Many Americans, upon encountering U.S. soldiers in uniform, thank them for their service. So we should. Fewer of us, upon encountering U. S. police in uniform, thank them for their service. Yet we should.
As a faculty member in Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, I've had hundreds of students who were law enforcement professionals. In class, in informal gatherings and in one-on-one private conversations I've come to know them as people, not just icons or stereotypes. As community members, friends and colleagues, they stand out because they have chosen a profession that requires an exceptional level of courage and commitment to public well being; safety is their business. To be sure, when police make a mistake, either accidentally or intentionally, the consequences can be devastating because police responsibilities are so great. If any officer uses inappropriate force against anyone — especially if it results in a death — the officer must be held accountable. Also, people who are upset about these failures should be free to express themselves in ways that don't put the community at risk.
Yet even if we were to list all of the recent situations that call a police officer's actions into question, we would have a list that is much shorter than the list of reasons why we should be as grateful for our police as we are for our military. Both have chosen professions whose primary task is to keep us safe from the "bad guys," and who in the ordinary course of their professional days face risks that the rest of us hope never to face.
Police enforce the law, but they are peace officers first, keeping communities safe in fact and in perception. Even when crime statistics in a community are low, fear can remain debilitating, so police must ensure residents' safety and their sense of safety.
When police officers fulfill their professional duties, as they routinely do, that is rarely newsworthy. An officer works her shift, reassuring community members, answering calls for help, investigating crimes or ensuring that others have information necessary to solve the crimes, all the while resisting temptations that come with the job, such as taking freebies she doesn't deserve or taking illegal or immoral shortcuts in her police work. She hasn't drawn her weapon, she hasn't acted unusually heroically, and she has broken no legal or moral rules. She may not know what risks she faced on that shift, and she probably wouldn't have quit if she had known. The shift is over, she goes back to civilian life, the community is safer because of her. And none of this makes the news. Nor should it: that's police business as usual. Her choice of profession was heroic; the extraordinary responsibilities are now part of her routine.
The Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases raise legal and moral issues. Perhaps the legal issues have been settled, but not to everyone's satisfaction. I believe that it is always morally bad to take a human life, but sometimes doing so is the lesser of two evils. Conflicting eyewitness testimony, accusations and counter-accusations make it impossible to decide finally whether the officers in those cases made the less evil choice. Feelings run high on both sides of the issue, with some feelings — such as the grief of Brown's and Garner's loved ones — being unimaginable to those of us who have never suffered such loss. Perhaps the officers are struggling as well; to take a human life, even if legally justifiable, must be traumatic to anyone with a conscience. But what would satisfy the demonstrators? Should the officers be found guilty of crimes they didn't commit? Should police in general express a "mea culpa" and promise to try harder to use potentially lethal force more carefully? Is there a racial bias in police interaction with the community that justifies declaring "Black lives matter," as if intelligent professionals didn't know that?
As a community, let's punish the few wrong doers in the police profession. Let's fix problems, including racial biases, in America's law enforcement system. And let's thank the majority of peace officers who do their job well serving on the front lines of public safety.
Christopher Dreisbach is director of Applied Ethics and Humanities for the Johns Hopkins University Division of Public Safety Leadership and a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. His email is email@example.com.