We’ve just endured a difficult season here in Los Angeles County as the manhunt for Christopher Dorner has finally come to an end. Along the way, we lost several members of the law enforcement family. As Dorner committed murders, stole cars, attempted to hijack a boat and kidnapped a number of civilians over the past week, the nation watched eagerly in anticipation of his capture. While some seemed to be sympathetic to his motives, no rational person wanted to see him continue to kill or victimize innocent people as part of his homicidal spree. In the end, law enforcement was once again the hope of a nation.
Two years ago I was asked to design an ethics training program for our law enforcement agency. Most ethics training programs are rooted in utilitarianism of one kind or another. “Don’t do this…” or “don’t do that…” because if you do the wrong thing and get caught, you’ll be punished, lose your job or bring shame to the people you love and work with. The problem with this kind of utilitarianism is that most of us who are willing to do something we shouldn’t are also convinced we will never be caught! In the end, utilitarianism simply fails to motivate proper behavior.
My life as a Christian has convinced me of the power transcendent moral truths rooted in a transcendent source of morality. When we recognize God as the source of truth, it’s far easier to agree on what’s righteous and virtuous. Even if we can rationalize some misbehavior from the perspective of our own utilitarian benefit, as God-followers, we recognize that the true measure of moral value transcends our own desire; it is rooted in God’s nature. As I designed the ethics project for our agency, however, I knew that only a handful of our officers understood this theistic view of morality. I knew I had to help others recognize the “transcendent” nature our profession if I ever hoped to call them to something higher than their own desire.
As I thought about the nature of law enforcement, one important truth came to mind. At first it might seem like a controversial claim, but it is accurate all the same. Law Enforcement is the one essential profession. Think about it for a moment. How many of you own a “smart phone”? If you own an iPhone, you’ve probably discovered the variety of covers available. There are literally dozens of companies that manufacture covers for iPhones. Without Apple, these secondary companies would not exist. Without Apple, they would be out of business. For these companies that produce iPhone covers, Apple is the essential business to which they owe their existence. Apple is the company from which other companies take root and grow.
People who work at Apple get this. They understand that they are lucky, privileged really, to work for the most financially successful business in the world today. They also understand the great responsibility they have, leading the way and making it possible for other industries to exist and thrive. Those of us who work in Law Enforcement are far more privileged and have far more responsibility than the people working at Apple. Why? Because we happen to work in the world’s only essential profession. Law enforcement is indispensable and uniquely necessary; it’s foundational to the communities it serves. Without Law Enforcement, no other profession can exist and thrive.
Law Enforcement provides the security and stability needed for survival. It’s the necessary profession from which other secondary professions take root and grow. There can be no professional plumbers, computer programmers, firemen, school principals (or any other laborers, for that matter) unless police officers have first established the secure environment necessary for their existence. Law enforcement is the primary, foundational, indispensable, essential profession.
Lest anyone in law enforcement is inclined to become prideful about this truth claim, let me be clear. The essential nature of law enforcement does not elevate officers to a place above others in our society, it locates officers in a position that is foundational to others. There are many times when officers are going to be taken for granted, the same way we take for granted the foundations of our own homes. There are many times when officers are going to be mistreated by others, even as they are required to uphold a standard that is much higher than the general population. The code of ethics for officers is lofty and we have no patience for those who fall short of the standard. We only hire a fraction of those who apply, we only graduate a fraction of those who start, and we only retain a fraction of those who graduate. If a society expects to be righteous and moral, it all begins with (and is predicated on) the righteous morality of its gate keepers and first responders. When law enforcement fails to measure up ethically, we are all shocked and dismayed. We have no patience for such failings because we intuitively understand the essential importance of those who keep order, protect the innocent and restrain evil.
So as this chapter comes to an end and we begin to gather for the funerals of those who died, it’s my hope that the tragic events of the last week remind us of why we joined the ranks of law enforcement in the first place. We considered it a higher calling, we embraced it as part of our personal identity and we cherished it as our life ambition. It’s still all that. If you are a member of the law enforcement community, be challenged and encouraged to continue the good fight. Americans who watched these events still understand and appreciate the essential importance and value of law enforcement.