Tom Williams, Dr. David Parker and Gerry Labossiere 1:55 p.m. EST November 26, 2015
The Parliament of World’s Religions recently gathered 9,500 people from around the globe to Salt Lake City to discuss issues of faith. On the third day, a panel of three police chiefs presented. On the panel were Chief Steve Conrad of Louisville, Kentucky; Chief Devon Clunis of Winnipeg, Canada, and Chief Mike Brown of the host community, Salt Lake City. The panel was posed this question: “What if compassion were the driving force for policing in our communities?”
Begin with the end. To address this question, we will begin with the end. At the end of the 1 1/2-hour highly interactive and informative panel discussion, the audience in this standing-room-only room presented the panelists with a spontaneous standing ovation. After the standing ovation, the panel remained and answered questions from the participants for over an hour.
What caused such a positive reaction from a crowd, many of whom were activists working to fight injustice and many working to fight the injustices of police? In our opinion, the favorable response came from the openness of the police chiefs and the fact that we were discussing policing through the lens of compassion.
How do these particular police chiefs bring compassion to their own precincts? Here is a brief summary to highlight some of their work.
Louisville. Police Chief Steve Conrad is known in Louisville for showing up to the Muslim Iftar dinner or offering his recipe for peace with a local interfaith group. During his talk in Salt Lake City, he acknowledged that the community often labels police. We clearly saw the message that Chief Conrad creates awareness in his officers that their own suffering can serve as a way for the officers to open their hearts to grow more compassionate, especially for those have been unfairly labeled and who live with discrimination.
Winnipeg. Police Chief Devon Clunis is originally from Jamaica and served as the Chaplain for his department in Winnipeg, Canada. The citizens of Winnipeg tell us that Chief Clunis has, in little time, become a very visible and popular Police Chief. He leads by his vision of transforming community culture and going to root cause. Compassion is a vital component of his way forward and he speaks as such at every opportunity he gets. He walks the talk and is very visible in community events/discussions as the police strive to become the connectors of communities in Winnipeg.
Salt Lake City. Police Chief Mike Brown of Salt Lake City is four months into his role. When asked, “What if compassion were a driving force for policing?” Chief Brown shared that he sees his job in law enforcement as an opportunity to serve the community. He believes, in most cases, compassion is the driving force for policing. He went on to explain there are many times the police do the ordinary works of compassion to help make the lives of our communities better. None of these actions are newsworthy or seen, but they happen, in spite of not having a camera to document them. There are those who may take issue with this proposition; however, it is a statement of aspiration and very moving.
The Vision. Another question that the panel addressed was "How can justice build community with today’s punitive and retributive legal system?" It seems so rare today that justice builds community. Each Chief agreed we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of these issues. While we don't have space to go into detail here, the panel cited restorative justice as a reason to hope. Restorative justice has been called the compassionate way to do justice that requires accountability of the offender and community involvement. Restorative justice is victim-centered and seeks to build community in holding the offender accountable for his or her actions.
The Sober. None of these police chiefs excused the inexcusable behavior of some police that we have witnessed in the news over the past few years. No one on this panel was trying to sugarcoat anything on this day. They all acknowledged that the police wrongdoing must end and there is so much work that must be done to rebuild community trust. We all know this.
Reason to Hope. But this day at the Parliament was an experiment. What would happen if we mixed compassion with policing? The answer was that many police departments have already started on this journey.
The next question for us to consider is can we take this to another level. "What if compassion were the driving force, the heart, for policing in our communities?" This is a question worth spending a lifetime to explore. In our experience, compassion has an amazing way of providing a lens to help us see our common humanity and to see the common ground that we hold with others — all others. Upon this ground, we believe, we can move forward as a civilized society.
Perhaps, one day, as Chief Brown suggested, police cars driving around city streets will have “compassionate police officer inside” on their exterior door. It will not look strange, or out of place, to any of the citizens who see that police car so inscribed.
In the end, if we don’t dream, there will be no new realities. What if compassion were the driving force for policing in our communities?