U.S. Policing Is Broken. Christians Must Reimagine Public Safety | Sojourners

U.S. Policing Is Broken. Christians Must Reimagine Public Safety

Police officers stand guard as people demonstrate outside the Ohio State House after an officer shot and killed a teenage girl in Columbus, Ohio, on April 20, 2021. REUTERS/Gaelen Morse

In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s verdict, I felt a visceral sense of relief.

Though a single verdict is far short of justice — and cannot restore George Floyd to his family and community — my relief was real. I felt deep in my spirit that the promise of equal justice under the law would have seemed unobtainable had the jury acquitted Derek Chauvin for a brutal murder the whole world saw.

But this relief was quickly overshadowed by righteous anger and dread: anger because I’d been so worried about a verdict that felt like a modern-day lynching, dread because we probably won’t see the same degree of accountability for the recent killings of Adam Toledo, Daunte Wright, and the 319 other people who have been killed by police in 2021. I wondered how soon the next case of police violence would capture our headlines, not knowing that just minutes before Chauvin’s conviction was announced, Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, was killed by the police in Columbus, Ohio.

Our nation needed this verdict to be guilty. Without a guilty verdict, we would likely have seen widespread rage that could have cost more lives. Without a guilty verdict, those of us who have been advocating for true transformation of our broken policing and unjust criminal justice systems might have slipped into a sense of futility. As a father of two Black sons, I needed this to be a guilty verdict; had there been a mistrial or a “not guilty” verdict, I would have lacked the words to explain — let alone to continue to share with them my real hope for change. So, yes, this verdict is an occasion for relief and even celebration, but it is not the end; this verdict must be a catalyst for the courageous work that needs to be done to imagine a new vision of public safety and build the beloved community.

Based on data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws have been passed in 30 states. Federal policing reforms, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, would cement much-needed changes, including rehauling qualified immunity, creating a national registry for police misconduct, enacting a federal prohibition on racial profiling, and banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants. These are meaningful steps. But reform is not nearly enough. We cannot train or reform our way out the crisis of racialized police violence. Building on this momentum, this is a moment that calls all of us to go deeper.

“Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens,” said Ella Baker, the mother of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  What Baker knew then remains true today: we need transformation at every level — head, heart, and spirit, as well as the systems and laws that so often still criminalize and dehumanize Black lives. We must come to the place to see that a racialized and unjust policing system hurts of all of us and makes all of us less safe. Or as the Apostle Paul said: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Our current policing crisis is reinforced by false narratives. Narratives — or collective stories that shape how we think and react to our world — represent the battlefield of imagination. Distorted narratives that associate Black lives with guilt, danger, and criminality have poisoned every facet of American life, including our policing and criminal justice system; we must confront and dismantle these narratives. To do so, we must confront our denial and ignorance about the deeply racist history of policing in America, which the growing push to create a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation would help to correct.

In a recent video, The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, recently confronted the dominant narrative around policing: that officers who commit violence against Black people are simply “bad apples” in an otherwise good system. “Where are the good apples?” he asks. Noah notes that while there “are many people who are good on the police force … the system is more powerful than any individual.” He continues: “The system in policing is doing exactly what it’s meant to do in America and that is to keep poor people in their place. Who happens to be the most poor in America? Black people…” A tree that produces and tolerates bad apples must be uprooted and replaced — work that requires real transformation. The kind of transformation that taps into our prophetic imagination in order reimagine what public safety should look like.

This is what so many Black Lives Matter leaders and activists are doing, even though their message and methods are often maligned and misunderstood. This is a moment in which we must all listen to and take seriously the call to defund and even abolish the police, calls that are growing louder across the movement for Black lives, particularly within a younger generation. Whether or not you agree with their choice of words or approach, we should all agree on the collective need to deeply reimagine public safety. The Breathe Act, the signature legislation created by the Movement for Black Lives, is a prime example of radical reimagining; the act’s proposals include radically reducing federal funding of the U.S. criminal-legal system and instead funding non-carceral, community-led public safety measures, like supportive housing, employment opportunities, violence intervention, and mediation. You don’t have to agree with every one of the act’s policy recommendations to be inspired by the bold vision it outlines.

In my own journey of understanding the crisis of police violence and systemic racism, I have been trying to listen, learn, and stretch my own imagination. I’m increasingly convinced that our current system of policing and criminal justice is broken beyond repair and requires a radical and comprehensive overhaul. I believe police must be demilitarized. The police are currently overstretched — but the solution is not “more police;” I believe police are ill-equipped to address so many public health and safety issues, including traffic violations as well as addiction crises and other mental health issues. Addressing these issues does not require the use of lethal force, but due to racism and a lack of accountability, police intervention often leads to tragic outcomes.

I am also certain that we must reimagine public safety in a way that prioritizes and centers programs and policies that enable communities to thrive, which will require increasing and diverting investments into community health, access to affordable housing, quality education, community violence prevention programs, drug rehabilitation, and so much more. Many reimagined alternatives to policing already exist, such as the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Ore., — an emergency-response program that for nearly three decades has been sending “experienced unarmed crisis counselors and EMTs in response to mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness-related crises. The program has become a model for other cities looking to shift community resources away from armed policing in favor of social services.”

Successful social movements activate the realm of reimagination, while politics operates in the realm of what is possible. Both are needed in this moment. We especially need the pressure and imagination of an ongoing and strengthened movement to change what is possible, even as we relentlessly push for bold reforms in the short-term that will lead to greater police accountability and help to prevent the next senseless act of police violence.

As Christians, we possess powerful theological tools to reimagine the world as we know it. We stand on the shoulders of prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, who used the power of reimagination to proclaim “what saith the Lord” to kings and rulers — bold visions that struck at the heart of building a society where all can thrive. We can learn from our Lord and Liberator Jesus, who tapped into the power of reimagination as he taught through parables and challenged hypocrisy and transcended the limitations of binary thinking. And we must always remember the timeless lesson of the resurrection: Death and injustice never have the last word.

Now is the time for all of us to reimagine what public safety looks like in God’s beloved community. Then we must work together to transform and replace our currently broken and unjust system that thankfully produced one, seminal verdict of accountability. That newly inspired vision of what public safety looks like and requires will make God’s kingdom more real here in the yet-to-be-fully-United States of America.

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