If we are ever to come to grips with police tragedies in the United States , strengthening the bonds between law enforcement and community members must be our top priority.
Five former Memphis police officers recently were federally indicted and charged with civil rights violations in the death of Tyre Nichols. When making the announcement, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said, “Officers who violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect undermine public safety, which depends on the community’s trust in law enforcement.”
Garland is right. Police-community trust is critical for public safety. But faith in the police is deteriorating .
A poll conducted just after Nichols’ death found that less than 40% of Americans are confident that police “are adequately trained to avoid the use of excessive force” and just 41% are confident that police treat Black and White people equally.
Meanwhile, violent crime has skyrocketed in recent years, threatening to undo decades of progress.
To stop the spike and get crime under control, we need a new approach to policing reform that will also restore public safety – one that highlights common ground. The faith community, with its unique central role in many American communities, should lead the way in making that a reality.
From the abolition movement to the Civil Rights Movement, faith has played a central role in social advancement in this country.
High-profile police shootings and the widespread unrest that often follows have fueled division and mistrust between police and the public. This led to police officers resigning in droves after being demonized by the “defund the police” movement that took off after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Nationwide, there was a 44% increase in retirements and an 18% increase in resignations that year.
Fewer cops led to an increase in violent crime. Portland, which lost 115 officers in the months following Floyd’s death, saw homicides jump by 270% from July 2020 through February 2021. In fact, 12 major U.S. cities surpassed their annual homicide records in 2021. And the issue has not abated – homicides are still up 24% since before the pandemic.
Fatal police shootings have increased as well, reaching record levels in 2022.
When police and community members feel no connection to one another, and when each feels demonized by the other, they will develop an “us vs. them” mentality that is almost tribal in nature.
Not long ago, I would have been on the front lines leading protests against the police. I still feel the pain and outrage behind these demonstrations. But after the summer of 2020, I came to realize that an inherently adversarial approach was only fueling endless battles – and that no one was winning. I decided to stop simply cursing the darkness and start lighting a candle.
The police are not going away – and no one should want them to. They are vital to keeping communities safe. Thus, we must recognize the value of law enforcement and strengthen its bonds with the community.
As a student of history and mentee of most of the icons who worked directly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the faith community made the most sense to me as a place to ignite a holistic movement because of its wide reach and influence.
Each week, some 65 million Americans participate in events through their local faith communities. It is the largest community resource in the nation, with participants from all walks of life who reflect our nation’s diversity.
Faith leaders are trusted and have a great deal of influence in many communities, especially Black communities. And faith organizations are often involved in serving the community in ways beyond just religion – from substance use counseling to food banks. Police officers and religious leaders can and should find common ground in their shared mission of serving the community.
This was the thinking behind the first Faith & Blue Weekend in 2020, a national initiative that brings together law enforcement and community members through faith organizations of every kind.
The effort has been a huge success – by its third year, it had grown by 300%, with hundreds of thousands of participants across all 50 states. Now in its fourth year, the movement has become the largest of its kind. It involves more than 2,000 local faith organizations, more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies, and every major national law enforcement association in America, including the Fraternal Order of Police, Major Cities Chiefs Association, National Sheriff’s Association, and even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The faith community is an incomparable way to reinforce connections between police and community members. But there are other ways to restore these bonds.
For example, Serve & Connect is a South Carolina nonprofit that builds bridges through community events and by getting officers directly involved in providing food and holiday meals to community members.
The National Police Athletic League is another initiative that brings police and community members together for activities that promote bonds and camaraderie.
The bottom line is that to improve police interactions and to improve public safety, repairing relationships between police and the communities they serve is essential. Faith, police and other community leaders from all walks of life should recognize the importance of healing these bonds for the good of the community and take a leading role in bringing law enforcement and community members together.