writing on suffering and awakening

Police officers are sometimes called peace officers. What if that were really their role?

Police violence against the people they are supposed to protect has been well-documented. It’s gross and scary. But what do we do about it?

I don’t believe any good can come from demonizing the police officers themselves. Indeed, I think it’s important to acknowledge that many (perhaps most) people—if given a gun, a badge, and the expectation that they wield authority over their fellows—will not always acquit themselves well. That’s a tough spot to be in and would bring out the flaws in any of us. I believe that all our police (and everyone else, for that matter) are doing the best they can.

But that doesn’t change the fact that people are being violated, murdered and otherwise attacked by those sworn to protect and serve them. While this has gone on since time immemorial (the sheriff of Nottingham, was, after all, a law enforcement officer), the rise of social media and the work of activists like those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement have brought contemporary abuses of power by the police into the broad public consciousness. We see this stuff every day on our Twitter feeds, and its really ugly. People are right to be afraid—and furious.

There are a number of political steps that can be taken to help keep our people safer from police violence. California may pass legislation raising the legal standard for the use of force by police officers; hopefully other states will follow. Bodycams can provide some measure of accountability. Pressure from activist groups is helping send a message that this sort of behavior is not acceptable. Electing compassionate district attorneys who won’t give the police a blank check to act with impunity is critical. A serious effort to ban handguns and semi-automatic rifles and get them off the street would also help police officers feel safer while on the job, and thus less likely to draw their weapons themselves.

But I also believe that political solutions tend to be band-aid cures for our deeper internal, spiritual woes. The violence, pain and hate in our society stems from the fact that we don’t see clearly within our own consciousness. In other words, true peace starts from within.

In that vein, I wonder if we would not benefit from a wholesale change in perspective on how we view the role of police officer?

Right now, police officers (and the public) see their job as enforcing the law. In other words, a police officer is supposed to spend their shift looking for people who are doing something wrong and punishing them for it. By virtue of their presence, they are also meant to intimidate those around them into not breaking the law.

The problem with this perspective is that it is one of us vs them. Police officers are taught to see themselves as morally righteous good guys, which makes anyone they come into conflict with a bad guy. This attitude may not even be conscious, but if your job is to be a hammer, it’s hard not to start seeing the people around you as nails—and to act accordingly.

But what if we as a society asked our police officers to shift their role? Police officers are sometimes called peace officers; what if we really took that seriously? What if instead of a focus on crime and punishment, the role of the police was to promote peace in whatever situation they were in?

The role of police as peace officers could be instilled from the ground up. New cadets and veterans alike could receive extensive training in nonviolence and nonviolent conflict resolution. Practices like meditation and yoga that can help people feel more at peace within themselves and with others could be taught and encouraged (imagine if police shift briefings began with a few minutes of mindfulness or metta meditation). Acknowledging that police work is enormously stressful, we could make it standard for officers to receive consistent emotional support through counseling or group therapy. And we could ask our beat cops and commanders alike to focus less on “how can I stop the bad guys?” and more on “how can I bring peace to the community I work in?”.

In short, we could ask our police officers room to act not so much as warriors of justice but as human beings, and we could give them the support they need to do it.

A peace officer might witness two young men confront each other on the street, or a woman shoplifting from a store. But instead of pulling out the handcuffs, the peace officer could try humane listening and communication. He could work to diffuse the tension between the men, or ask why the woman is stealing—maybe even put them in contact with a social worker, or a food bank, if necessary. That doesn’t mean he would ignore people breaking the law, but he would understand that there are a lot of ways to resolve the situation that don’t involve locking people up or shooting them.

The well-being of the people he interacts with, not their punishment, is first on a peace officer’s mind. He becomes less of an authority figure, and more someone we can all trust.

I don’t think this change in mindset would be easy, and I doubt it could happen overnight. Changing our police officers into peace officers is more about inner transformation than anything else, and that often takes time. It asks that police practice having faith in the basic decency of all people, rather than dividing us into groups of good and bad. That responsibility doesn’t just rest on their shoulders either—we would all do well to practice seeing each other with more compassion. After all, if we want peace, we ourselves have to walk the walk.

But wouldn’t our society be better for it?

Ian Cooper