Police shootings have been lighting up the media for the last couple of years, with incidents such as Philando Castile’s death in Falcon Heights, MN and Alton Sterling’s in Baton Rouge, LA continuing to raise questions and inspire protests this summer. Hardly had the nation composed itself before blood ran again, this time in Tulsa, Oklahoma when Officer Betty Shelby shot and killed unarmed Terence Crutcher on the night of Friday the 16th. So many heated opinions surround both the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the seemingly opposed Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements, that it can be very hard to determine what really lies at the crux of any of the matters. Before any details regarding an incident have been released, protests have already gotten underway because many seem to assume police can have no reasons for shooting. Occasionally, such grim assumptions have proven correct.
In the vast number of cases, however, authority and the lack of proper respect due to it were the determining factors. Rather than understanding that authority comes from God, and is meant to serve, even as Jesus served his apostles, and washed their feet, though he confirmed himself as their authority: “You hail me as the Master, and the Lord; and you are right, it is what I am. Why then, if I have washed your feet, I who am the Master and the Lord, you in your turn ought to wash each other’s feet.” (Jn 13:13-14) Many of these police shootings could have been avoided if those involved merely respected the demands of legitimate authority, understanding the nature of service inherent in authority. Sadly, mayhem, such as this violence, arises naturally from years of a widespread undermining of authority.
According to the Washington Post, in 2015 there were 990 people shot dead by police. Though only about 5 percent of those were known to be unarmed, one may still wonder how so many unarmed people get themselves killed. Deven Guilford, an unarmed 17-year-old white kid who ended up shot after merely flashing his lights at a cop, is a perfect example. When he was pulled over on February 28, 2015, for flashing his lights at Sergeant Frost, Guilford commenced a campaign of total denial and failure to comply. Rather than politely listen to the cop’s reasons for pulling him over, and cooperating as fully as possible, Guilford argued to no end.
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Sergeant Frost approached Guilford’s vehicle, and, as captured on his body camera, the conversation began this way:
“Hello! Pulled you over ’cause you flashed me—”
“I didn’t even have my brights on!”
“Yes you did sir!”
“Nope I didn’t partner”
Deven interrupts several times to disagree. Frost continues “License, registration, proof of insurance please.”
“I did not have them on.”
“You did, trust me I know.” Deven, emphasizing that he knows better than the cop. Again Frost requests “license, registration, proof of insurance please.”
Now Deven really goes on the offensive: “How do I even know you’re an officer?” (Sergeant Frost was driving a marked patrol car, and wearing a uniform.)
“You’ve been pulled over. My name is Sergeant Frost from the Country Sheriff’s office.”
“Can I see your badge number?”
“You cannot see my badge number.”
Four minutes after being pulled over, the argument had escalated so much that Frost called for backup, and ordered Guilford out of the car, still resisting and becoming increasingly aggressive. Eventually, after a stun gun failed to subdue the 17-year-old, the kid charged the cop, knocked him over on the snowy ground and began beating him in the head, giving the officer a concussion. Frost began to lose consciousness and feared for his life, so, he shot Deven 7 times, killing him. All Mr. Guilford had to do was cooperate with authority, and accept responsibility for his actions. If he had only said “Yes Sir. Sorry Sir, it won’t happen again,” the cop would have let him off with a warning. But accepting responsibility for ones actions is a lost art, and humility a relic of a bygone age. Respect for authority was so abysmally undesirable, the poor kid put his own life at risk instead. Not all police-shooting deaths are so gut-wrenchingly pitiful, but a common thread of failure to cooperate with legitimate demands exists amongst the vast majority.
Ultimately, these incidents alert us to a very real problem in the way we Americans respond to authority. In 1955, Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote: “One thing, of course, is indispensable: that a sense of the greatness and dignity of governing and ruling be revived in the mind of the public. This is all the more necessary since the ‘intellectuals’ of the past hundred years have been virtually defined by their ironical treatment of the terms ‘authority’ and ‘subject,’ with the result that nowadays these words can hardly be spoken or understood without bias.” In general, people hate the very notion of authority. Great attempts have been made to dig it out of the culture by the root. One can see such attempts in modern education, which encourages teachers to allow children to make the rules for their classroom. According to popular modern education theory, a “Teacher’s role is interactive, rooted in negotiation” as opposed to the traditional method in which a “Teacher’s role is directive, rooted in authority.” There’s no notion that authority has so much to offer that is both good and irreplaceable, such as experiential knowledge, truth, and wisdom.
Authority has also been attacked in the family, as parents follow so-called “parenting experts” who advise that rather than instructing children with clear directions or commands, parents should bargain with their children. Doctor Leonard Sax offers some common sense, bolstered by his experience as a family doctor and psychologist. Sax warns against those who “offer their children choices instead of telling them what to do.” He explains the common notion among parents that exercising authority should be avoided, in order to make kids “happy.” Movies and TV shows regularly portray weak parents, especially favoring the buffoonish father. Rather than understanding authority as primarily a service to others, authority is generally perceived as a cramp on individual freedom. Almost everywhere one turns, the ability of the individual to control the rules governing his or her life has been equated with rightful liberty—what kind of liberty would be a good question.
Parents, teachers, police officers—these all have legitimate authority, without which society suffers. Police have a multi-faceted obligation, as employees of the government to protect the innocent, and ensure that laws are enforced for the safety and well being of the populace. They play a crucial role in bringing about the common good of a society. In order to effectively fulfill their duties, officers have a legitimate authority and dignity vested in them by the state. Josef Pieper points out: “The purpose of power is to realize justice.” Corresponding to such authority is a certain response on the part of the people. St. Thomas Aquinas clarifies that “Honor is due to the excellence of persons in positions of dignity, on account of their higher rank.” And Josef Pieper adds to this:
The individual, in his private existence, profits from the proper administration of public offices—by the judge, the teacher, and the like. These men and women create a well-ordered communal life. For this, the individual finds himself indebted to the holders of such offices in a fashion which cannot be acquitted fully by “payment.” It is this situation which is acknowledged by the “respect” shown a person holding an office of public responsibility. The objection that irresponsible and inefficient men may hold offices is of little weight. Thomas’s answer is that the office and, in a more general sense, the community as a whole are honored in the person who holds the office.
In other words, the work done by police officers assists every private individual because of the important communal effect it has. They respond to 911 calls, keep burglars out of houses by nabbing them at a jewelers, put domestic abusers behind bars, direct traffic, arrest drunk drivers, face gunfire, knives, brass knuckles—what have you. Everyone benefits when police do their job. In justice, the response private individuals ought to have is respect. That there are certainly unworthy police officers does not change the fact that one should show respect on account of the position itself. Going along with respect for proper authority comes obedience to legitimate demands. St. Thomas, using the Greek term doulia, translated as “worship” but meaning a specific form of honor given to other men, says “In respect of the exercise of his government, there is due to him worship, consisting in rendering him service, by obeying his commands.” By obeying commands from a legitimate authority, one offers the reverence that is due to them, in justice.
Reverend Jarrett Maupin, outspoken member of the Black Lives Matter movement, led demonstrations in Phoenix after the 2014 shooting of Rumain Brisbon. As documented by Fox News, Maupin can be heard yelling into a loudspeaker, “We want his badge! We want his gun! We want his job!” while marching in protest of the local Police Department. However, Rev. Maupin accepted an invitation from the County Police to run through several police training simulations, filmed by Fox News. Maupin was given a fake weapon, and asked to respond, as a cop, to 3 different situations. Maupin obviously tries to avoid the use of force in the first scenario, but ends up “shot” by the suspect. In the next two simulations, he is much faster to draw a weapon, feeling decidedly threatened, and in the second of the three simulations he actually “shot” an unarmed person. Maupin’s comments following his experience walking in the shoes of a police officer are extremely enlightening. When asked why he shot in the second scenario, he said, “Hey, he rushed me… I shot because he was in that zone… I felt that it was an imminent threat. I didn’t see him armed, he came clearly to do some harm to my person… It’s hard to make that call; it shakes you up.” Asked to give his overall conclusion from the training, he answered: “I didn’t understand how important compliance was. But after going through this, yeah my attitude has changed. This is all unfolding in 10 to 15 seconds. People need to comply with the orders of law enforcement officers—for their own sake.”
Without authority, there will be chaos. Perhaps that is what we are starting to see now, as people cannot even take a simple command from a police officer without putting up a fuss, or attacking the officer. In fact, Josef Pieper wrote over 60 years ago, “the question can arise whether the void created by the disappearance of the notion of observantia (respect due to those in authority) … may not have permitted the establishment of another form of relation between superior and subordinate: the shameful expression of mutual contempt.” That mutual contempt seems to have come to the surface with a vengeance in recent years. Obviously, police need to be held accountable if they’ve exceeded their authority. However, those who claim both the protection police offer and also the right to harass and attack civil servants should remember their duty to respect authority. Rights and duties go hand in hand and cannot survive long without the other. Pope St. John Paul II emphasizes this point in his Encyclical Pacem in Terris: “Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other.” Asserting one’s rights only has value when one fulfills corresponding duties, such as treating with respect those in authority.
It is easy to blame all these violent incidents on racism, and therefore have reason to be angry, and people to hold accountable. It is much harder to face the deep roots of the problem, which may include ourselves: That as a culture, we have systematically attacked authority and the respect due to it. Today we are only seeing the natural result of that surgical undermining of authority.
Editor’s note: The picture above depicts graduates of the Austin Police Academy on July 8, 2016. (Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez, Jr. / KUT radio)