes of their cases. So let’s take the ended careers, disrupted lives, and ongoing anguish of these police officers and their families, and add it to the two dead young men (for the original murder is certainly part of this story) and the suffering of their families and the community that witnessed this violence. What can we make of this?

The sad truth is that within the paradigm our society currently uses in thinking about policing itself, this is a feel-good story. The police demonstrated a gentleness and restraint that is heroic, then demonstrated their goodness again through their suffering. Only the criminal was directly harmed by police use of force, and, after the precipitating murder, no innocents were physically harmed.

The further sad truth is that, in many ways, this story is an aberration. The officers’ hesitancy to use force when confronted with a heavily armed assailant who was firing wildly was contrary to their training, and it endangered bystanders who might have been hit by rifle fire penetrating the walls of their homes.

To further complicate this story, on reflection, it seems clear that this was a case of what is sometimes called "suicide by cop." The only explanation I have been able to conceive for the actions of the young man with the rifle is that he had decided to die. Most likely, he understood that the only options left to him were to spend the next 20 years or more in prison or to die. Apparently, he decided to go out in what he regarded as a blaze of glory, and maybe take a cop or two with him to boot.

William L. Hanson, in "Police Power for Peace" (FJ Aug. 2004), wrote about the ambivalence Friends feel toward the police, recognizing the need and obligation for society to exercise control over those of its members who are unable or unwilling to refrain from hurtful actions, while reluctant to endorse the frequent use of force and periodic violence this requires. This story I have told seems to highlight the important areas of concern: the tendency of violence to escalate; the harm to vanquished, victor, and community; and the ultimate necessity of deadly force in the name of society. What makes this story particularly meaningful is the uncommon aversion to the use of deadly force that this particular group of police officers demonstrated. They took extraordinary risks with the safety of themselves and others to avoid killing; but, in the end, they had to kill. One can readily conclude that there is an irreducible need for the use of deadly force in the defense of society; this is as good as it can be.

Friends may find this difficult to accept. I don’t think they have to; this apparent need can, at the very least, be reduced substantially.

In his essay, William Hanson expressed a concern about the violence that society uses to protect us and suggested that the solution may lie in developing low-force weapons and tactics for the police, and in further applying the principles of community policing. I share his concern. While I think he is looking in the right direction for tactical solutions, my 27 years as a police officer tell me that the problem is bigger than he indicated and the obstacles to solutions more daunting.

The essence of the problem is that force, either employed or explicitly or implicitly threatened, is the foundation of law enforcement. Citizens must and will comply, regardless. Furthermore, U.S. culture values forcefulness and the decisive use of power; this is reflected in our political rhetoric and the official policies it generates. These values are even more important in the unique subculture of police. As a police officer and manager, I have been explicitly trained to believe that, in a crisis, any decision—even a wrong decision—is better than no decision at all, and to believe its corollary: that any action—even the wrong action—is better than inaction. Waiting and talking are viewed as inaction.

Police are trained and retrained frequently in laws governing the use of force. This is obviously a good thing, but it means that (for instance) in New Jersey every officer will be told twice a year, "There is no duty to retreat for law enforcement officers. You may press forward, overcoming force with force to attain a lawful objective. . . . The force you see coming at you is the force you can use; if you see deadly force coming at you, you may use deadly force."

The police are also extensively trained and retrained in using deadly force; they spend a lot of time on the shooting range. For very good reasons, they are taught always to think about potential dangers, to regard anyone they don’t know well as a potential assailant, to position themselves defensively, and to have a plan. In other words, a police officer’s mental world is full of danger
and violence.

The bottom line is that our police live in a world where decisive action and force are normal ways to get things done, and where violence is to be expected. Not only is this acceptable to society, it is entirely logical. I can’t argue with the logic.

Yet, many Quakers regard this as wrong; they know it experimentally, as well as from Scripture.

It’s not society’s logic that is to be questioned; it’s the assumptions. If one embraces the assumption explicit in our laws that force, and even deadly violence, are acceptable when employed against equivalent unlawful force, then current practice makes sense. If one begins with other assumptions, different outcomes will follow.

If we assume that violence is never acceptable—not even in defense of an individual or society—then any violent act becomes intolerable. Not that we should send people to prison for acting in self-defense or defense of others; rather, we should change the way we think about this.

If forcibly restraining someone from harming another or oneself is an act of love, then not to act protectively is a failure to show love.

If I choose nonresistance for myself and accept whatever dangers that might imply for me, I may be acting out of love. But if I ask another to protect me, but not to defend him- or herself, I am being selfish.

If we accept that it is wholly unfair for society to ask a few of its members to be responsible for the safety of all and to place themselves in dangerous situations where they may have to use violent means or die, we must do all we can to reduce these risks, or we are not acting in love.

So, our best beginning would be to find a way to reduce the amount and intensity of violence directed against the police. Fortunately, the leading cause of violence in the United States is widely agreed on and unlikely to generate partisan debates about economic justice—it is drugs. Alcohol, crack, PCP, and the like make people violent and irrational. Alcohol alone is a leading cause of violence. Illegal drug trade also possesses a special power for generating violence; this was true of alcohol prohibition, and it is true of other prohibited drugs.

Our streets seem unsafe and our prisons are full because our response to the challenge of drugs has been misdirected. We have been engaged in a "war" on illegal drugs for decades now, and the problem has only continued to grow. After decades of energetic enforcement, anyone who wants drugs can still get them without much difficulty. It should be clear by now that, to borrow a phrase, "War is not the answer." Prohibition has failed us for the second time in a century, and it is time to look for a response to drugs that will work.

Taking the drug trade out of the hands of criminals should immediately reduce the level of violence. It would also free up enormous resources now dedicated to the bloated criminal justice system—resources that would then be available for other responses to drugs and violence that might be more effective. They could hardly be less effective.

If police were not tasked with forcefully eradicating drug use from a society that insists on using drugs, police could again be seen (and see themselves) as part of that society, rather than as an overstretched occupying army. The aggressive policing that results from the assignment to fight a losing war exacerbates racial profiling, and it leads to other police practices seen as harassment by the community, including excessive force and mistakes that the police make with their guns.

When the police rejoin the community, the community can truly take responsibility for its own safety. This is the essential concept behind community policing, which is the most promising idea in law enforcement. Unfortunately, too many police departments have outwardly embraced the concept, then assigned its implementation to a self-contained community policing bureau, which, without the involvement of the entire department, cannot be more than a public relations office. Some have set up separate community policing units that have been used as aggressive street crime and narcotics suppression teams, rather than partners in peacemaking with the community.

True community policing will mean shared responsibility for keeping the community safe. If our communities accept this responsibility, the first step will be reducing the abuse of intoxicants. Then, with these primary causes of violence being addressed outside of the criminal justice system, communities and police can cooperate in reducing actual violence and other threats to safety and security. The police can again move toward being seen by all communities as friends and protectors.

It should be apparent by this point that developing low-force weapons and tactics is only the simpler part of solving the problem. And here, we do not have to begin from scratch; there are many places to look for ideas that are already working. It is incongruous that a mentally ill person who becomes violent in a hospital will be restrained by staff members equipped with mattresses and heavy blankets, while a person who becomes violent on the street will be restrained by police officers equipped with aluminum clubs, chemical sprays, and guns. Surely we can apply what we already know.

Another place to look is in other countries with less tolerance of violence. The United Kingdom is one such place; the British are unwilling to accept an armed police force in their midst. Of course, police who protect likely terrorist targets in Britain are armed, and a few patrol cars do have guns locked in safes in the trunk, but, outside of airports and a few parts of London, it is very unusual to see an armed police officer.

One consequence of this is that British police receive far more training in unarmed defense and control techniques than most of their U.S. counterparts do. They are better at avoiding the need for extreme violence.

Another consequence is that only a few highly screened and trained, experienced officers are permitted to deploy firearms, and the conditions for deploying them are more restrictive. In the United States, every police officer knows that the appropriate response to a suspect armed with a knife is the officer’s sidearm; in the United Kingdom, the mandated response is a nonlethal Taser.

After almost three decades in policing, I know that neither the U.S. public nor its police are ready to embrace the idea of an unarmed constabulary. However, I have come to believe that this should be our goal. The greatest obstacles to change within the law enforcement community are cultural, and the omnipresence of guns poisons the culture with violence. Guns exist to be used.

The police officers whose moment of horror opened this article are my friends; indeed, after almost 30 years in the business, all police officers are my friends. I have known one of the officers at the center of the story, one who never came back to work, for 25 years. He is a Vietnam War veteran who had gotten over his nightmares of battle many years ago. A few seconds in Hackensack brought it all back to him, and it was a long time before he slept again.

The relationship between domestic peace and international peace that William Hanson wrote of is embodied in my friend. It may be that to bring peace to the world, we have to work outward in widening circles, finding peace for ourselves, then our neighbors and communities, then our country and the world. We will find, as Friends have always known, that there are no discrete issues of social or international policy to wrestle with—everything is interrelated. It all just comes down to making God’s love manifest in the world.