Thoughts on Current Events: Rethinking Law Enforcement
One of our oldest teachings says, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for the fear of it, people would eat each other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2). For this reason and many others, we need the protection afforded by our police departments. It is my experience that most police officers are superb, moral individuals who care for and value all human lives. Yet, continually we hear of police who abuse their power and of a system that protects them. What’s the solution?
While I’m obviously not a law enforcement insider, I’m someone who thinks about change and modernization on a daily basis. My experience in this matter began with my training in rabbinic school. I acquired my rabbinic ordination from yeshiva in the same way rabbis had for hundreds of years before me. I diligently learned the laws of salting meats and knowing when mixtures of milk and meat and kosher and non-kosher are and aren’t problematic. I meticulously studied the laws of Shabbat, prayer, and women’s menstrual cycles (niddah). The one traditional study I was spared was the laws of kosher slaughtering, for by the nineteen nineties’ all kosher animals were checked for kashrut in the slaughterhouse. No longer were people bringing a chicken to their rabbi to be checked if it was kosher.
Nonetheless, how much of my training and specialization was useful in my work? Even when I was an orthodox rabbi for sixteen years, it was the rare occasion that someone called me about a dish that became traifed or of a woman’s cycle that was continuing for too long.
The curriculum which I studied, based upon orthodox Jewish life in the 1800s, turned out to be of little value in the modern-day rabbinate. This need for change was not lost upon modern-day rabbinic schools. They address 21st-century rabbinic preparation with less emphasis on kashruth and the subtleties of Jewish law (Halacha) and more upon chaplaincy, counseling, oratory, and teaching.
While I’m sure police academies are training officers with 21st-century technology, the system of law enforcement is based upon 19th-century ideals.
When we examine the brute force and discrimination against Blacks in our country, what we see is an endemic condition that has been perpetuated for generations. In the late 1960s, a commission was set up to examine and offer guidance about the violence regarding race in America. One social scientist, Kenneth Clark noted, “I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1943 and the report of the McCone Commission of the Watts riot, 1965.” If Clark was continuing his report today, do you think it would be much different?
Insanity: doing the same thing over again and expecting differing results.
While we have the highest respect for some of our local police and wholeheartedly acknowledge that we need the protection of the police, perhaps it’s time to rethink the role, the process of selection, and the training of our law enforcement officers.
Seven years ago, the City of Camden, NJ fired their police force and rebuilt a new force from the ground up. Starting from anew gave them the “ability to build culture as opposed to trying to overcome the resistance of change in (police) culture” according to former Camden, NJ police chief, Scott Thomson.
I don’t know if this model would work nationwide or even if it is one we should support, but I love the idea of rethinking law enforcement. Just as we can’t train rabbis as though we’re living in the 19th century, likewise, we can’t sustain an edified system of law enforcement that consistently fails a certain portion of the population.
We’re all asking ourselves, what can we do to make a change in our country? The Torah demands this from us, “Don’t stand by your brother’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16): when we see someone bleeding to death, we are commanded to help. We can join virtual and in-person rallies day and night, yet that is the engine for change, not the change itself. We need to support some plan of action. I believe that if experts and politicians would come up with a plan that re-envisions the system, then we’re on the right path.
I know not all of you will agree with what I’m proposing. But it’s from the sincerity in my heart to see a real change in the way Black Americans are treated. We just can’t stand from afar and watch, we need to see that change is implemented and change is rarely easy.
for the Plainview/Old Bethpage Clergy’s stance on what happened to George Floyd and the aftermath. We’ll be meeting this week to discuss what we can do as a community. If you have ideas, please share them with me.