I spent a large portion of my 20s serving as a police officer. I began my career as a bright-eyed, enthusiastic rookie, ready to make my community a better place to live. But as the years rolled by and I did what was necessary to keep my fellow officers and myself alive, observing human depravity at unimaginable levels, I changed. Candidly, when I look at pictures of myself from those early days, I sometimes feel bitter toward my own naivety.
That’s the reality of being a police officer. Though the coming of Christ has inaugurated the establishment of God’s kingdom, we still live in the “already but not yet,” a broken world where the depravity of sin exists (Mark 7:21-23). Police officers take on the responsibility to be the line that stands against disorder—a role that Paul tells us is the reason why God grants authority to government (Rom. 13). But as officers take on that responsibility, it is not without cost.
And despite the near-daily headlines of reported police brutality and corruption, I truly believe that most of the men and women in American law enforcement are doing their best to serve their communities. But as skepticism and hostility against law enforcement grow, we often forget that a person exists behind every uniform. Not just a person who is un-immune to the effects of sin but a person who bears the imago dei, the image of God. All people, being image bearers of God, deserve respect and compassion, which is why the Bible reproofs murder and also hatred (Ex. 20:13; 1 John 3:15). To have anger toward another person shows contempt for God, in whose likeness that person is made. My hope is that we bear this in mind as we consider how the job of keeping the peace can wear on those who take it on.
Wounds That Go Deeper Than Bullets
Law enforcement is an incredibly rewarding job, but it can also be caustic. Specific traumatic events mark and change people; however, police are constantly confronted with these kinds of events. And on top of this, they must do the job of maintaining peace and upholding the law while sitting under the skeptical public eye that stands ready to pounce on any imperfection.
In a single shift, an officer can respond to a horrific traffic accident, take a report for an incredibly upsetting sexual assault, and be the first person to tell a wife that she is now a widow. An officer may respond to a domestic disturbance involving brutal abuse, while just moments before fighting for their own life with a suspect intending to do them harm. They are first-hand witnesses to death, to the abused, to mistreated children, to senseless and selfish acts, and to the extreme evil that people can do to one another.
Police officers are first responders to human suffering and, in turn, they often take on that suffering, not unlike what the apostle Paul teaches the Church to do in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 6:1-3). Officers gladly take on the suffering of others, mirroring Christ in some ways. It is the very reason that most people join the profession.
The constant wear of the job can take its toll, though, because what officers see in the course of their duties can never be unseen. Over time, being frequent witnesses to tragedy, human depravity and constant criticism can grow a distrust of people. Officers may lose some of their ability to have that deep, in-your-gut, heartfelt sympathy for another person. And any hurt or frustration is suppressed so that the officer can wake up the next day for their shift and carry on. The things that would bring most people to tears are met with callousness. All there is, is a sort of muted emotional response. Often the veneer of being “OK” covers up intense feelings of bitterness, and, in some cases, a perpetual resistance against the impulse to self-destruct. What looks like a happy smile on the outside is hiding the missing, internal joy.
A saying often quoted in the law enforcement community is, “What keeps a cop alive is not trusting anyone. What makes a cop a good investigator is not believing anyone.” This isn’t so much a rule as it is what a cop becomes in the course of doing the job. Cops anticipate betrayal because they often receive it. They anticipate lies because they often hear them.
In personal relationships, police officers must first battle through what they deem to be untrustworthy in a person before they can determine what they do trust. For some cops, it is natural to see the worst in a person before they see the good. Friends aren’t made easily this way and they certainly aren’t kept this way, either.
Police spouses truly understand why their officers are the way they are, and yet they may feel helpless as they see their husband or wife becoming more callous. They may say, “He’s just a little rough around the edges,” but behind that remark is a deep concern that their spouse is becoming someone very different from whom they fell in love with.
Seeing Through Gospel Lenses
As Christ followers, we have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation: In Christ, God draws back in and restores a broken people to Himself (2 Cor. 5). We more than any other people know how incredibly broken mankind is—the Church itself is full of broken people. However we—the redeemed—also sound the call for man to be restored to God and to each other.
As headlines continue to drive police controversy, we shouldn’t shy away from conversations about the state of our criminal justice system. But we should also not continue to drive the line that divides people from one another. This is exactly what sin did when it was introduced, separating us not only from God but also from each other. Being agents of reconciliation is about the reversal of that and using godly wisdom to make peace and sow a harvest of righteousness (Jas. 3:15-18). Peace can be created at a time when everyone is exclaiming “us versus them.”
As we read or hear the news about tragedies of any kind involving police, we must rightfully place the imago dei on all involved and look upon every person with compassion. Compassion for the one we believe is the victim. Compassion for the one we believe to be at fault. And when we do, we begin to understand the weight that many police officers carry. We do not look upon the sin, hurt or brokenness of others with judgment. We look upon them as God does—with mercy.