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Can police protect citizens amid a ‘chill wind’?

NASHVILLE (BP) — FBI Director James Comey has warned of a “chill wind” undercutting law enforcement officers in America.

If data begins to confirm Comey’s warning of police officers’ wariness to get out of their cars amid jeering and cellphone videos, the chill wind also would undercut America’s governance.

“The most visible form of government is the law enforcement officer,” said Patrick Oliver, director of the criminal justice program at Cedarville University, a Baptist college in Ohio.

“The primary purpose of every American law enforcement officer is to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” with its Bill of Rights “to protect the rights given by God to man,” Oliver said in written comments to Baptist Press.

“The law enforcement officer’s job has more authority than any other job in our society, with a range of discretion from a verbal warning to deadly force — all that may be legal under the law,” Oliver said. “That amount of authority,” he noted, “must be guided by high moral character, objectivity and humility.”

Thor Madsen, professor of New Testament, ethics and philosophy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., likewise underscored law enforcement’s role “to ensure that the God-given rights of each citizen are protected, both proactively and reactively, so that we all remain free to do what pleases Him.”

“Actions really do have consequences, given the realities of human nature,” Madsen told Baptist Press in written comments. “Thus, for example, if private citizens give the police reasons not to enforce the law intensively, the police will be tempted to stand down.

“If they elect representatives who tolerate drug trafficking, drug trafficking will increase. If our legal system does not deter violence, we will get more of it,” Madsen said. “Our nation does not need more data to establish these cause-and-effect outcomes. We’ve known about them for decades, in keeping with straightforward common sense.”

It is too early to tell whether America is on a trajectory for crime to soar after more than a year of protests and violence in some communities in what has been called “the Ferguson effect” stemming from the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and a number of other young black men in confrontations with police.

An 11 percent uptick in the national murder rate has been projected in a preliminary 2015 analysis by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. Fourteen major cities experienced increases while 11 had decreases, according to the analysis. The overall crime rate (encompassing such felonies as robbery and assault), meanwhile, is projected to drop by 1.5 percent.

According to local media reports, Baltimore’s 2015 per capita murder rate was the highest in the city’s history; St. Louis recorded the highest number of murders in two decades and Nashville’s was the highest since 2009; Chicago’s murder rate rose 12.5 percent. The 339 murders in New York City as of Dec. 25, however, was only a small increase from the previous year’s historic low of 333.

FBI Director Comey, in a widely reported address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police last October in Chicago, discussed various reasons for an apparent rise in crime in 2015, adding his theory that “maybe something has changed in policing.”

Comey pondered such questions as: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys with guns from standing around?”

Officers in one big city precinct, as Comey put it, told of “being surrounded by young people with mobile phones, video cameras rolling, as they step out of the cars, taunting them, asking them what they want and why they’re there. They described a feeling of being under siege and were honest and said, ‘We don’t feel much like getting out of [our] cars.’ I have been told about a senior police leader who told his force, ‘Our political leadership has zero tolerance for you all being connected to another viral video.'”

This “chill wind,” Comey acknowledged, can have a positive effect as officers “learn more about de-escalation and better use of force.” Assessing the potential rise in violence and how to address it, he also said, is hampered by data inconsistencies across the country on crime trends and patterns as well as officer-involved shootings.

Prayer & ministry

Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press, “It is disturbing to read how violent crime is up across the nation in some of our major cities…. While problems exist in many areas, there is no greater need than to see the next Great Awakening in the United States.”

Philadelphia pastor K. Marshall Williams, president of the National African American Fellowship in the SBC, said in the days after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, “This is a sin-sick, self-centered secular society in which we live” afflicted with “greed, hatred, racism, classism and injustice…. We need passionate prayer, spiritual renewal and revival in our land.”

Williams urged Christians “to unify by the power of the Holy Ghost and exemplify radical obedience to the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) which is to love God — and inextricably linked up in loving God is loving your brother.”

Churches considering outreach to law enforcement officers as one of their community ministries must be aware of the culture, said Dan Crumley, who leads the Atlanta-area Courageous Servant Ministries for carrying the Gospel to those with a badge.

Pride runs high, said Crumley, who was an officer in several Atlanta-area jurisdictions for 18 years.

“They must adopt a mindset at the beginning of their work to consider themselves bigger, tougher, faster — whatever the adjective — so they can overcome and defeat their opponent,” Crumley said. “They have the authority, for the most part, to have people do whatever they tell them to do. This alone causes them to think much more highly of themselves than many others do.

“Almost every time, this persona carries over into their personal lives as well,” he added.

Additionally, they are wary of the public, Crumley said. “Consider the fact they are lied to every day, a large portion of the media coverage is tainted against them, and society tends to look for their faults instead of their highlights…. As a result, an ‘us or them’ mentality results,” he said. “The job often insulates officers from anyone else but other cops.”

One key to reaching police for Christ, Crumley said, is “breaking through the false armor,” often with “a confrontation of their sinful lives in comparison to a holy God.”

Crumley encourages churches to be proactive, “with the understanding that instead of asking [officers] to come to them, the church goes to them.” He has helped churches take a meal to a precinct with several members there to serve the food. “This type of outreach lets the officers know that nothing is expected of them; the church is only there to show the love of Christ,” he said.

Individual church members can participate in a citizens police academy if one is offered in their community. “They are usually eight to 10 weeks long where ordinary citizens get an opportunity to learn all aspects of police work, ride with officers on their shift, and get to know the individual, instead of the badge. These are excellent opportunities for Christians to share the Gospel.”

Among Christians who work in law enforcement, Michael Lawson, director of campus security at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “Police officers only see society at its worst, and so it is hard at times to maintain ‘love for your neighbor’ when you may not trust your neighbor.”

Yet opportunities for witness are abundant, said Lawson, who also is an auxiliary police officer, SWAT team member and chaplain in Wake Forest, N.C., near Raleigh.

“I have been able to speak truth into situations in which a pastor would never be involved.” Lawson said. “I don’t necessarily tell them that the truth I am speaking is biblical, but if asked, I certainly can. You are constantly dealing with issues of sin and its consequences, so to be able to speak biblical truth into those situations is a great blessing.”