by J. Eric Skidmore
Last year 117 American law enforcement officers died in the line of duty. On the evening of May 13, 2015, gathered around the Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C., I participated in honoring those officers at the 27th Annual Candlelight Vigil. At the end of the evening there were a total of 20,538 names on the Memorial Wall (1791-2014). To my right was a 78-year-old mother whose son was murdered on a traffic stop along Interstate 95. To my left was the 40-year-old wife of an officer murdered while trying to apprehend a bank robber. The cost for these women was the lives of those they loved — men who, as Abraham Lincoln said, gave their last full measure of devotion.
When officers enter law enforcement they know, even before their first interview with a recruiter, that the job is dangerous and that they may be killed simply performing their duties. It is very common for the entrance lobby of a law enforcement agency to become memorials to the officers that once worked there. Yet, there is much more to the job than worrying if you will make it home at the end of a shift.
In a recent training in Georgia, a seasoned officer raised this question to his class: “Would you still do the job if you knew about all the stuff they didn’t tell you about when you started?” What did he mean? I surmise he was getting at the many intangibles that are difficult to discern when starting out as a rookie. A state trooper in South Carolina with no previous training starts at $31,154. When I moved from traditional full-time parish ministry to full-time chaplaincy with the South Carolina State Police, I was fascinated by the number of state and local officers who had second jobs. It seemed like it was almost everyone. Knowing the starting salary of troopers gives me the same feeling I have when I think about how much teachers are paid for what they are asked to do. The salary is not enough for the teachers and it’s not enough for the police officers. Officers have second jobs because they want the same things everyone wants. They want to live in a nice home in safe neighborhood in a good school district with nice neighbors. They want their children to have the same benefits their friends give to their children: summer camp, holiday gifts, a vacation each year, the hope of going to college one day.
The Georgia officer was also referring to the stress of being a law enforcement officer. No one told him about the personal impact of working a death investigation where a scorned lover killed his ex-girlfriend, her mother and father and her 10 and 12-year-old nephews, shooting them at close range with a high-caliber pistol. No one told the divers who recovered Susan Smith’s murdered children that they would need to return to the same waters 12 months later and recover the bodies of a mother and father and three children who died when their SUV rolled into the same lake at the same boat ramp. After this assignment, one officer reported that he went home and laid down in bed with his own child and held his baby close as he wept over the death of innocents. No one tells new recruits that they may have trouble sleeping after bad calls. No one tells them that drinking alcohol in order to go to sleep or to dull the pain they bring home from work is always a bad idea. No one tells them that their post-traumatic stress reactions may make it difficult to drive past the location of particularly horrific wreck. No one tells them that an officer-involved shooting on third shift may make it hard to work at night. No one tells them that law enforcement officers have one of the highest divorce rates in comparison with other professional groups. No one tells them that the job can change them over time — impacting relationships with those they love, impacting physical heath, impacting mental health, even impacting spiritual life.
The seasoned officer asked the hypothetical question to a room of seasoned officers. Everyone in the room knew of things that they experienced on the job that no recruiter told them about. Yet, they continue the mission. Many of the men and women with whom I work are deeply religious and connect their work to their faith. They feel called to pursue the vocation of peacemaker. They believe the work they do is literally the work of the Lord. One of the most popular texts among officers is Romans 3:1-3: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval.” Investigators going through a practical homicide investigation training course are taught the mantra of retired New York Police Department Lt. Commander Vernon J. Geberth: “Remember, we work for God.”
Several years ago, standing in the street of Atlantic Beach, South Carolina, I had a conversation with an officer. He was providing security at a large motorcycle festival held each Memorial Day weekend along the South Carolina Grand Strand beaches. He asked if I was familiar with TED talks. (NPR listeners will be familiar with the Ted Radio Hour hosted by Guy Raz.) He told me it was one of the most progressive forums for public discourse he had encountered. This officer works on a fugitive task force and reminds me of a contemporary warrior-poet. As I think about future interactions between law enforcement officers and the citizens of our country, I wonder about the public discourse. What would a TED talk contain if it lifted up the best ideas about policing in the 21st century. Certainly it would point out the errors of the past. Yet, what would it suggest for the future? New forms of community relations? New methods of training for police officers? Increased pay for police officers (and teachers)? In a recent TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson quoted Abraham Lincoln’s words to Congress on December 1, 1862. I think it fits well with our current struggle.
“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
On April 4, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Scott was shot and killed following a confrontation with a police officer. As is common in the state, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agents were summoned to the scene to investigate. Chief Eddie Driggers was quoted in the local media: “This is part of the job that no one likes and wishes would never happen. This type of situation is unfortunate and difficult for everyone. We are confident that SLED will conduct a complete and thorough investigation into the incident and provide their findings to all concerned.” Shortly after the shooting, before the investigation was complete, video footage was released and it became clear to those not involved in the investigation that Scott was shot in the back as he ran away from the officer. A national media outlet reported: “We never would have known the truth without the video footage provided by this citizen.”
I recall a conversation I had with an officer within days of the video release and this statement by the national media outlet. We agreed it was a tragic characterization of the field of law enforcement. It was as if the honesty, integrity and professional skills of the investigators and crime scene personnel and their final report to the solicitor were of no consequence. The reporter was saying the public could count on the facts being covered up.
However, if agents working the crime scene detected a problem and reported it according to the appropriate chain of command, it would be handed over to the solicitor and he or she would make a decision about the next step in the criminal justice system. In the same way the field of journalism would reject the methods of an unethical journalist, law enforcement rejects the practices of those officers who break the law.
Are there unethical cops? Absolutely, in the same way there are unethical teachers and unethical preachers. Yet, when a high school teacher acts improperly toward a student or a preacher runs off with the Sunday offering, we don’t immediately draw the conclusion that all teachers cannot be trusted with our children nor that all preachers will defraud their congregations. From my perspective, police officers are normal human beings doing the best they can to fulfill their sworn oath to protect and serve.
WHAT CAN THE CHURCH DO?
I was in Washington, D.C. many years ago attending a conference hosted by the Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby spoke to the conference participants about people in poverty. I remember feeling particularly challenged when he asked, “Do you really know any poor people — I mean really know them?” He said that if their answer was no, they should make it a point to get to know the poor in the same way you they know their your closest neighbor. I challenge the reader with the same question: Do you really know any police officers? Do you know them in the same way you know your best friends at church or at the office? If the answer is no, find a way to get to know an officer. It will not be easy. Cops can be standoffish, clannish, suspicious of outsiders. But consider this: Host a Law Enforcement Appreciation Sunday. Invite federal, state and local officers to join you for worship and celebrate the vocation of law enforcement and their work for justice, compassion and truth. Let the officers in your community know that you appreciate their service and their sacrifice for the sake of public safety in your community.
J. ERIC SKIDMORE is a PC(USA) chaplain for the state police in South Carolina. He is married to Ellen Fowler Skidmore, pastor of the Forest Lake Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. The Skidmores were ordained in Trinity Presbytery in 1990 and have remained in South Carolina throughout their ministries.