Christian Ethics Today

When It Is Time to Tear the House Down, Rather Than Remodel

By Patrick Anderson, editor

My good friend, Frank Broome, is very skilled at remodeling houses, reconstructing furniture, and rebuilding dilapidated things. Me, not so good. It seems to me that more often than not the prudent thing to do with crumbling buildings is to put wrecking balls and bulldozers to good use. Clean up the mess and build something new. Frank’s approach is better than mine in most cases.

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer the city council acted quickly to advance plans to dismantle the city’s long troubled police force department. Other cities and jurisdictions have followed suit. Of course, a considerable backlash has also formed to resist any wholesale changes in policing and we will see where this all leads. But American policing is not the only institutional structure facing calls for radical do-overs.

For instance, in a strongly-worded open letter signed by hundreds of health professionals throughout the United States and addressed to “America’s decision makers”, Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel the Public Health Campaign’s Director of the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), was printed and reported by most news organizations. It gained considerable attention. The title of the letter is “Shut it down, start over, do it right”. The doctors said that the tragic COVID-19 pandemic which has devastated America’s economy and caused the deaths of more than 160,000 Americans cannot be fixed, it is too far gone. The nation’s effort to combat the disease “have fallen short of what the moment demands” the letter states.

Similarly, a Minneapolis historian and co-founder of the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice Project, Kirsten Delegard, has uncovered the “darker truths about the city” — the city’s racial barriers to home ownership and the impact those racial barriers have had on segregation in the city. Every city in America has a similar legacy of purposely cordoning off citizens of color from the predominantly all-white neighborhoods where much celebrated civic parks and other institutions prevail. Using racially restricted home ownership covenants, the city decreed that property owned by white citizens “shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian, or African blood or descent.” Now the city is faced with a system of segregation which is structured in such a way to cause dramatic inequities in income, home ownership, educational opportunities, health care, and a great deal more. Not surprisingly, the entire system of urban planning is in need of reform.

An extremely evil system was put in place informally after Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War by the newly elevated President Johnson, a son of the south and Vice President under Lincoln. Johnson inherited an extremely divided country, even after the war. He strongly believed in “states’ rights” and gave southern white political leaders too much power. He ordered the Union troops removed from the south and granted southern states the power to “oversee” the Reconstruction. Throughout the last decades of the 19th century, and well into the 20th, under the banner of “states’ rights” the system of Jim Crow effectively maintained the supremacy of white people and the diminishment of the rights of freed slaves. Laws that affected only black persons, called Black Codes, were enforced by white enforcers who became the early police in the south, with the aid of the KKK.

Despite the enormous barriers, freed slaves quickly took advantage of their freedom and successfully created schools, businesses, churches, banks, and other institutions. Black persons were elected to city, state, and national government offices. The successes of those enterprises flummoxed many whites, causing resentment and enflamed racial animosities. In the early years of the 20th century, mobs of white citizens effectively destroyed the advances which had been made. Throughout the south, notably in cities such as Wilmington, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla., entire neighborhoods of black citizens were destroyed, hundreds of black people killed and buried in mass graves, and a new order of “white only” became the law of the south. Police in the south were assigned to enforce the segregated order, to keep blacks in their place. The role police had in blocking black citizens from voting is long remembered.

Police were not the only instigators and enforcers of white supremacy. The institutions of society, both public and private, worked to disadvantage and limit the success of black citizens. Public schools, public health systems, banks and other financial institutions, public transportation, housing zoning, recreational venues, business permitting and professional licensing, and virtually every institution followed the path to maintain racial inequality. Some of those systems are still in place.

America has a poor legacy of living up to our founding documents and ideals. We have not lived up to statements such as “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which states in part,

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Most Americans understand the need for radical change. America’s original sin, slavery, was the immediate catalysis for much of the institutional racism that has characterized the American experience. We have never adequately addressed, much less corrected, that sin. Each part of our structured society needs a new examination of how and to what extent each institution has facilitated or hindered the struggle for racial justice. 

The highly visible role America’s police have had in protecting our racial hierarchy, does not tell the full story of our current predicament, but their presence in volatile situations places a spotlight on them. The slow and often grudging integration of America in the second half of the 20th century, along with public unrest and protests, resulted in a militarized police presence. The black friends I have been blessed to have tell of personal police harassment, aggressive stop-and-frisk techniques, and other forms of life and death threats to themselves and their communities. One of them is the Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby, pastor and college president, who was stopped by Louisville police recently as he and his wife were driving home from church. The officer gave no reason for stopping them other than to ask: “What are y’all getting’ into tonight?” (see his story here.)

The most dramatic cause of the discontent with police is the killings of people of color by police officers. The rate of people killed by the police in the United States in 2019 was 46.6 killings per ten million residents. The source of this information, Mapping Police Violence, reported America’s rank of police killings of citizens between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (47.8) and Iraq (45.1), two of the most violent countries in the world. By contrast, citizens in other, more settled and peaceful countries, were found to be much less likely to be killed by the police. Some of their rates per ten million in 2019 were Japan (0.2), The Netherlands (2.3), United Kingdom (0.5), Norway (1.9), Germany (1.3).

It is understandable that many voices call for efforts to “shut it down, start over, do it right.” For many white Americans recent events have shattered the blindness they have had to carefully bottled realities which characterize much of America. Black Lives Matter has resonated at last with a large swath of white Americans in ways that help them understand the discontent many black citizens have with American life, especially American policing.

So, do we re-hab the current institutions, including the police, or raze the structure and build something new? I understand how difficult it is to change an institution or bureaucracy, and I am attracted to the appeal of “tear it down, start over, do it right”, but while we continue to work toward the creation of a new and better police system I recommend the following minimum changes we should work for immediately:

    1. Abolish the “limited immunity” of police. Police officers have operated in America with impunity due to the phrasing in a 1985 Supreme Court decision, Tennessee v. Garner, in which a 14-year-old black boy was shot in the back while running away from Memphis police. While ending the widespread practice of police shooting to kill “fleeing felons,” the decision also gave permission for police to shoot to kill if they were in fear of their personal safety. Police shootings have increased dramatically, followed by the lack of official corrective action either through legal or administrative mechanisms.
    1. Revise completely the police training system. Police training in America is too short, too focused on techniques of force, only superficially addresses de-escalating volatile encounters, and is often negated by “training officers” in the field. A person can become a police officer in less time than a person can become a licensed cosmetologist. In Germany two and a half to four years basic training is required.
    1. Empower community choice in the employment of police officers. Training is not the end-all be-all. The wrong person trained, is still the wrong person. The selection of people we empower with the awesome responsibility of policing must be dramatically improved. Much more community involvement is needed. Prospective police officers who are too eager to impose their authority, prone to confrontation, inclined to exercise their authority to impose racial and other biases must be eliminated from the job. Background investigations and interviews by neutral, non-police professionals should be the norm.
    1. Re-direct police budgets to programs to help communities and citizens. Part of the movement to “abolish” or “defund” the police is really focused on re-directing public money to alleviate the conditions which lead to violent encounters. Behaviors involving mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, and a great deal of other matters should not be part of the police responsibilities.
  1. De-militarize all police agencies. Restrictions must be strengthened regarding police use of deadly weapons, combat mentality, choke holds, and other techniques of force and control. The infusion of grenade launchers, tanks, military arms, and other surplus war material must be undone and prohibited.

— Patrick Anderson is the editor of Christian Ethics Today. In addition to an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he earned a PhD in criminology from Florida State University. He has written criminal justice textbooks and scholarly articles, trained police, provided expert witnessing and consulting services in numerous federal court cases dealing with the deaths of people in police custody, and is professor emeritus of criminology at Florida Southern College.

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