Guest View: Change the culture

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By John Goldstein

We don’t have a “rogue cop” problem in America. Let’s be clear on that. It was caught on video. That’s why it became of national interest.  

Mr. Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back as he went to get into his car and is now paralyzed from the waist down. Another side addition to the average of three police killings every day in America. We need our police and we need each other too. But we don’t need the current violence now wedded into our policing system.

The police violence problem is not because we have a few “rogue cops” that need to be weeded out. I wish it were that simple. The police officers I know are the nicest guys. But as in all jobs there is a culture built around the job. The police culture is built on past precedent and evolves over time. 

Cops are trained to follow the rules set out for them as part of their police culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if the consultants and police trainers come with military experience from Afghanistan and Iraq—our endless wars that portray human beings from the perspective of a human enemy.

A now retired police officer friend of mine once commented that as he approached retirement he found himself classifying people that he met as either a victim/potential victim of crime or a perpetrator of crime. After years as a hospital chaplain I recall classifying people as either hospital patients or preparing to become hospital patients. These are parallel examples of a distorted culture view and a loss of ability to recognize our human relatedness to everyone we meet.

Here are some practical steps to change policing efforts.

1. Train police to de-escalate situations. This means talking and negotiating until non-violent interventions overwhelm the desire to remove guns from holsters. A change to non-violent emphasis policing methods will increase the respect and support for the police. Police receive more training in violent behaviors with minimal training in de-escalation techniques.  

2. Stop using chemical weapons against the people who pay for the police through their taxes. Tear gas and other associated violence breeds violent self-survival responses in return.  

3. It would seem logical that cops should live by the same laws as everyone else. But they don’t. The law specifically exempts them. And city contracts with police unions removes most if not all transparency and ability to remove officers from employment. Police unions heavily fund political campaigns. It will be hard to get serious changes made when the politician relies on the funding support of the police unions. The public will need to press for this transparency and the unions and the elected officials will not!

4. The relationship between police officers and prosecutors is incestuous. Prosecutors rely heavily on the word of police officers to get convictions. Now we want them to prosecute the very people they depend on. Will they do this without major political pressure?

5. Non-violent protest is important. But the pressure on political leaders in the political and social process is of even greater importance. That means public demand for transparency, social media postings, letters to the editor and elected officials and candidates, participation in the political process, forums, public meetings with a well-supported public voice.

The early Christians were encouraged to respect their civil rulers. To defy them could mean instant death. But they were also encouraged to live by the higher standard where ethics and equal justice ruled. In our democracy we should encourage all to live by the higher standard. It is possible. And we don’t need to see three of our neighbors killed by police in America every day. There is already enough suffering in our community and world.

Changing the police culture and the racial prejudice that is part of it will go a long way in making us a community more representative of our ideals with less need to attend police-inspired funerals of our friends and neighbors.

John Goldstein is a pastor who lives in Gilroy.

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