Featured Opinion

To Reform Policing, We Must Use Our Brains

Keen observers of the human condition notice that we are at a perilous disadvantage in the wild. Unlike numerous fungi, plants and trees, we do not exude toxins to ward off predators. Unlike animals like bears, lions, wolves, bats, and monkeys, we do not run all that fast, climb trees in seconds, see in the dark, or pick up a thousand scents at once. When caught by other predators, our flesh probably tastes pretty good, and unlike many reptiles, snails and sea creatures, we do not have bony plates with horns and hooks to defend ourselves. When put in these terms, it becomes clear just how vulnerable the human race is.


Perhaps the only asset that humans have going for them is the rapid evolution of knowledge through constructive brain activity. If not for the enlarging and encompassing brain, humans would have vanished from the face of the planet millions of years ago. It was learning what not to eat, how to hunt and fish, and what flowers gave off medicinal properties that kept our ancestors alive.  If it wasn’t for the Aboriginal people learning how to survive in a hostile environment such as the Kimberly, no one alive today would exist. If not for the Neanderthals figuring out how to live on the Savannah, no one today could imagine the leaps in mental and technological progress that would come to dominate the world. Without learning how to cross a river, make a bed out of saw grass, build fires, and decontaminate water, there would be no internet, space program, or advanced thermodynamic physics. We are all inheritors of the first people to use their brain in a way that not only allowed them to survive among dangerous creatures and brutal elements, but in ways that allowed them to embrace and enjoy their environment: this was the real beginning of all friendships, creative arts, religion, and other social customs.


That being said, if we do not use our brain today we are needlessly forfeiting our most important survival tool. To use one’s brain means to use the environment in ways that respects its inherent risks and capitalizes on its most promising rewards. To use one’s brain means to not drink where one urinates; it means to not poison one’s own food supply; and it means to live in balance with Nature as a matter of necessity.


So maybe the real issue today is that on so many issues no one wants to use their brains. Take the issue over police brutality and racial profiling. I have family members who are in law enforcement. The persons I know are in their jobs to serve and protect. They did not sign up to use excessive force on bad guys. They did not enlist to corrupt justice. They do not believe that they have a right to obstruct the law. Moreover, they are not racist in the sense that they actively seek out ways to harm people of particular groups. (All of us have unconscious prejudices shaped by life experiences, genetics, and various psychological factors.) The people I know who are in their jobs do not get off on becoming a source of intimidation to civilians; nor do they consider themselves a necessary evil.


More to the point, in countless ways, the police are essential safe keepers of order in society. After-all, what society has ever functioned without some form of policing? In fact, the police are often the most highly trained, emotionally sensitive, and professionally interested first response units in our country. The list of their heroics- in every disaster from hurricanes to armed robberies- would fill volumes reaching up to the moon and back. Does anyone who is seriously using their brain want to eschew policing all together?


But let’s really use our brains. Let’s listen to the words of social theorist and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the following critique in his book, Between the World and Me.


“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will.”


This is heavy stuff. It takes our brains to think it through. With Coates, I agree that no matter what one thinks about the police, there is no question that significant problems exist in our communities between the police and individuals of color. As someone who is personally invested in the health and well being of police officers- not as symbols but as fathers, husbands, and brothers- my brain tells me that I should speak up. Using my brain, I want to help find ways to make police organizations see the problems that exist. I want them to take steps to reform from within, and I want them to create new policies that will make their jobs more effective and less violent. It is precisely because I am white and have family members in law enforcement that I do not want to see these problems continue the way they have for so long. I want to use my brain, which is telling me that there is a way to support and honor police officers while also holding them accountable to the needs of citizens in every community.


According to a 2018 study by the Washington Post, 381 citizens have been shot by police this year. That number will no doubt increase by later tonight or tomorrow morning. All together, 987 people were shot by police in 2017.


On the other side of the spectrum, a Fox News article (the most Conservative news outlet I can cite) stated:  “Since the start of 2018, at least 33 law enforcement officers across the U.S. have died while on duty — with 21 of the deaths caused by gunfire… Roughly 135 cops died in 2016, making it the deadliest year for police officers in at least five years, Fox News has determined. While there were fewer deaths in 2017, the numbers weren’t much better: A total of 129 officers died last year. And 46 of those deaths were caused by gunfire.


 If I do not speak up, I am condoning these statistics. Far too many people are being killed by police officers in the line of duty. Likewise, far too many police officers are getting shot and killed trying to do their job. None of this should reflect the democratic will. This reality must be changed. It’s time that we use our brain and find solutions that will help our species avoid such blatant and monstrous acts of cannibalism. Body cameras are helpful, but they need to be turned on, focused on the conflict at hand, and permitted in investigatory reviews. Deescalation training, diversity training, and nonviolent communication are helpful techniques, but we need to fully establish budgets that make this information applicable to all departments and universally available. Small neighborhood policing, police on bikes, police engagement in the community, and recruiting more officers who represent the neighborhoods they patrol are all important steps. That’s called using our brains.


By using our brains we can also see that demonizing police and policing is wrong. Undermining police officers across the board is foolish, ungrateful, mean spirited, and irrational. To taunt and belittle the role of police officers/peace officers in a civil society such as ours is equivalent to drinking from the same water in which one urinates. It’s a brain-dead act. For a society without some form of criminal/restorative justice leads to social disharmony, diminished first response capabilities, and other terrible ills that we are not accustomed to in the Western world.

About the author

George Cassidy Payne

George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer and domestic violence counselor. He has theology degrees from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, NY and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

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