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The Unbearable Middle: The Public, the Police and Life in America Today

This last week, the news has yet again been dominated by stories and images involving the police in the United States. On the one hand, there are ongoing reports of police departments on trial for the misbehavior of a few cops. On the other hand, there was also the gripping story of yet another police funeral in Washington, DC. Many in the American public are caught in an unbearable middle. We are caught between the realization that there is a real need for police reform in this country and a deep conviction that we need our police in order to save lives and that we are highly indebted to the people in blue who protect us.

Let us start with the issue of police malpractice. This does not mean that all cops are bad and that policing in general is out of control in this country. However, it does mean that we have both systemic and individual problems. But we are so polarized that even the slightest of the thin blue line can evoke a furious response from elements from the political right. Systemic racism, militarization, under training in mental health and more abundantly apparent to police critics and they see no progress in these sensitive areas.

Then there are the showcase news stories and there are so many of them. First and most enduring is the George Floyd story. On May 25, 2020, Officer Derek Chauvin restrained a handcuffed prisoner, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, MN, by handcuffing him, placing him on the ground and kneeling on his neck for over 9 minutes. Today, everyday, the trial of Officer Chauvin is on TV for hours on end. Nearby in Brooklyn Center, veteran officer Kimberly Porter shot and killed another black man, 20 year old Duante Wright at point blank range claiming she was operating her Taser gun instead of her service revolver. Those legal proceedings on top of a myriad of others are also flooding the airwaves. Then, just the other day, a video was released of two officers in southern Virginia, pepper spraying and handcuffing active duty Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario after pulling him over on the false perception that his car did not have a proper tag. Their treatment of the army officer was reminiscent of the worst of the Jim Crow era.

There are other examples, equally brutal and appalling and too many to mention here although the plea of “say their names” rings in our ears. It is gut wrenching to follow these stories and the protests that follow, often with Black Lives Matter protestors and sometimes, frustratingly, with angry, illegal rioting. It is a mess, it is shameful and it is wrong in so many ways. It is hard to take and it takes us back to the awful days of Bull Connor policing in the segregated South.

On the other hand, there are stories like the funeral of the 18-year member of the Capitol Policeman, William “Billy” Evans in the Rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Evans was killed by a deranged individual attacking the seat of our legislative branch of government. During a mournful presentation of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” tears began cascading down the face of his widow drenching her facemask. Their 7-year-old daughter snuggled up to her grief struck mom and with her little fingers wiped some of the falling tears away. It was at once a beautiful portrait of pure, innocent love and a gut wrenching moment of grief. This, we say to ourselves, is the price of being a cop and the price their families pay. Nor has it been that long since we watched the funeral of Officer Brian Sicknick, a man of our own Jewish faith, killed in the mob attack in Washington on January 6, 2020. Unbearable, unthinkable, emotionally impossible.

So here we are, what is left of the unpolarized American public is caught between police trials and police funerals. We need our police. We want our police to be brave, just and true to their oaths. We want them to be safe, even when they are in danger and we want to reset police-public relations, police training and police service in America. We are in an unbearable middle and we need to come together, peacefully, honestly and purposefully to get beyond this terrible moment in our collective history.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.