Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice


Good Death: A Human Right

It is November now, the month in which trees let go of their leaves and appear to die, a month that begins with the remembrance of the dead that Christians call All Saints Day and ends with Thanksgiving tables that sometimes have empty chairs. So I am fixin to blog about what else? Death – specifically good death – not painless death, not griefless death, not easy death but good death and, yes, good death is political and it is about social justice and it does call for faith.

In the past few years I had the profound privilege of walking with both of my parents as they journeyed from this life to the next. They both suffered greatly on the way but, at the end, they both died well. These were good deaths.

My mother went first. We didn’t expect it. Dad was in much worse health and she was his caregiver but, as often happens, the caregiver is the first to tire out. After ongoing complications following heart surgery the day came when Mom just said “enough.” She chose to refuse all medical treatment and, as she put it “just close my eyes and go be with God.” I was with her in her hospital room during her last night of consciousness. Unlike the weeks before when she was so miserable, this last night was neither sad nor difficult for either one of us. Like my dad, mom was a world traveler so we talked about what was about to happen as one more trip, more marvelous than anything that came before, going all the way from earth to heaven where she would finally see God face to face. She asked “Are you happy for me?” I told her yes, yes I was happy that she would soon see God. Then she told me something I will always treasure in my heart “You will see God too some day because you are a very good person.” Not long afterwards she slipped into a coma. By the next night her journey was complete. It was a good death.

My father, who suffered from dementia, was just not ready to go on living without his partner of sixty years. He really couldn’t even process it and sadly sunk into a world of frightening delusions full of loneliness and the deep pain of loss. It was a horrible time for me and for my brothers, but it was not without love. There were moments of grace and connection, even as the disease took over and destroyed what was once a brilliant mind. When death came to dad fourteen months after mom’s passing, it came as a mercy. I even remember it as a kind of joy. You see dad was a musician, an accomplished tenor. Even after his mental faculties had eroded, he could still connect in song, particularly when it came to songs he once had sung. Years earlier, when he was still singing in his church choir, he told me that he wanted the song “And The Father Will Dance” by Mark Hayes to be played at his funeral. I asked him why and he told me “All my life I have struggled with a judging and punishing God. I need to know an affirming God, one who loves me without conditions, one who will dance when He sees me.” So I got the sheet music and learned the song – just in case. On the day dad died, we all waited around his bed for hours as he lay there unresponsive not opening his eyes, not squeezing anyone’s hand until the very end. All day I envisioned God dancing and prayed that soon dad would see that image. When his legs began to mottle, indicating that transition was happening, I sang a piece of the song. Dad squeezed my hand when he heard it, opened his eyes, and let go. Dad saw God dance just for him. It was a good death.

Seeing my parents have good deaths not only gave me a sense of peace about my relationship with them and with God, it also helped to heal me from some of the trauma I felt from having experienced so much violent, or not so good, death during my police years. But I also realized all over again how death, like life, is political. Not everyone has the chance to die a good death. Impoverished people, people of color, mentally ill people, incarcerated or otherwise socially marginalized people are all more likely than others to die violently or die needlessly before their time or to die alone with no one there to love them and hold their hand as they cross over.

Good death is often more a matter of social privilege, something that happens to people who are able to live a long life and not be shot down on the streets, who have access to the best medical care when they are sick and don’t get neglected, and who have the kind of social support that ensures someone will be there in the end. Good death is a privilege, but it needs to be a right, the right to die with dignity, surrounded by love, the right to be buried or cremated with dignity, the right to be remembered, the right to be mourned, the right to have a name, the right to have mattered to someone as a human being, the right to go in peace, the right to go in justice.

That’s what I want my life to be about, working to create a world where all people have the chance to live good lives and die good deaths.

Why Police Don’t Shoot People in the Legs

First let me say, once again, that I am very supportive of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and nationwide against police brutality and racism. I want it to end too and I am very thankful it is happening and very prayerful that this movement will lead us toward a more just way of being a nation. But, in order for that to happen, I also think it is important that these protests lead to concrete ACTION plans that stand a chance of going somewhere and that is going to take a lot of education. Knowing something about the history and roots of systemic racism is obviously important. But it is also important to know something about the nuts and bolts of policing. That is where I think I might be able to help and why I am blogging about it, trying to answer questions that activists ask me.
Yesterday, I tried to answer the question “Why don’t ‘good cops’ turn ‘bad cops’ in.” Today I am going to try to answer another question that keeps coming up, “Why don’t police shoot people in the legs?” Here is why:
1. It is virtually impossible to do. Police receive firearms training that is much more extensive than that most civilian gun owners receive. In addition, they are required to demonstrate proficiency with firearms at least once a year at the firing range. As a result, most cops can hit a paper target with much greater accuracy than most. Many probably could deliberately hit something smaller than a human chest, like a human leg – at the range that is. But the range isn’t the streets. Firing at a paper target, under optimal lighting conditions, where the target doesn’t move and no one is shooting back at you is way different than shooting a person who is moving when you feel your life is threatened. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers on this. (Firearms instructors may correct me here.) but I think the average “hit ratio” in a street gun battle is about one in ten for police and one in twenty for civilians. That means, on the average, if a cop fires ten rounds, only one is likely to hit the suspect anywhere on the body. That is why police are trained to aim for “center mass” or the chest and not even try to aim for a leg or other smaller target.
2. There is no such thing as “shoot to kill” versus “shoot to injure.” That only happens on TV. In real life, there is only shoot to stop.
3. Shooting is deadly physical force. Period. Police are not legally justified in using a gun unless they are in a situation where deadly physical force is justified, such as they have good reason to believe that there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to them or someone else and there is no other way of stopping the threat than to shoot. Asking them to use guns as “less than lethal” weapons – or any other way – is asking for more trouble, not less.

So what DOES make sense? In my opinion, it makes sense to demand that police stay within the current legal and department guidelines for the use of deadly physical force, that police-involved shooting investigations be thorough and transparent, that black and brown suspects be treated the same way white suspects are treated, that police receive more and better training in all areas including firearms training and not just the paper target kind, but also the “shoot – don’t shoot” kind, such as what is available via the FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) where they have to make simulated judgment calls about when to shoot and when to hold their fire, where the race of the suspect can be controlled for and things like a tendency to shoot black people more than white people can come to light and corrected.

Those kind of reforms stand a chance of actually being implemented and, more importantly, actually saving lives.

Saying “they should shoot people in the legs” while totally understandable, isn’t.

Why “Good Cops” Don’t Turn in the “Bad” Ones

In community – police dialogues I am often asked why it is that the many “good cops” – meaning those who respect the public, particularly communities of color and don’t use excessive force and don’t engage in brutality – don’t “turn in the bad ones” meaning those who do. I am told that the fact that they don’t is a major reason why people don’t trust police.
OK, fair enough. I can see that point. When “good cops” don’t turn in “bad cops” it makes it look like all cops are bad. In many, if not most, lines of work people do turn in colleagues who don’t live up to professional standards. It is a matter of pride and integrity. But it rarely works that way in policing. Here are some reasons why:
1. Unlike other professions, with the possible exception of that of a professional soldier, police literally hold each other’s lives in their hands. It is very hard to “turn in” someone for questionable behavior if they may be the ones to either rush to your aid if you call a 10-13 (officer needs assistance, as in a life threatening situation) or take their time getting there.
2. Police often find themselves in ambiguous situations where things are not necessarily as they seem. They don’t always have time to weigh all the facts before acting. It is a difficult job and not all of it is pretty. What may look, on the surface, to be an obvious act of brutality may turn out not to be. Therefore, the phrases “don’t Monday morning quarterback” and “you weren’t there so you can’t judge” are pretty common in police circles.
3. Police feel like nobody understands them but their own. I have to say, that is legitimate. Before I was a police officer, I was a major critic of police. Growing up in the Vietnam era, I was part of a number of anti-war protests. I always had an opinion about how the cops (actually, in those days I called them “fucking pigs”) did their jobs. I felt like I could do better. So I tried. In the process I discovered that, while some of my criticisms were very valid, others were not. You can’t find that out from reading books (or blogs.) You have to have worn the uniform to get it. Obviously, the “us and them” thing is not healthy. I personally try to reject it, particularly since so much of my life has been, and continues to be, in non-police contexts. But there are aspects of the work that do need to be experienced to be believed and the idea that “civilians don’t get it” has some basis in fact.
4. The price for being a “rat” is enormous. It’s not like other jobs where you may even be rewarded for reporting a substandard colleague. In policing, a “rat” is a pariah for the rest of his or her career, subjected to ongoing hatred and harassment. Reporting a “bad cop” means the end of ones career, and often more than that. There have been a few who did it anyway and paid the price, but not many and for good reason.
5. Finally, unlike many other professions, police departments are very hierarchical. As the saying goes, “shit rolls down hill.” Lower ranking officers are often sacrificed to protect the reputation of higher ranking officers. Therefore, I think putting the onus on the rank and file to “turn in the bad cops” as opposed to starting at the top where policy and procedure is formulated, is not only unrealistic, but also unfair.
So what can be done? For starters, let’s look at what is working. Even though cops rarely turn each other in, they do help each other. There were times in my career, particularly as a rookie, where I confess my own frustration level got too high and I lost my temper and was about to go overboard in terms of the force I used. Thank God, when that happened, there were older and wiser and more mature cops around to take me aside and calm me down and show me a better way of doing things. The public doesn’t see that, but it is also real and needs to be encouraged, perhaps by making sure such older and wiser role models stick around instead of being put out to pasture prematurely by a job that does not value them or their expertise and would rather have younger, lower paid, and “more aggressive” cops in the ranks.
It also might help to stop evaluating cops solely on the numbers of stop question frisk reports, summonses, and arrests as has increasingly been the case in recent years, and be more intentional about tracking and rewarding positive community relations as equally important. One way of doing that might be to institute a kind of “customer satisfaction” survey given out randomly to people who call 911 and request service. Let that be part of COMPSTAT too and I don’t mean as just a side issue. Institute training that emphasizes cultural sensitivity and police ethics and, more importantly, back it up from the top down and not dismiss it as “touchy feely bullshit” (as is often done) but as something that can literally save lives. Include more and better training in the appropriate use of force. Do a better job of recruiting, hiring and retaining “minority” officers. The list goes on but my point is, there are ways of making it both possible and worthwhile to be the kind of “good cop” so many people need while, at the same time, discouraging “bad cop” behaviors.
But it has to be systemic and it has to start at the top, beginning by “turning in” bad attitudes, bad policies, and bad procedures that have hurt our city for far too long and trying a new approach that will ensure both safety, and respect for ALL our citizens.

It Could Have Been Me: Further Reflections on the Death of Eric Garner

Yesterday we received the news that the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office has completed its report and finds that Eric Garner died as a result of a combination of pressure on his the neck and chest, along with his positioning on the ground while being restrained by police during the July 17 stop on Staten Island. Acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity, and hypertensive cardiovascular disease were cited as contributing factors. In other words, contrary to what I and many others had hoped, it was a homicide. Whether the officers intended for it to happen or not, their actions caused a man’s death.
So where do we go now?
For some, demanding that “killer cops pay the price” is the answer. For others, demanding an end to the “war on cops” is the answer. These two trenches grow deeper every day, as does the warfare between them and once again, here I am, right in the middle still talking about dialogue.
I could say more about policy and procedure I guess, but a good friend of mine has told me that really doesn’t speak to people who are hurting. So maybe it is better if I just share from my heart how I am feeling and what hurts me and maybe we can take it from there.
What hurts me is realizing that it could have been me who killed Eric Garner. See, I used to arrest people by doing exactly what those cops did because that is how I was taught to do it, head lock, take down, rear cuff, don’t stop until those cuffs are on, and yes, pile on top of the suspect. Thank God, I was able to retire without ever seriously injuring, let alone killing, anyone. But I don’t kid myself that the reason why is because I was better than other cops. I was not better. I was just luckier.
The possibility of getting killed is a very real part of police work. So is the possibility of killing someone else, either justifiably or by accident.
Training may have changed since my days as a cop, but the basic fear that someday things will go horribly wrong, and someone will die has not. Instances like this one stir that up for me and, I think, for other current and former cops as well.
To be sure, there have been plenty of instances of obvious police brutality where I did not feel this “It could have been me” thing because officers were so obviously over the line. When that happens, I feel like my responsibility is clear. I must speak out against them and their actions. But this time is different. Like I said, it could have been me.
So I guess the best thing I can say at this point is that I am so very sorry Eric Garner died. He did not deserve to have that happen to him. My heart goes out to his family and they are in my prayers every day. But the cops are in my prayers too.
I pray they will all be treated fairly. If they did wrong, they must answer for it. But if not, I pray some measure of grace and compassion will be extended to them knowing that they are faced with a very difficult job.
Either way, a man is dead and other men’s lives will never be the same and it could have been me.
Shall we talk about that?

The Death of Eric Garner: Brutality or Tragedy?

On July 19, 2014 on a street corner of Staten Island an African-American man named Eric Garner died while being arrested by police for selling “loosies” or individual, untaxed cigarettes. Some say this death was the result of an illegal choke hold, captured on a now well known cell phone video. Once again, an unarmed black man has died in police custody. Once again, the dividing wall of enmity between the police and communities of color is re- fortified with mortar made of tears, anger, outrage, and mutual distrust. As a person of faith committed to police reform as well as a retired NYPD Captain, I feel obliged to speak up about this.
On the one hand, I really want to see change. The legacy of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, of unconstitutional, quota-based, stop question and frisk tactics, and racial profiling must end. We need much more community-based policing, increased cultural sensitivity, and just plain R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the people the police are supposed to protect and serve. I can only imagine the pain Eric Garner’s family and loved ones are going through and the anger they must feel. I am sure it seems like part of the long standing assault on the lives of black men in which police brutality is often at the center.
However, in this case, I honestly don’t think that is what happened. Watching this tape, I see a number of tactical errors, ways in which the job might have been done better, but I don’t see brutality. I am not alone in that thinking. Just about every police officer I talk to – active and retired, of all races, across the political spectrum – is saying the same thing. What the tape shows is not a choke hold. It is a head lock. When a person resists arrest, as Garner was doing, we are taught to take them face down to the ground as quickly as possible in order to handcuff them. A head lock is one way that is done. A head lock looks like a choke hold because the officer’s arms are around the suspect’s neck, but it differs from a choke hold because there is no pressure to the wind pipe or the neck. We still await the final medical examiner’s report but preliminary findings indicate that there was no injury to the neck and a heart attack, not asphyxiation, was the cause of death.
Let’s not forget, we are talking about a man with many health problems. It is quite possible that the stress of the arrest was more than his body could take. But that doesn’t mean the police, who had no way of knowing his medical history, either intentionally or recklessly killed him.
Like everyone, I want a complete and thorough investigation into the cause of this tragedy. Like anyone, I can be wrong. This is just an opinion on a blog. But it is an informed opinion. I would ask activists to at least consider it.
What we need is radical, systemic change not the scapegoating of a few police officers who may well have done no wrong.

Hobby Lobby Decision part 2 – Theological and Personal Reflections

Come to think of it, my previous blog post on the subject of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case left out my own personal and theological reflections on the subject of birth control and abortion. So, in the interest of fuller disclosure (What else do we do on the internet but make sure ALL our business is out there?) let me share my thoughts.

I am actually very sympathetic to the view expressed by the owners of Hobby Lobby that life begins at the moment of conception, meaning the moment sperm and egg unite. I personally share that belief. I take that position because I believe that human life is profoundly sacred and deserves to be liberally defined.  

Some would say the Bible clearly supports the belief that unborn life is sacred. Those who hold this view have plenty of scriptures to choose from in which God expresses God’s love for humanity, including knowledge of and care for us while we are still in the womb. However, there are also quite a few troubling passages that seem to point in the opposite direction toward a devaluing of both female AND unborn life.

For example, the only time abortion itself is – arguably – mentioned is in Numbers 5 which describes a practice in which a wife suspected of adultery is made to swallow a “water that brings the curse” which ” shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. “(Num 5:27 NRS) In other words, at least in this story, unborn life is not so sacred when it comes to controlling  women.

The Bible is also not at all univocal in its defense of all human life as equally valuable. For example, Leviticus 17 describes the lives of babies and children as less valuable than the lives of older people and the lives of women as less valuable than the lives of men. We read there that, when it comes to putting a monetary value on human life ” the equivalent for a male shall be: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel. If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female.(Lev 27:3-5 NRS) Again, the devaluation of women goes hand in hand with the devaluation of children, both born and unborn.

In other words, this business of devaluing the lives of children, both born and unborn, tends to go hand in hand with devaluing the lives of women as well.

That is why I, as a Christian and as a feminist, espousing the values of nonviolence and equality of all persons, cannot take abortion lightly. In all fairness, I doubt many women Christian or otherwise do.

My own personal concern that I not destroy unborn life in my own body led me, during my own childbearing years, to refuse to use those methods of birth control that the owners of Hobby Lobby object to. If, as I reasoned, I believe life begins at conception, then the IUD and forms of the pill that interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg were not OK with me. For me, this was not a morally acceptable choice. When I tried to explain this to my gynecologist, she refused to respect my decision. So I fired her and found another doctor.

I insisted on my right to act in accordance with my own religious convictions. So, in that sense, I am sympathetic with the owners of Hobby Lobby and others in the “pro-life” movement. BUT, and this is a big but, I cannot go along with the idea that it is OK to force these views on others. We simply cannot champion the rights of the unborn by disrespecting the moral agency of women.

Religious freedom means having the right to form and act upon our own religious convictions. It does not include the right to impose those convictions on others.






Hobby lobby decision: Bad News All Around

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a “family owned Christian” company named Hobby Lobby has the right to refuse to provide health insurance coverage to its employees that would include certain both abortion and some forms of birth control for women because to do so would supposedly interfere with the owner/employer’s religious freedom.
This decision is being hailed as both a “pro-life” victory and a victory for religious freedom. I say it is neither.
It is not a “pro-life” victory because nothing is happening in the lives of women as a result of this decision that will make abortions less likely. There are, to date, only two things that have been proven to reduce abortion – access to birth control and sex education, neither of which Hobby Lobby’s owners support and neither of which are promoted by this decision. So, while I can understand how some might see this as a victory for the unborn, I must beg to differ. Making life harder for women via coercive interference in their reproductive choices rarely has that effect. They simply seek these services elsewhere, in this case by utilizing federally supported health care.
This decision is not good news for religious freedom either, not by a very long shot. Religious freedom, as guaranteed by the first amendment of our Constitution, is based on the very good idea that the institutional power of government should not be used to favor one religion over another. So why is it OK for business owners to use their institutional power as employers to do exactly the same thing?
And then there’s the thing about the company itself being Christian. Really? Did it get baptized and everything? I mean come on. I know there is a lot of room for theological debate over what does and does not constitute a Christian but I thought we all at least agreed that you kind of have to be a human being first, right?
You also have to make a free choice.
We Christians, particularly us Baptists, used to respect that freedom to the point where we fought hard to make sure that there would be no state religion in America and every person would be free to worship (or not) as he or she pleased.
So now we have corporate religion instead?
Ruth Ginsberg was right. “The court has ventured into a minefield.” It is a sad day for freedom.

Christmas rant

Having been told today that it is “not Christ-like” (and actually worse, but I won’t get into that) to be talking about “race and politics” during this holiday season, let me say this to “whomever it may concern”  : I really don’t care if you say “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas” and I am not at all impressed by your Defense of the Faith that consists of making sure everyone uses the Christian greeting in this “Christian” nation. I am more interested in who you think Jesus was. Is he the one who “just IS white” just like Santa, according to a certain “news” caster? Is he the “just IS white” Jesus who sort of goes along with the “just IS white” Santa to the point where you can hardly tell the two apart? Is he the one who came to save us from our purely individual so  called sins (most of which are sexual and committed by somebody else)  to make sure we too have been “washed white as Just is white snow?” Is he the one who gets offended when people talk about oppression or poverty or, white heaven forbid, racism because it’s “just not holy” to do that? Because, if so, you can have him. Let his birthday be celebrated by malls full of people buying crap for each other that they don’t even need. Let his birthday be the time when people need to be extra careful of their belongings because theft goes up at this time. Let this be a time when so much expectations are heaped on to families and friends and lovers to have picture perfect relationships instead of letting people be who they are  that depression, suicide and violence all increases. Let this be a time when one might, at best, volunteer a few hours in a soup kitchen to experience the “real meaning” of Christmas before heading back to a materialistic orgy. I think “just IS white” Jesus would like that because it keeps us all distracted from dealing with a much more difficult reality, like the fact that Jesus of Nazareth just wasn’t white. He was a Jew, not a Roman. His people were oppressed. He was born in a manger, among poor people who were exiles in their own land. He was persecuted all his life for daring to preach “good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and freedom for the oppressed” and saying bad things like “the last shall be first” and for claiming that what we do to the least among you, you do to God. He didn’t end up in the mall. He ended up on a cross, executed as a revolutionary enemy of the state. That’s my Jesus. He “just is” black and brown and queer and poor and, yes, sometimes female and all sorts of other things that get him thrown out of lots of “nice” places and he doesn’t give a shit if you say “Merry Christmas” or not and I love him and I am glad he was born into this, yes POLITICAL world because it gives a whole lot of us a whole lot of hope.