When the police are against the people

You’ve seen the video, right? The action is underway as the recording starts. An officer darts and rolls. Kids in swimsuits scream and run. The curious press in. Everyone is talking.

Suddenly, an officer comes into view, dragging a teen by the arms and then pushing his head down to the ground. “I told you to stay,” he barks, waving his flashlight at those nearby. “Get your asses down on the ground!”

But it’s not yet over, is it? In another moment the officer is grabbing a fourteen-year-old girl, throwing her to the ground and then drawing his sidearm when people move in to see what’s going on. To be clear, I’ll repeat: He pulled his gun.

The city against itself

It didn’t take long for the video to go everywhere, nor the brass in McKinney, Texas, to suspend their officer. Good move, even if it was only political.

The officer was white and most everyone harried and threatened black. That includes the girl—a nonviolent participant who was not only yanked around and thrown to the ground by a much stronger man, but suffered the further indignity of the officer then pinning her down with his knees against her back.

How long ago was Baltimore? Ferguson? That police departments in this country could remain so clueless is beyond frustrating. But it’s not surprising. Since the Nixon years, American policing has undergone a fundamental shift, and none of us is the better for it.

Richard Nixon found, as many politicians have since learned, that public fear about crime creates electoral opportunity. His administration led a massive realignment and ramp-up of federal police efforts, mostly centered on his newly declared war on drugs. Over the years those changes in mindset, training, and equipping have trickled down to some of the nation’s smallest police departments.

I discuss the period and what happened in my book, Bad Trip, but for the full story there is no source more thorough than Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop.

The nature of policing should be obvious from the name. The police are the polis. They are the people. But since the 1970s, larger political agendas have driven a wedge between the police and the people. The cop with the girl under his knees does not see her as himself, which she is. Absurd as it sounds—and frightening as it looks—she is a foe.

This kind of overly aggressive, militarized policing is an autoimmune disorder in the body politic—the city against itself. And it’s something about which every Christian should care deeply.

Do justice and walk humbly

If we follow the example of the prophets, we know justice matters to God a great deal. “[W]hat does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” asks Micah.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but throwing a nonviolent person to the ground and restraining her with your knees is fundamentally unjust. It’s an excessive, dehumanizing response. Drawing a gun on kids at a pool party is likewise an overblown reaction that doesn’t match the supposed threat. An appeal to deadly force is always a last resort.

Someone got too close to the officer? Maybe. But he bears responsibility for provoking the situation to begin with. Some have said that the teens were getting out of hand, disturbing neighbors and even damaging property. Again, maybe. But the entire situation was mishandled from the moment the police responded to the call. Belligerence, intimidation, aggression, overkill. This is not the approach of a police force that sees citizens as itself.

And of course it’s not just this incident.

police 2

Balko and others have documented a mind-numbing litany of such cases, most of which result in little correction by officials. We’re talking homes invaded, property destroyed, people harmed—and sometimes killed—for nothing or next to it. From the tactical equipment, military training, and Full Metal Jacket vocabulary, it’s just the way we do business these days. And even when recourse seems possible, justice is snubbed.

The fact that many of these stories unfold in minority communities only worsens the sting people feel when city governments and courts seem aloof or unconcerned by the unwarranted aggression. After an automobile chase in 2012, thirteen police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, fired 137 rounds into a car. The occupants were two unarmed African Americans. The only officer charged in the incident was later acquitted. It’s almost a caricature of the problem.

I have three sons, two are black, and my gut goes hollow when I imagine them a decade down the road. What happens when someone in blue—or black tactical garb—trained in the culture of us-versus-them policing fails to do justice and walk humbly?

Balko’s book ends with several recommendations. They should be read by anyone who cares about this topic. And everyone should, especially Christians who care about all those who live in their cities.

Image credit: Scribe.


  1. Scotland Yard and Sir Robert Peel are arguably the origin and author, respectively, of the modern police force. Yet, the modern police force in America have eschewed the Peelian Principles and very few, if any, police academies or criminal justice courses teach them. If we were to re-adopt them, policing would improve immensely:
    1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
    2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
    3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
    4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
    5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
    6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
    7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
    8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
    9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

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