Filling in the Blanks in Ferguson

You know it’s getting bad when North Korea, notorious for human rights violations, calls the U.S. the “graveyard of human rights.” The issue, of course, is the story that has been in the headlines for weeks now, the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Not that anyone is taking North Korea seriously. About anything. But the sheer consistency of the stories is disconcerting. It seems there is a new story every week about a citizen being seriously injured or killed in an encounter with law enforcement.

What are we to make of this sudden spate of deadly encounters between citizens and the professionals sworn to protect the public? Are police suddenly more violent? Or are cell phones revealing the dark underbelly of American law enforcement that’s been there all along?

When we hear stories like the Michael Brown case, the facts are usually sparse. Eyewitness testimony is missing or contradictory. With such an unclear narrative, it’s difficult to know exactly where to place blame.

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But we want to place blame. We want clearly defined good guys and bad guys so that we can make a sound moral judgment on the actors. Without full information about who did what and when and why, we are tempted to fill in the gaps with assumptions born out of our inclinations. If we are inclined to give the police the benefit of the doubt (after all, they risk their lives every day protecting us), we assume they acted with restraint and professionalism; they handled a volatile situation as well as could be expected. But if we are inclined not to trust the police (we know too many stories — some of them personally — about cops targeting minorities or using an unnecessary amount of force), we see every violent encounter between citizens and law enforcement as just another example of excessive force or brutality. Either way, we jump from inadequate data to unwarranted conclusion.

Certainly, if the officer in Ferguson committed cold-blooded murder, he should face prosecution in a court of law. No one, I hope, would defend the right of law enforcers to abuse their power, to commit crimes against citizens. But until we have all the facts, we have to stand down. No one is blameworthy — we don’t have either rogue cops or dangerous thugs — until we know what actually happened.

The problem is that in a highly-charged atmosphere, no one is satisfied with the only legitimate option when the facts are sparse: no one is willing to withhold judgment. But withholding judgment doesn’t answer our questions, so we get protesters jumping to the conclusion that the police over-reacted, or we get counter-protesters saying (and yes, I heard this recently), “It doesn’t matter what happened [in the shooting]. We support the police.”

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As I’ve discussed Ferguson in my course on social problems, I’ve found both kinds of prejudice, for and against the police. These are high school kids, so of course they’re inclined to jump to conclusions without carefully considering all the evidence, even the little evidence that is available. I’ve had difficulty getting people on either side to consider a different scenario than the one they first embraced.

But I realize, as I talk with my students, that I too am prejudiced. I want to believe the police officers are usually professionals doing the best they can in difficult circumstances. After all, I was taught as a boy that police officers are our friends. I grew up watching crime dramas in which the cops were usually the good guys. Even so, I have had to admit that my reflex to give the cops the benefit of the doubt is maybe a little naïve. After all, cops are human, and humans — even experienced professionals — are capable of lapses in judgment and even unspeakable wickedness.

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But I think there’s something else behind my instincts to give the cops the benefit of the doubt. It’s not just that I am accustomed to trusting law enforcement: I want to trust law enforcement. I want to believe that the people who are sworn to protect the public really do want to protect the public. I want to believe that when violence is necessary in law enforcement, it is measured and restrained. I don’t want to live in a society – like North Korea – where citizens live in fear of the police. A reflexive distrust of the police seems to be a kind of break-down of the social order, and I want to believe that our society isn’t so broken that every violent encounter with law enforcement is just another example of misconduct and brutality.

I know that if I had experienced constant harassment by law enforcement, if I had felt suspicion every time I walked down a neighborhood sidewalk, if I felt the stares of shop owners whenever I browsed the merchandise, I might feel differently about these many stories of violence at the hands of law enforcement.

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So maybe I think this way because I’m white and middle-aged and my few brushes with the law were uneventful traffic violations. Maybe I think this way because I’m a hopelessly naïve romantic who wants to hold onto childhood fantasies about authority figures. Maybe I think this way because I have friends who are cops and I can’t imagine them being vicious or racist or viciously racist. Maybe I think this way because the alternative — resigning myself to the idea that Americans cannot trust law enforcement — is simply unacceptable.

Or maybe I think this way because law enforcement officials actually are, by and large, professionals who can be trusted to do their work with skill, discipline, and good sense.

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Paul William Pyle has taught high school for 36 years and serves as an elder in a Dayton-area church. He studied English and music at Evangel University and holds the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife have four children, ages 18-33. His blog, “Noticing,” can be found at paulwpyle.blogspot.com.

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