Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” became the booming unified cadence following the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown. Facebook Live beamed to millions the horrific death of Philando Castile. Cell phone video captured the heinous murder of Walter Scott; Jordan Edwards, a teenager, gunned down while leaving a party; Terrence Crutcher killed on a Tulsa highway. In Dallas, Botham Jean was shot in his apartment while watching football and eating cereal—dead.
All of these deaths were at the hands of police officers and all those dead were black. We try to look away and pretend we’re blind, but our darting eyes find no rest. We turn from the carnage only to refocus our gaze on an American history replete with atrocities committed against black Americans. No wonder there is so much distrust.
Seeing What Was Hidden
In January 2015, seven years after swearing to protect and serve the citizens of Dallas, I turned in my badge and gun. My time in law enforcement donning the blue uniform, had come to an end. Ferguson altered me. The circumstances and actions of the officer compelled me to say to my wife, “If he is indicted I quit.” The grand jury came back with a true no bill, but I quit anyway.
But as I began to engage with others on the topic, my white-police-officer perspective became evident. “Why don’t they understand?” echoed in my head, as I received push-back from my black friends. In time, my friends uncovered for me what was hidden—I was the one who didn’t understand.
The police shootings didn’t occur in a vacuum, they took place on a backdrop. What I perceived as an isolated event, was another brutal chapter in an ongoing story to others. As with any story, the present is seen through the lens of the past. The painful past for my black friends is a desecration of the Imago Dei. A nationwide horror, with people like me denying the story, or acknowledging it as fiction.
With their help, I was seeing what was once hidden and we were asking how we could move toward learning from each other.
For progress to take place, dialogue must exist. But before meaningful dialogue can begin, those engaged must acknowledge that both have something meaningful to say.
The Legal Lens
I was looking at officer-involved shootings through the legal lens. When an officer uses deadly force, the question becomes: Was it reasonable given what the officer knew at the time? In the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist issued this opinion:
“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight . . . allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation . . . As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, however, the ‘reasonableness’ inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.”
What an officer perceives at the time of the incident is the standard for law enforcement. Those perceptions are then put to the “reasonable” test. Is it reasonable for the officer to respond the way he or she did with the factors the officer knew at the time? I publicly condemned the murder of Walter Scott and Jordan Edwards. The actions of those officers were obviously not reasonable given the facts and circumstances known at the time. Gratefully, both officers were convicted.
There were also cases where officers were not indicted or acquitted by a jury. Once again, my friends would protest with outrage that the officer “got away with it again.”
My Turn to Listen
When I started listening to my black friends, I found another lens. Through prudent contemplation of remarks from multiple friends, a realization emerged which had previously escaped me. When the law declares a shooting is justified, it doesn’t necessarily indicate the shooting was morally justified. Case in point, the legally justified laws pertaining to slavery which were also morally abhorrent.
One friend said, “You can’t help but lack the ability to fully empathize with the plight of those of us who have been systematically disenfranchised.” He was right. I can’t. But through Christ I can humbly approach the effort to try. I cannot fully empathize in the same way. However, I can fight for empathy in a meaningful way. I can fight for the new lens.
Justice for All
In the pursuit of justness, I can weep with those who weep. I can do that. But to weep one must be moved to a place of understanding, a place that is centered on the glory of Christ in the pursuit of love. Yes, actors can fake tears, but weeping cannot be counterfeited. There is an authenticity that moves beyond simple liquid emotion and takes the place, if only for a moment, of the one who is hurt. Within that reality, I discovered weeping authenticates love’s understanding. Admittedly, I don’t have it all figured out. I stumble and fumble my way through these discussions. As a former officer, I can testify at times officer situations can go bad. In these moments my friends still weep, even when the officer’s options are few and undesirable uses of necessary force. Mutually holding both realities in tension is difficult but essential, and in the end, becomes a winding path towards justice.
Cover photo by Giulia Pugliese.