Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

How Culture Convinced America’s Police To Become So Deadly

I’m a creature of habit, so my daily routine is the same most days: I get up and drink my coffee while surfing through the daily news stories. What is also true, in a far more tragic sense, is that among those daily news stories it has become rather routine to see more and more stories of police shooting unarmed people.

The violent policing of America is a cultural shift we cannot ignore. Like the hyperbolic frog in the kettle who didn’t pay attention to the fact the water was getting increasingly hot, far too much of American culture is either oblivious or accepting of the fact that our community police are growing more and more violent.

Whether it is shooting a medical professional sitting in the road with a patient who wandered out of the facility, shooting a young man who was deaf and trying to communicate to the p0lice using sign language, or people getting shot for unbuckling their seatbelt, it has come time for us to accept a difficult fact about our culture: police in America have a policy of shooting first, and asking questions later.

Instead of a profession where lethal violence is a last resort and used on only the most dangerous criminals, we have allowed those we entrust to protect and serve us to become modern executioners who are willing to execute citizens for the slightest perceived threat. When they decide to use this power to execute a citizen, some in culture raise objections, but many rush into defend and justify the behavior. Chief of which is the system itself, which from a practical standpoint, offers no accountability for these life and death decisions.

How did we get here? Where do we go?

First, I think culture has instilled a fear in our nation’s police officers that is beyond the level warranted. We often treat our police officers as if they have the most dangerous job in America, when it’s not actually true. In fact, when you list out the most dangerous jobs in nation, being a police officer isn’t anywhere near the top. A statistical analysis by TIME a few years ago shows that it’s actually ranked 15th, right behind being a supervisor at a landscaping company, and behind professions like garbage collectors and even taxi drivers:

Screenshot 2016-08-23 09.21.20

When we convince people they have the most dangerous job in the world, the natural instinct is a need to mitigate that fear. To do so, we have taught our police officers that they are justified in executing a citizen whenever they “feel” threatened or in danger. Since we have filled our police officers with fear instead of encouraging bravery, many of them bring this fear into encounters with citizens. Thus, when they see a citizen reaching down to unbuckle their seat belt or reaching into the glove box for their registration card, they interpret these reasonable movements as being somehow life-threatening, and they instinctively shoot.

This idea that (a) you should be very afraid and (b) when you’re afraid and think someone might harm you, a reasonable first step is killing them, is what leads to our growing problem of police homicides.

Instead of encouraging our nation’s police officers to be brave and to be creative thinkers, we have taught them to be afraid and that the first go-to solution is to kill.

In this regard, we have somewhat misdiagnosed the problem and the cure: our problem isn’t so much with violent police officers, as it is a problem of culture.

Our culture has given us an endless supply of guns. Our culture has told us to be very afraid. Our culture has told us that when we have a “reasonable fear” of someone, it’s ethically justifiable to kill them.

Naturally, within such a cultural framework, one would expect gun-toting police officers to be quick to kill– and, it certainly seems these days they are.

To reverse this self-destructive cultural trend we must treat the problem on all levels, both with our police officers and with culture at large. We must remind our police officers that yes, their job is necessary and respectable, but that the danger level is statistically on par with people who mow lawns for a living. Thus, they need not be living in a constant state of panic, ready to shoot the slightest perceived threat to their own safety.

We must also begin teaching our police officers (and ourselves) that regardless of what the law says, it is not good, right, or even in the best interest of society to adopt a cultural position that encourages a shoot first and investigate the threat later mentality. Instead, we must re-teach ourselves that there is a long line of creative options before one skips straight to lethal violence. We must also demand that our nation’s police begin learning from other cultures who are successful at maintaining law and order, and who do so while very rarely ever using lethal violence. We must equip them with non-lethal options, and we must build a culture that demands they use these options long before they take a human life.

We cannot expect the police to change before we change– because the police are ultimately an extension of us. They represent what we, as a culture, believe and hold true.

Right now? It certainly seems that what we hold true as a culture is that we should be afraid, and that when we are afraid, it is ethically justifiable skip straight to lethal violence.

And that’s what needs to change– both with our police officers, and with us.

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Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

It's not the end of the world, but it's pretty #@&% close. Trump's America & Franklin Graham's Christianity must be resisted.

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12 Responses

  1. Dear Benjamin Corey:

    Eight days ago, Daniel Kevin Harris joined the dead.

    Being deaf, he didn’t respond to the siren after his traffic violation. Harris continued until arriving at his home with his three year old son. As Harris exited his vehicle, North Caroline state trooper Jermaine Saunders heroically shot him.

    Harris was one of six people killed by police on August 18, 2016.

    Since then at least 14 more have been killed.

    This failed post of Mr. Corey’s ought to receive replies in the hundreds. Instead it registers less than 30. What brave people we are! But I forget…

    Police troll the internet seeking and tracking the IPs of those who turn the spotlight on them. And when someone DOES blow the siren?

    The silence here is as deaf as was Daniel Kevin Harris.

  2. Dear Reader:

    It is necessary to call things by their proper names.

    As police apologias, corruption [a few bad apples], mental illness, race and police strategy narratives fail to account for a seismic shift in social relations which the state apparatus is no longer able to conceal.

    State power increases in proportion to the acuteness of social antagonisms. When ‘normal’ police/military resources and their political screens [parliaments, congresses, legislatures, etc.] no longer keep society in equilibrium, fascism has arrived.

    As the report of the Department of Justice on police abuse in Ferguson made clear, large swathes of police effectively act as paramilitary counterinsurgency and occupation forces. Mass unemployment, deepening poverty and diminishing educational opportunities are matched by violence and terror — daily reigning against millions of American workers and youth who face threats, intimidation, beatings and extrajudicial murder by police whose badges effectively instate them as judge, jury and executioner.

    It is no accident that such practices emerge at a time when the state and its allies seek desperately to offset economic decline in ever-broadening wars. Danger of a confrontation with Russia, China or both is rising rapidly. Such a policy could not be undertaken without broad repression of the US population.

    The level of police violence is staggering and far exceeds that in any other major industrialized country. Canada averages a dozen killings by police annually. In 2013 and 2014 together, Germany had eight. By contrast, police killed more people in Pasco Washington [pop. 68,000] in 2014 than were killed by police in Great Britain [pop. 64,000,000] in 2012, 2013 and 2014 combined. In Texas [2005 to the present], nearly 7,000 died in police custody [ ].

    Virtually no one is held accountable for any of this. After Cleveland police fired 137 rounds into a car at two unarmed persons, the sheer number of lethal wounds made it impossible to determine who fired the killing shot. End of story. In every case of lethal police brought before the Supreme Court in recent years, the DoJ has sided with the police.

    Police can be described as an occupying army waging an undeclared war on America’s poor and working class. Police increasingly see citizens as enemy targets who are subject to beating, arrest, electrical jolts or summary execution if they display anything other than complete servility and docility.

    Police criminality plus the added malfeasance of the administration, Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and other ‘law enforcement’ agencies belie assertions that our unending wars and interventions have to do with ‘human rights.’ Police violence has nothing to do with protecting people and everything to do with strengthening the apparatus of state repression.

    The 1033 program makes available to police departments across the nation billions of dollars of military grade weapons and equipment including but not limited to armored combat vehicles, mine resistant vehicles, shields, automatic assault rifles, sniper rifles, belt-fed machine guns, grenade launchers, helicopters and military aircraft. This is not copied from some conspiracy website; it is published at the Forbes site [ ].

    When millions see police strangle to death an unarmed Eric Garner and no indictment follows, when FBI Director James Comey equates critiques of police with solicitation of criminal behavior, when Sandra Bland critiques police and dies in circumstances that are anything but clear, when police forces are equipped with advanced, military equipment, when de facto martial law is imposed after the Boston Marathon with warrantless, house-to-house searches supported by squads of huddled police with assault rifles – these things do not indicate a few ‘bad apples, racism, faulty enforcement strategies or other superficial matters.

    These are grave warnings of deep, political danger.

    These things indicate the state’s estimation that it has NO answer to the multiple social crises before us. It shows that the state can no longer maintain social equilibrium with ‘normal’ police/military resources. That this is the moment in which fascism arrives is not my idea.

    It was the contribution of Leon Trotsky.

    What I would add is that the US is not a democratic republic with a few administrative and social problems based on common misunderstanding. The US is a fascistic state; it retains a few, threadbare, democratic rags to aid the political vaudeville which makes governance marginally easier by placating those who can’t quite yet call fascism by its proper name.

  3. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

    Dr. Corey, your analysis is right on as far as it went relative to the present state of our culture. I am a Vietnam Vet and understand first hand heightened vigilance when trapped in a combat zone. What I see today is the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, the war on choice and the war on the second amendment of the United States of America’s constitution are but a few of the life and death fights that we find ourselves all in at a state of heightened vigilance … most feeling trapped in a combat zone.

    “People of Color” fear for their lives when confronted by armed male police, no matter Black, Brown or White, founded on documented daily occurrences of fear based misunderstanding. Male police officers are scared to death when forced to confront “People of Color” in the pursuit of enforcing law and order. All people under the protection of the USA constitution, according to the most vocal NRA, have a right to keep, bear and use Arms in the defense of their perceived fears … “Police Officers” and “People of Color” equally alike.

    Justice for all requires a risk of tolerance to begin to empathetically connect through compassion for all. Never is there justice derived from a cultured mentality of shoot first and justify later. Justice is not a pursuit of a more perfect union of law and order. Striving for a more perfect peace and joy in all our lives cannot happen, at all, by legislation governing all enforced by fear of a firearm. Peace and joy for all can eventually be found only by the enforcement of the law of love. The only practical law is that which governs all children of Man through empathy and compassion for each and every one of us. This is not an order of our Lord but is a freedom of choice truth taught by my Teacher. I freely choose to share this tried and true lesson with all who will listen and seek a more perfect union, because I love them no more or less than each “Person of Color” and “Police Officer”. I choose to accept the risk of the cross for all children of Man, including our Lord as the reigning Son of Man, that though I might die on it we will live in joy and peace as little children of God today, now.

    A thought that comes to mind as I write to you I will pose to all who read this as a question: Do we know of any occurrence of a suspected bad shoot at the professional hands of a female police officer? If not, why not?

  4. Nicely said, Benjamin. Thank you! I worry about the many people with PTSD, Aspergers, attachment disorder, autism, neurological/psychological issues, racial/cultural differences that the police have not been trained to deal with. It is not ok to shoot them dead and ask questions later. The killing of the deaf, mute guy makes me very sad and angry. It must stop !!!!!!

  5. Ben, I’ve thanked you for writing things so often that it must bet tedious, but, THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!

    I’ve tried to explain this several times: We’ve exaggerated the threat to police officers to an extreme degree, and we’ve – through our entertainment and culture – told them that we expect them to react with violence to little provocation. We’ve also given them funds to militarize through anti-terrorism allocations that cash-strapped municipalities have jumped on to supposedly “modernize” with military-style equipment and training.

    The thing is, crime is declining, and has been declining for decades. It peaked in the mid-20th century, and has been going down as our population ages. We may not feel safer, but that’s due to our “it bleeds it leads” media and the many more sources of information that flood us with news about crimes that would have occurred in the past – but we never would have heard about them.

    With our declining crime-rate, this is an amazingly stupid time to spend money to militarize our police. Police officers themselves are being taught to fear the very people they serve. This fear makes officers overreact, and their actions make the people they interact with fear them, which taints those interactions. It’s a damn downward spiral of toxic fear.

    Because we can be made to fear, we accept this. I can’t decide if it’s deliberate or accidental, but fear is at the root. So, I have to ask, why are we so afraid?

  6. Dear Benjamin Corey:

    My understanding — extrajudicial killings by police up 7.9% last year over 2014.

    As for how we got here and where we go from here, that’s going to require facing stuff we are wont to avoid.

    Since people dig in their heels when offered answers they don’t care to hear, I offer but a few observations and allow others to draw their own conclusions.

    — In addition to fueling understandable anger and a desire for revenge, 9/11ism thoroughly disoriented and confused the public.
    — War as standing policy multiplies veterans who, employed as police, apply their military rules of contact training in a civilian environment.
    — Large sums are offered police departments in the form of military gear. If it is not accepted, that value is lost to the department.
    — Police are granted a level of immunity from prosecution that is normally reserved for senior officials and heads of state.
    — When police kill, community demands for improved training reliably take the form of reinforcing/upgrading the militarization of police.
    — Since 9/11, police have killed several times over the number killed by 9/11. Approximately three people are killed by police in the United States daily.
    — No official statistics are gathered killings by police. Independent
    sites such as ‘Killed by Police’ gather and publish news reports.
    — Some who organize peaceable protest against police abuses have themselves been targeted by police.

    Other things you REALLY don’t want to hear…

    — Police kill more Whites than Blacks each year. The number of Blacks and Hispanics together approximately equal the number of Whites killed.
    — When Black, Hispanic, Asian, Mediterranean, etc. peoples are counted together, police kill more minority peoples than Whites each year.
    — Police don’t murder in affluent minority communities as View Park-Windsor Hills, CA, predominately black, with an average annual income of $157,000.
    — What joins the deceased is not their race but their class. As socio-economic crises rise, state weapons/laws take aim at the poor and working class.
    — The ruling class is unsettled by a worldwide emergence of class consciousness not seen since the October Revolution.
    — The rise of Donald Trump reflects a growing belief in the ruling class that in the face of rising class consciousness, more repression will become necessary.
    — Regardless of who is ‘elected’ this November, state repression in the interest of the ruling class is going to increase.
    — If the church is to have a voice in public life, it must inform itself about the issues of poverty and class and address police abuse, war, and other forms of political malfeasance in that context.

  7. I don’t think police forces which are supposed to be trained professionals get to blame the “culture” when they don’t do their job properly, particularly when what they are supposed to be doing is as basic as not shooting people. An improvement in culture might help, but better training would be better and more quickly achievable:
    US – average 15 weeks training
    RCMP – 24 weeks + 6 month field training
    Germany – 2-3 years
    UK – 24-28 weeks basic + further field training + 18 months as probationer + several years experience and a separate 18 week or so course before a few specialised officers are let near a gun
    Japan – 15-19 months training depending on previous education
    Australia – 28-35 weeks basic training + 6-18 months on the job.
    It is also the case as I understand from articles on this that US firearms training cincetrates largely in shooting straight without the training in conflict resolution and avoiding lethal force common in other forces.
    Being a police officer may not be as dangerous as people (and perhaps crucially the police themselves) think it is, but it is an extremely difficult one, and I have to say I am less condemnatory (at least in some cases) police shootings when I consider that what you have are flawed human beings put in difficult situations with what appears to be hopelessly inadequate training after being falsely propagandised to believe they spend their working lives seconds away from instant death.

  8. In a conflict management class I took, we discussed how police officers are literally trained to escalate situations, instead of deescalate, because they’re told they can die at any time. This fear is so tragic. 🙁

  9. Out here in KC, we’ve started a program where police departments have an embedded mental health professional that goes along with first responders. I was just listening about it on NPR. It seems to be working well according to the dude talking about it.

  10. Great post, thanks Mr. Corey. Based on what I’ve read in the news, we need a change in police training. Too many shootings are justified with “he was doing what he was trained to do.” Well, if shooting without actually seeing a weapon in the hands of another person is the training, then the training needs to change. Police do hard work and make sacrifices most of us don’t make, but in exchange they’re given extra responsibility. With that responsibility comes an acceptance of risk of physical harm coming to them.

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