By William Elenchin
The indefensible actions by the police officer that led to the tragic death of George Floyd has ignited a nationwide debate on the role of police in society. While the emotions that rage are centered on police brutality, the fallout has spread to engulf a host of issues far beyond abuse of power by law enforcement. Our national political climate has become so toxic that it is nearly impossible to engage in a rational discussion that brings clarity and makes meaningful reform possible. This is evidenced by the recent inability of Congress to find common ground between the Republican-sponsored Justice Act and the Democrats’ Justice in Policing Act, both pieces of legislation focusing on police reform.
In a kind of strange way, the polarization that has occurred in society is understandable since it seems to be based upon the notion that countering abuse of power by offenders is somehow one-dimensional. One cop is bad, so all cops are bad. This perspective implies that recruits sign up for this line of work because of an innate desire for dominance and cruelty. And that if we can recognize this institutional dysfunction then by defunding or outright eliminating the police, we will somehow free ourselves from the ugliness of both misconduct on the part of all officers, as well as eliminate all criminal activity in society.
I come to this topic in my now 15th year teaching classes in criminology and sociology, as well as my prior work as a military police officer and later fraud investigator. Seeing the events of the past several months unfold, there seems to be a foundational break in the general understanding of the nature of policing and connected cultural factors that impact this profession. I would suggest there are three overlapping themes that have merged which, at least partially, help to account for the kind of ‘perfect storm’ of polarization dominate in contemporary culture.
The Nature of Crime and Policing
The first is the societal misunderstanding of the very nature of crime and policing. Criminal sanctions, or laws which dictate punishment for the violations of normative and lawful behaviors, have existed in every society throughout human history, dating back to the Code of Hammurabi more than 3,500 years ago. Criminal and deviant behaviors have always been and will always be part of every culture. This simple fact seems to have been lost today driven by postmodern thinking.
When teaching criminology classes to my students, the very first and foundational principle I explain is that crime is a normal part of every society. Not desirable of course, but normal. Why? Because of our human nature. We are imperfect beings. Very imperfect. People do bad things, make mistakes, abuse drugs, grow up in dysfunctional home, experience abuse, battle serious mental illnesses and become addicted to any number of pleasures. While not all of these struggles lead to criminal behaviors, sometimes they do. Deviant behavior, to include those that violate laws, are a normal part of every society. This basic tenet is underpinned in the writing of one of the most famous sociologists, Emile Durkheim, who noted:
Crime is present not only in most societies of one particular species but in societies of all types. There is no society that is not confronted with the problem of criminality. What is normal is the existence of crime. Crime is normal because a society exempt from it is utterly impossible. Even a community of saints will create sinners.1
The last line in this Durkheim quote is perhaps especially insightful today, as it helps to highlight the reality that every profession and walk of life has transgressors who veer way off their chosen path and into corruption. Sadly the recent sexual abuse crises within the Catholic Church is a vivid illustration of this. Tragically hundreds of Catholic priests in the United States have been convicted of unspeakable crimes, abusing thousands of children in the past several decades. Such actions are severe violations of the law and perpetrators ought to be brought to justice. And of course there is no shortage of examples of crimes from the academic, political, financial, and journalistic professions and quite literally every other occupation and walk of life. Yet we do individuals, professions, and society tremendous injustice when we demonize an entire grouping of people for the actions of few.
When we lose sight of the nature of crime and policing we open ourselves to dangerous stereotyping and the misconception that the “bad apples” represent the entire bushel. In the case of policing we run the risk of demonizing all police officers, the majority of whom enter the field in order to serve their communities. The vast majority of police, just like most teachers, nurses or social workers, enter their careers not only to pay their bills but with a desire to make a positive impact in the lives of others. That was my own experience with the vast majority of my colleagues during my time as a military police officer and has been reinforced in my decade and a half teaching, by getting to know the character of my students who select our major in pursuit of meaningful life work.
Our Criminology Department, as separate from our sociology program, in now only in its third full year as a stand-alone degree offering. But in that short time we have grown from zero to 70 criminology majors. Our majors represent a wide diversity of demographic backgrounds, not least of which are race and ethnicity. Why are so many students drawn to learn about this field and seek this type of work after they graduate? The answer is simple. In a variety of ways, they want to help others. They are drawn to the perhaps dated, but accurate and virtuous idiom of “protect and serve.”
Cultural Faith in Progress
A second theme that has emerged over the past few decades has been the diminishing role of religious beliefs in society, and the rise of the “nones”, or those who identify as atheist, agonistic, or nothing in particular. In 2009, 17% of Americans identified in that category, and by 2019 that figure had grown to 26%.2 At first glance one might ask how this is related to the perception of policing, since religion is often reduced to meaning only one’s personal belief in a supreme being. Such a reductionist notion of faith misses the mark by a wide margin.
A person’s belief in God certainly is personal, but it also has a profound cultural, aggregate impact. Collectively how we share in our understanding of a higher power, time, eternity, life, and our physical death carries great influence when understanding and confronting the corporal realities that we see every day in the news and on social media. As more and more in our culture lose a sense of the transcendent then, by default, there can be little to no faith that there is a meaning or purpose in the difficulties of life.
When there is no sense of meaning in the mystery of suffering, then everything must be perfect, or something is wrong and must be done about it. So when things do not go the way of our liking we must act to fix the problem because we are in control and can solve all our problems; or so we believe. I see this at times on display in some of my well-meaning colleagues who become overly excited about the latest research findings on a particular subject. In their enthusiasm to share what is perhaps relevant correlational data they come across as if they have uncovered ultimate truth, and not the latest research that may, and often times is, refuted by subsequent studies.
A straight-forward and eloquent statement which speaks to this phenomenon was put forth by Bishop Robert Barron, who observed:
Despite the massive counter-evidence from the moral disasters of the last century, we are still beguiled by the myth of progress: with just enough technical advancement, psychological insight, and personal liberation, we will solve our problems. But with this sort of stupidity and superficiality the Bible has no truck. The scriptural authors understand sin not so much as a series of acts but as a condition in which we are stuck, something akin to an addiction or a contagious disease. No amount of merely human effort could possibly solve the problem.3
While Bishop Barron is here referring primarily to sinful behavior, his point ties directly back to the misconception about the mystery of suffering and dysfunction, to include criminal behaviors. Even for those who dismiss the notion of sin there are numerous self-evident realties that are part of the human condition that will eventually lead to deviant and criminal behaviors. Some of these include substance abuse, addictions, serious mental illnesses, dysfunctional family patterns, and even the all too human act of making poor decisions, such as drinking alcohol and driving. Policy making and government regulations are important and often make a positive impact, but there is also a limit to their effectiveness.
Policing Has Been Evolving
The final cultural dynamic that seems to be at play is the idea that policing is static, frozen in time. That training, equipment, tactics and procedures are the same today as they were a generation ago, and a generation before that. Yet the reality is that, like virtually every institution, progress has been and is being made.
The modern era of policing has gone through three phases during the past two centuries. The first of these is the political era, from 1840 to 1930, followed by the Reform Era, lasting between 1930 and 1980. The last and most recent period is the Community Era, beginning in 1980 and continuing today.4
In short, the political era was marked by the then common practice of police officers obtaining their position in law enforcement in return for supporting a particular political candidate. During this time period there was an absence of training and regulations, which led to significant instances of abuse by officers. Widespread political and police abuse during this time led to the Reform Era of Policing, or a shift toward the professional model of policing. The fundamental change here was separating police hiring from political appointment through the use of civil-service examinations and oversight commissions.
Since the 1980s we have been transitioning toward the Community Era of policing. The emphases in this model of policing is just what the term implies – for individuals and neighborhood groups to communicate and join forces with police in a proactive way that identifies the best ways for police to serve a given community. The U. S. Department of Justice maintains the website Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) which offers information and resources to promote this model. The website can be found at https://cops.usdoj.gov/.
Models that fall under the Community Era often times have different names, such as public peace officers, community, or neighborhood policing. Yet the common goal of all these approaches is to return to the original style of policing that was community based. As writers in this field note “At the heart of most ‘new’ approaches to policing is a return to the ancient idea of community responsibility for the welfare of society—police officers become part of the community, not apart from it.”5
While these models have been increasingly used for now several decades, it would be a tremendous oversimplification to suggest that all police agencies and communities can apply such initiatives in like fashion. Every community has a unique makeup in terms of resources, structure, economic base, and culture. In similar manner, police departments also differ in their own composition, to include particular mission at local, state and federal levels. While continued work needs to be done to enhance the relationship between communities across the nation and the police that serve them it’s also important to note that positive change is happening.
Every year since I began teaching I’ve included on all my course syllabi a quote from Martin Luther King: The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education. We need to apply Dr. King’s call for depth of perspective and critical thinking now more than ever. Much of the narrative that polarizes communities and policing is surface level, driven by social media sound bites. While crime is an unfortunate but normal part of every society, that ought not to lesson our resolve to minimize its occurrence to the degree possible. Yet we must do so clear-eyed, being careful not to demonize an entire profession for the actions of a few.
William Elenchin is chair of the Sociology and Criminology Department at St. Bonaventure University. He is the author of Hidden Courage: Reconnecting Faith and Character with Mental Wellness (2009), Happy Without the Meal: Reflections from Catholic Faith and Reason (2013), and Rethinking Stress in an Age of Ease: A Field Manual for Students of all Ages (2019).
- Durkheim, E. Crime as normal phenomenon. In G. Vito & J. Maahs Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy. (2021) 5th pp. 26-27. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
- Pew Research Center. (October 17, 2019) In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/
- Barron, Robert. (June 30th, 2016) How Strange is the Cross? Catholic News Agency Website https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/column/how-strange-is-the-cross-3561
- Miller, L.S., Hess, K.M. & Orthmann, C.H. (2018) Community Policing: Partnerships for Problem Solving. Boston: Cengage
- Ibid, p. 17.