As a former Baltimore City police officer, a former news reporter on Channel 2, and now a member of the clergy and a law enforcement chaplain in Northern Virginia, I am sad watching what is happening in my beloved hometown. Having served in patrol in the Western District for a short time back in the mid-1980s, I'm sad that life for residents has not improved. I'm sad that there are still police officers who abuse their authority. I'm sad that there are residents who think the only way to be heard is through violence and destruction. Having covered the streets of Baltimore in the early 1980s and reported on residents angry about rampant crime in their neighborhoods, I'm sad that Baltimore's elected leaders have not succeeded in finding solutions to this problem. I'm sad that the governor chooses words that undermine the mayor on national television. And I'm sad that news reporters such as CNN's Don Lemon choose to interrogate the mayor with unimportant questions that she already answered, only embarrassing himself.
I understand the mindset of a police officer, having myself chased suspects through dark Baltimore alleys. Some fellow officers had become cynical dealing with non-stop policing in neighborhoods where drug dealing and serious crimes were the norm. Officers, who start out in the police academy wanting to make the world a better place, can lose the meaning and motivation after seeing how futile is their effort. It becomes "us" (the police) against "them" (everyone else), which leads to cynicism, distrust and a loss of hope. To the cynic, everyone is an offender, even the law abiding residents. That was what I witnessed in some fellow officers back in the 80s. It looks like some things haven't changed.
The Police Commissioner needs to look at what other departments are doing around the country to change this and bring back meaning and motivation to their troops. Yes, it's important to have the best tools for your officers, but what about teaching your officers about cultural diversity or emotional and spiritual survival? I teach a class at our police academy to help officers understand that "us" vs "them" is important for officer safety, but it's terrible for officer health, as they need to remember we are all human beings and each person has value and worth. Each individual can do their part in making the world better, not just the people wearing badges. Officers need to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and understand what happens to a society when power is abused. Many departments take their recruits there. And lawmakers need to find funds for each police officer to wear a body camera. Knowing you're being recorded keeps the officer's mindset focused on their role, and limits abuse.
The residents of Baltimore City need a way to express their grievances without fear of punishment. Just being able to file a grievance through police Internal Affairs is not enough. Each police district should have a community ombudsman — a civilian, whom residents can meet with regularly to voice their complaints. The ombudsman should be visible, be in the neighborhoods and be truly impartial so residents feel safe and feel heard. The ombudsman should have access to the district commander and work as a team to solve problems on a regular basis.
But these are Band-Aids. In order to really make a difference and truly make the world better, the City Council, the mayor, the state legislature and the governor should work together to find real solutions to the real problems that plague the inner city: poverty, poor education, unemployment, living conditions for starters. This takes serious work and creative solutions.
As a clergy person, I turn to the words of my tradition, the Torah, (the Old Testament in other traditions) to help find meaning and insight. How relevant is this past week's Torah portion from the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 19: the Holiness Code. In it are the lessons that we all need to remember: Each one of us is holy; treat each person with holiness; love your neighbor as yourself.
Holiness, respect, love and kindness are attributes that all people — residents, police officers, politicians, news media and faith leaders — need to embrace in order to make a difference in our world. Let us build a world of righteousness, love and peace where everyone recognizes the holiness in each other.
Michael Shochet is an ordained clergy at Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Northern Virginia, and the police chaplain coordinator of the Fairfax County Police Department. He was a reporter on WMAR-TV from 1983-1986 and a police officer with the Baltimore City Police Department from 1986-1988 and grew up in the Baltimore suburbs. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.