I was at a #Blacklivesmatter die-in on a cold gray afternoon in Minneapolis. A crowd of every race and ethnicity sheltered in jackets, gloves, and hats lying on the cobblestone courtyard behind the ten story glass Government Building. We laid side by side bundled in jackets and hats as a woman with a bull horn read the names of hundreds of African American men who had been killed by police.
It was a beautiful moment, staring up at the gray sky. A crowd of people mourning in public. All hoping and praying for a better world.
When we stood up to march the tenor of the crowd changed from the somber mourning to something more direct. More confrontational. People waved signs with the names Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Black Lives Matter. A round of chanting started:
HEY HEY, HO HO, RACIST COPS HAVE GOT TO GO!
I thought to myself, that’s true racist cops have to go. Nice cops can stay, but racist ones you got to go.
As I chanted down the street, I saw a police officer in black gloves and a black stocking cap standing alongside a nearby building. He was scanning the crowd with a stoic look on his face. Watching the people he had sworn to protect march, as we called into question the moral integrity of his profession.
He was about my age, a white guy in his thirties. As I was looking at him the chant changed. A group of gutter punk looking kids in ripped up black skinny jeans started banging on a 5 gallon plastic bucket.
HEY HEY, HO HO THOSE PIGS HAVE GOT TO GO!
I stopped chanting. A few more folks in the crowd picked it up. I looked at the officer. He was still stoically scanning the crowd. The idea of walking three blocks in a group that was referring to this guy as a pig took the wind out of the protest for me. It seemed unfair to call him a person a pig before I had even met him. I peeled off the main street and walked back to my car.
Over the last two years I have watched as the public discussion about police shifted. Reports about stop-and-frisk in NY reignited a national discussion about police oversight and accountability. And while this discussion was alive and well in many urban communities of color long before that, in the last two years this conversation has become a regular fixture on national news circuits.
I’ve been thinking about the police officer standing there while the crowd he was serving was decrying him as a pig.
I felt bad for him. As a white male pastor, I feel like I know a little of what he’s may be feeling.
I teach Sunday school in the shadow of 4 decades (and probably more) of white male clergy who abused public trust and then relied on an institution of secrecy to keep these abuses out of the public eye.
I have been working in churches for 10 years and since I started, hardly a month has gone by without a white male pastor getting caught red-handed embezzling church money, cheating on their spouse, or getting exposed as another round of sex abuse victims speak up.
And in the last decade, my entire profession has had to adjust to sweeping abuse-prevention reforms.
Most denominations now require that clergy accused of wrongdoing be submitted to full (much more transparent) investigations. Several states have passed laws requiring clergy to abide by the same rules, background checks, and client protection practices as therapists and psychiatrists. Many churches, including the one I serve, have instituted mandatory abuse prevention classes for anyone who works with children.
At our church we have sought out best practices. And, at times, there have been divisions about how far is too far. Like the policies that children are no longer able to sit on a non-parent adult’s lap, and volunteers cannot drive kids home alone.
But despite these differences of opinion, the response has been positive. And these reforms have helped many people regain some of the lost trust.
And I can confidently say that the churches that refused to do the work of regaining public trust have paid the price.
The Catholic Church in Minnesota has fought tooth and nail to keep documentation of clergy abuse from the public eye. They have continued to protect abusers, and refused to submit to a transparent investigation.
It has finally caught up to them. Over the last decade they have seen a sharp decreased weekly attendance and giving. And in 2013, after $600,000 was stolen by the diocese accountant and with mounting legal fees from decades of sex abuse cases, the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul said they were considering bankruptcy.*
And unfortunately this kind of negative media attention has at times overshadowed the hard work many churches have done to protect our children and congregants. In 2012, a Gallup poll reported that only 52% of people thought Clergy were very honest and had very high ethical standard. Only HALF the people!
This degradation of public trust has now begun to plague our police forces. In the last two years, Americans have watched grand jury after grand jury fail to indict police officers for killing unarmed black men. It has become clear that something needs to change.
There have been calls for increased education on race in police training, police have been asked to wear body cameras, and some have even suggested the implementation of an outside governmental department to replace internal police grand juries.
The Washington Post reported that “ Police aren’t faring so well when it comes to inspiring trust from the community, a poll from USA Today/Pew Research Center found. About 65 percent of respondents said police did “only a fair” or poor job in holding fellow officers accountable for misconduct.”
The report continues, “The responses vastly differed when broken down by race, however. More than nine of 10 blacks said the police only do a fair or poor job when it comes to applying equal treatment and appropriate levels of force.”
90% of Blacks say they are being treated unfairly. 90%.
When public servants–a category police and clergy both fit squarely under–lose public trust we must fight to restore it.
I believe that pastors and police are integral parts of the social fabric of our society, and we cannot tolerate those who would stand in the way of restoring that public trust.
As a pastor who has lived through a decade of increased accountability, reporting, and regulations, I understand that changing rules and regulations can be a tricky business.
I understand that wearing body cameras and submitting to outside juries and/or whatever policies Americans decide on is going to take some getting used to.
But we can no longer live in a society where families are afraid to send their children to church and afraid to call the police for help.
Police cannot forego the essential work of regaining the public trust because it is uncomfortable and the regulations proposed are not guaranteed to work 100% of the time.
These threats pale in comparison to the looming threat that the public may lose faith in the police force.
And we need our public servants too much to let that happen.