“God, Justice, & Policing”

Reading the Old Testament we are reminded repeatedly that “the Lord loves justice” (Psalm 37:8) and “I the Lord love justice” (Isaiah 61:8).  God is active in the world and God’s love of justice is not just a lofty idea. Justice is extended to all God’s people.  We are to work for justice.  As God is just, so must we be just in our actions toward our neighbor.   The concept of justice was part of God’s plan for all humankind, that all might live in peace (shalom), free of conflict.  Biblical justice means “doing what is right; and exercising fairness or equality” (cf. Blog 10, “The Bible and Justice”).  Whether practiced in the church, in the courts, or on the streets, the concept of justice is firmly grounded on the nature of God as revealed in Holy Scripture.

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Most people do not think of police work as a “holy calling” or form of “ministry.”  Based on the central place of justice in the Bible and God’s emphasis on “justice for all” however, surely working for justice can be considered a “Christian vocation.”

Police officers are the most visible criminal justice practitioners in society and as such they come under intense scrutiny in their responsibilities of maintaining public safety, order, and law enforcement.  I documented the pressures and stress faced by police based on interviews, questionnaires, and ride-alongs with patrol officers in several police departments (R. Lawrence, 1984, “Police Stress and Personality Factors: A Conceptual Model.” Journal of Criminal Justice 12(3):247-263).

Police are criticized and questioned for enforcement actions that appear to show bias against persons by race or social class. Questionable police shootings of suspects seem to be increasing; and the deaths of any citizens, suspects, or police officers are tragic events.  Excessive use of force is unacceptable, and officers must be held accountable. The vast majority of police officers however are dedicated to professional law enforcement that places priority on public safety and legal rights for all citizens.

Central to the biblical view of justice is the idea of “covenant” and that God’s justice depends on “community relationships.”  This applies equally to policing and justice.

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Police recognize they are part of the community and they depend on community cooperation to effectively do their job.  This reality was first recognized by Sir Robert Peel who developed municipal policing in London in the 1800s.  Knowing some of the history and developments of modern policing is considered an essential part of police education and training.

A partial list of Peel’s Principles of Policing includes the following:

  • Police depend on public approval in order to perform their duties.
  • Police depend on the public’s cooperation, respect, and voluntary observance of the law.
  • Police preserve public favor by constantly demonstrating impartial service to the law.
  • Police use physical force to the extent necessary to restore order and only when persuasion, advice and warning are found to be insufficient.
  • Police should maintain a relationship with the public that demonstrates the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.

[Sources: Carol A. Archbold, Policing: A Text/Reader (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2013), pp. 3-4; Steven M. Cox, Susan Marchionna, and Brian D. Fitch, Introduction to Policing–3rd ed. (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2017), p.19.]

Police and other law enforcement officers include the thousands of men and women who carry out their sworn duties in small towns, as sheriff deputies in rural areas, city police, state highway patrol, federal officers in the FBI, drug enforcement, customs and border patrol, and many others.  Considering the high standards of “Peel’s Principles” it bears keeping in mind the daily interactions that thousands of officers have with members of the public in all places, at all times.  Police are the most visible public servants who patrol “24-7” and are always available for assistance.  Many officers view their role as a “calling” and they are frequently the only public servants to render aid and assistance to citizens in need.  When they meet the high standards expected of police and enforce the law fairly and equally, surely they are a part of “God’s justice in action.”

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