As a Catholic deacon, police chaplain and former teacher, I have worked or lived — as a homeowner or apartment dweller — in every police precinct in Minneapolis (except downtown) over the years since 1969.
My wife and I have raised eight daughters here: biological, step, and racially mixed adoptive and foster. My 34 years as deacon have been served in five Twin Cities churches that have opened their doors to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
We hear many voices of deep pain: foremost, the voices of mothers losing their children to violence. The largest focus now is on white police killing Black sons. But when the violent loss of a child is gang- or drug-related, from a robbery gone bad or a stray bullet, from sexual abuse or suicide, it hardly means the pain is any less. One type of loss is very specific — white police and Black victims. The others result from more general, societal problems connected with a long, shameful history of actions based on the assumption of superiority/inferiority of a particular race.
Currently, we hear the pain of a community raging against its own police department. In answer to that pain has come the proposal to abolish, defund, disband or dismantle it — choose your word. It’s an exasperated cry for change piled on years of frustration among citizens, the Minneapolis City Council and the Minneapolis Police Department.
We police chaplains (of various religions and races) minister in each of five precincts of this city, and most of us live here. Therefore, we absorb the community’s pain. We also hear pain that most people do not hear. We hear about children’s nightmares that their police officer mother or father will die. We hear about officers’ kids being harassed at school, about officers’ spouses being followed and harassed at the grocery store and in their neighborhood, about coolness from once close neighbors and about officers getting spit upon.
Black police officers are called traitors (but in crudely graphic language). On a recent call that I was responding to, city and park police brushed off equally crude language while answering a “baby-not-breathing” call.
We chaplains also preside over funerals of officers who have taken their own lives due to the unrelenting, unmanaged stress of witnessing people hurting people, then too often watching the judicial system quickly send the guilty back to the street, recycled.
I have heard credible complaints of traffic stops for “driving while Black or brown.” White privilege is historical and real, just as trampling on Black and brown is. Yet it’s painful to hear people shout “racist cops” without hearing acknowledgment of a much larger picture.
Therapists guide us not to look only at the wayward child, but rather at the whole family. In this case, we say the “problem child” wears blue, with a convenient blindness toward how we have failed as a society that cares for all of us.
As Minneapolis struggles to decide the future of our Police Department, I ask a question which should raise many more: If citizens approve the establishment of the “department of community safety and violence prevention,” as 12 City Council members have proposed, how will it protect members of that department from the perils officers face today?
Examples include: The constant stress of endangering themselves to help others, including the risk of being ambushed; the trauma of repeatedly witnessing abused and bleeding children, sexual abuse victims and suicides; the barrage of low-level repeat offenders; feeling abandoned by community, city government and police administration; living with a judicial system that seems to tell officers that their work is in vain; media coverage that aims to satiate the public’s hunger for the sensationally bad rather than on thousands of positive acts (and the heart that caused them to sign up for police work in the first place).
May the name “George Floyd” be etched in our consciousness as a constant reminder of a need for societal change, and may justice prevail. As regards any police officer, let’s be clear about what we are asking him or her to do and support them with the tools to stay healthy.
The idea of the proposed trade-off has value in its recognizing community frustration and the need for change. However, it would have more value if it reflected the knowledge of the actual experience of the officers we hire. I’d rather see improvement than a trade-off.
As chaplain, I will continue to support our community and our police. I pray for wisdom for all, and for the courage to act accordingly.
Carl Valdez is deacon, Church of the Incarnation and a chaplain in the Minneapolis Police Department.