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Are We Any Closer to Achieving Sanctity of Life?

By James E. Copple Co-Director, ACT NOWFacilitator of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing A year before the murder of George Floyd, I was in Minnesota facilitating a working group on police-involved deadly force encounters convened by Attorney General Keith Ellison and John Harrington, Director of Public Safety. The working group was charged 

A year before the murder of George Floyd, I was in Minnesota facilitating a working group on police-involved deadly force encounters convened by Attorney General Keith Ellison and John Harrington, Director of Public Safety. The working group was charged with developing recommendations that would reduce the use of deadly force by police1 and comprised of representatives from law enforcement, police unions, criminal justice, civil rights organizations, and the community.

The uncle of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man who was fatally shot during a traffic stop, served as a working group member, and hearings included family members of victims of police violence. Discussions were often emotional, contentious, and divergent. Family testimony was gut-wrenching and often elicited defensive comments from police and those in the criminal justice system.

It was only three months after releasing the final report, Working Group on Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters: Recommendations and Action Steps, that George Floyd died at the hands of Derek Chauvin and three of his subordinates. The day after Floyd’s murder, Attorney General Ellison waved our report before cameras and demanded the legislature and local communities implement our recommendations.

At the heart of that report was the phrase: sanctity of life.

I first heard that phrase in the context of policing halfway through our facilitation, although it is often associated with the anti-abortion movement. As a person of faith and a social activist, the phrase reinforced my need for a consistent life ethic, but within the conversation of police use of deadly force, it took on new meaning.

There’s an unofficial motto derived from this phrase oft used in the context of police encounters: “Everybody goes home alive.” “Everybody” means officers and community members alike, especially those who are much more likely to experience deadly-force encounters – people of color, people with disabilities, people without housing, people with a mental health diagnosis, and those with substance use disorders.

In religion and ethics, sanctity of life is about protection regarding aspects of sentient life that are said to be holy, sacred, or otherwise such value that they are not to be violated. Life, and its possibilities, are the common thread for all of humanity, and we must protect it, as they say, from the womb to the tomb. If that’s true, then behavior must validate this fundamental belief, and a nation, a community, and an individual must act in such a way to protect and enhance life.

De-escalation is an emerging strategy to reduce the use of force. Such methods could include reducing officer-created situations by slowing down individual encounters; collaborating with mental health professionals; utilizing non-lethal weapons such as Tasers; and affirming equality, inclusion, and empowerment in communities. At the heart of community cultural transformation is asking what we can do to protect all of life (officers and community) in a police encounter.

Communities demand an end to the “shock and awe” approach to neighborhood policing and ask for strategies that protect and strengthen life. If embraced, it will change attitudes, behavior, and tactics. If we want to reduce the deadly use of force by police, especially with people of color, then instill in training, practice, organizational culture, and value systems that life is sacred and the oath of office demands we protect it.

Communities can support this approach by emphasizing equality in education, health care, housing, employment, and community safety. Disparities in these areas lead to despair, which often leads to violence. An outcome of the Kerner Commission Report, released in 1968, stressed that racism and poverty are the enemies of the sanctity of life: “This nation is, at present, moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”2

Little has changed 50 years later.

Today, as in 1968, urban violence springs from poverty and racism. It’s antithetical to attitudes and policies that emphasize equal treatment and strive to preserve the sanctity of life. If sanctity of life is the assurance that everyone goes home after a police encounter, it requires equal access to health care, education, housing, jobs, and America’s great wealth.

The death of George Floyd should forever be a reminder that his murder was more than insufficient training or bad policy, but a culture mesmerized by power and death and unwilling to wholly embrace life as sacred.

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