Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Several years back, I was cleaning my garage, which faces an alley, when a police officer walked by. He was systematically searching for a robbery suspect. This happens regularly in Northside alleys, I’ve since learned. But I hadn’t seen it before, so asked, “Is everything alright, Officer?”

He responded, “Just fine. Still, have you seen anyone…suspicious?” He meant both that day and more broadly. I told him no, but he must’ve seen my perplexed brow furl. After all, what counts as “suspicious”? But I wanted to help when asked, so I thought and thought but couldn’t bring anyone useful to mind.

Noticing my confusion, he explained further- “Don’t worry about being offensive. If someone looks shady to you, always call the police and don’t hesitate…whatever his race…understand?” The implication was clear. This officer was informing me that I had every right to fear young black men, to call the cops whenever I encountered any I deemed scary. To do otherwise, he strongly implied, was “politically correct” hogwash, and dangerous. He walked on.

This memory came to mind Sunday evening when I heard that a young black man was shot by Northside police on Saturday. And that some neighbors were forcefully protesting the shooting. The situation sounded tense. As I write on Monday, many details are hazy or contested. Perhaps we’ll receive a clearer picture soon. Until then, I’m guessing we’ll hear, instead, loud protests against police misconduct, along with loud outrage from people who think we shouldn’t ever criticize cops.

First things first: Pray for the deceased man’s family. And for the officer who shot him.

That said, and whether or not the shooting was justified, I suspect our city will soon debate if this incident is symptomatic of consistently poor police behavior or something else. People will share statistics, personal vignettes, indignation. I imagine, however, that most have already decided what to think, that many aren’t open to changing our minds about the fundamental issue. Maybe our son was a police chief, which colors our compassion for the profession. Maybe our son was singled-out by school authorities for his skin color, which impacts our trust in other authorities. My hope is we’re open. My hope is we believe we have more to learn. 

 My worry, though, is we’re resistant to change.

Which is why I shared the story above. Full confession: I don’t fear police. I’m a well-off white guy whom police have almost always treated kindly. I’m deferential, respectful, and truly glad for those who put their lives in harm’s way to keep mine safe. Yet, when an officer encouraged me to racially profile my neighbors, it made me worry about how he treated my neighbors. If that’s what he expects from me, what does he expect from himself? From co-workers? From my African-American neighbors? Sadly, that moment diminished my trust in his capacity to do objective police work.

Fortunately, it also contributed to me knowing others better. I’m prayerful that his was an isolated attitude. Alas, I’ve subsequently heard some neighbors of color say that they regularly experience biased policed treatment. I’m now primed to believe these neighbors more than I’d have been before a man with a badge and gun told me that race-based fear was morally and civically proper. In other words, I hope I listen more to neighbors than I once did.

And that, I think, is something I’d like to see as this issue unfolds: more active listening. From those skeptical of the existence of police misconduct, I pray for willingness to listen to neighbors who say they’re afraid, constantly. From those unwilling to trust the police, I pray for sympathy when authorities claim they’re striving to serve all. I’m aware, of course, there’s a vast power imbalance, and fraught history, and Christians ought listen especially for the cries of the less powerful, the marginalized, the silenced.

Whatever the case, I most pray fervently we don’t turn off our ears, or TVs, and move onto something simpler. Many neighbors don’t have that choice, that privilege, because this tension is a daily reality. And until we collectively solve it, more people will die. That should matter to everyone.

Grace and Peace,
Read more!