Catholic Principles and Common Sense Offer Path to Sensible Police Reform

The Church offers guidance on how to maintain the common good in society while also safeguarding individual liberties as a basis for any significant discussion about law enforcement reform.

Priests pass a group of NYPD officers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Manhattan on June 4, 2020.
Priests pass a group of NYPD officers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Manhattan on June 4, 2020. (photo: Anna Kristiana Dave/Shutterstock)

The May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin has led to a growing call to defund or abolish police departments around the country as the only viable way to reform what some have described as inherently racist institutions.

According to a June 18 Wall Street Journal report, Minneapolis has already voted to abolish its police system, while the same report notes that Los Angeles is withholding $150 million from its police department’s budget. Even if these moves are judged by many informed observers as extreme, there may be cause for more moderate police reform, although whether and how such reform should happen remain open questions.

While there is no definitive Catholic teaching on such prudential matters as law enforcement reform, the Church does offer guidance on how to maintain the common good in society while also safeguarding individual liberties as a basis for any significant discussion about law enforcement reform.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily. The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority” (1906).

Furthermore, the Catechism states, the common good “consists of three basic elements”: “respect for persons,” that is, authority’s safeguarding of individual liberties; “the social well-being and development of the group itself,” whereby authority makes “accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life” such as food, clothing, health, work and education; and “peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order” (1907-1909).

Some recent examples of police reform, such as measures taken by New Jersey state and local officials to reform the city of Camden’s police force, offer positive results that maintain and even cultivate each of the three elements of the common good.

Secular studies on the question of racism in law enforcement also indicate that some reform may be appropriate, while those who work with law enforcement directly see police engaged in increased community outreach as a promising reform measure that builds trust between law enforcement authorities and the communities they serve.


Common Good Sense

Arthur Hippler, author of Citizens of the Heavenly City: A Catechism of Catholic Social Teaching (Borromeo Press, 2005), is an African American and head of the religion department at Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities.

According to Hippler, who has also taught graduate courses at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, the Catholic Church in its teachings doesn’t speak directly to the issue of police reform, but it does speak about the need to preserve the common good and individual liberties against crime.

Specifically, Hippler cited the Catechism (2265-2266), which states, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge. The state’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good.”


Questions of Race

Since police reform is a question of prudence, Hippler noted, the same standard for evidence applied to the general case for reform can also be applied to arguments for reform based on suspected racial bias in law enforcement.

“If lots of black men are being arrested, are they being arrested in disproportionate numbers?” Hippler said. “There are white people being abused by police — but are the blacks being abused disproportionately? Those are questions of fact.”

One recent study does provide answers to such questions about law enforcement reform.

According to a 2017 study of police using lethal and nonlethal force, Roland Fryer Jr., an African American professor of economics at Harvard University, determined that while police officers seemed to be racially biased in their use of nonlethal force (pushing suspects to the ground, against a wall, etc.), there was no clear evidence to support the claim that officers were racially biased in their use of lethal force.

Fryer concludes his study by noting that those attributing racism to law enforcement may be revealing their own biases.

“The importance of our results for racial inequality in America is unclear,” Fryer admits. “It is plausible that racial differences in lower level uses of force are simply a distraction and movements such as Black Lives Matter should seek solutions within their own communities rather than changing the behaviors of police and other external forces.”

On the other hand, Fryer notes, police departments can benefit from reforms that will help mitigate any underlying racial bias, and he advises that they adopt policies that provide more severe consequences for the misuse of nonlethal force than they do under present policies.

“As police departments across America consider models of community policing … designed to purge officers of implicit bias, our results point to another simple policy experiment: increase the expected price of excessive force on lower level uses of force. To date, very few police departments across the country either collect data on lower level uses of force or explicitly punish officers for misuse of these tactics.”


Models of Reform

Reporting on several such effective models of reform, Steven Eide, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute of Policy Research, notes in a June 9 article for the New York Post that, in 2013, the Camden Police Department was disbanded and reformed as the Camden County Metro Police. It was a move that not only cleaned up police corruption in one of the nation’s poorest cities, Eide reported, but also resulted in a sharp drop in Camden’s crime rate.

“Overall violent crime [in Camden] peaked in 2011 and has since dropped by 46%,” he writes. “Murders, after peaking in 2012, are down by a whopping 62%.”

In his article, Eide notes that the U.S. Justice Department recently praised the reforms, and less than a year after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, then-President Barack Obama called the new Camden department “a symbol of promise for the nation.”

Eide also pointed to police reform in Miami-Dade County, which used “de-escalation training” to “reduce the number of police shootings of mentally ill individuals,” and the overhaul of the New York Police Department in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s after suffering decades of corruption. “Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg broke that cycle [of corruption] with deep reform,” Eide writes. “Police shootings in New York have dropped off a cliff since the early 1970s.”

Eide told the Register that the Camden case serves as a realistic middle way between those who might resist reform and those calling for defunding police departments.

“Cutting police budgets for punitive reasons will diminish resources available for ‘softer’ initiatives such as community policing and foot patrols,” he said. “Smaller, less-generously-funded police departments are not necessarily better-liked.”


Community Outreach

The Camden case also points up the folly of defunding police as an effective reform measure, as Eide notes in his article: “Reckless cuts jeopardize police-community relations, which can be improved by maximizing the number of cops available to be out in the neighborhoods on a regular basis.”

“Camden illustrates the value of reinvesting in police departments to improve police-community relations,” he told the Register.

Aaron Johnson Jr., a retired African American police officer, knows a good deal about community relations — both the good and the bad kind. Johnson served the Baton Rouge Police Department (BRPD) in Louisiana from 1968 until his retirement from the force in 1999. (From 1999 to 2006 he served as a member of security for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge.)  

Johnson’s son, Father Joshua Johnson, ordained for the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2014, serves as pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary parish in St. Amant, Louisiana. He sees in his father both a model for cops and a hero for racial equality.

“My father became one of the first African American to be a police officer for the BRPD after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allowed him to enter law enforcement,” Father Johnson said.

Aaron Johnson was inspired at a young age to become a police officer, Father Johnson said, by a white cop who befriended his father in his childhood.

“My dad grew up in the old Jim Crow south, with segregation, being persecuted for being black and called the N-word. All that,” he said. “But there was this one white cop who was nice to him whenever he went to and from school. My dad said, ‘I wanted to be like that cop when I grew up, a cop who clearly had power and used his power for the good.’”

As a black cop, Aaron Johnson faced tremendous challenges, often among his fellow officers.

According to Father Johnson, his father told him that some fellow officers were Ku Klux Klan members when he first came on the force. Officer Johnson, his son said, once successfully defended a young black man who was hauled into court after being harassed and abused by some of his fellow officers.

“The kid was able to get out of jail,” Father Johnson said, “but nothing happened to the cops who did it.”  

But as bad as things got, Father Johnson said, his father’s devotion to his community and to Christ as a practicing Methodist (Father Johnson’s mother, Patricia Johnson, who is white, is Catholic) helped him persevere and see the BRPD eventually reverse its racist policies.

“My dad told me how much reform took place in law enforcement over the years from the time he became a cop, and, obviously, there was a lot of not only bad apples, but also a lot of policies that allowed those bad apples to continue to do bad things,” Father Johnson said.

In his father’s own efforts in police reform, Father Johnson said, he emphasized the importance of outreach to the community.

“When my dad was captain, he did a lot of community things, going into communities with law enforcement to try to get people in the communities to enter into intentional relationships with law enforcement,” Father Johnson said.

Today, as part of his pastoral duties, this priest follows his father’s lead and often accompanies police officers on community calls.

“I’ve gone into neighborhoods with BRPD cops to have barbeques with the people in the community,” he said. “A lot of good efforts like that, where they’ve gone to neighborhoods to cultivate relationships and deeper trust — that’s something positive, something noteworthy that they have done and are still doing.”

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.



Union Power

Lymon Stone indicates in his June 23 article, “Above the Law: The Data Are In on Police, Killing, and Race,” published in Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute, that one of the major roadblocks to true police reform has been the power wielded by police unions.

“American police are almost impossible to discipline,” Stone states. “Legal immunity, strong unions, and a demonstrated willingness to abandon their sworn oaths to protect the public in order to make a political statement all render police forces a law unto themselves. In order to tackle the problem of excessive police violence, reformers will need to attack the system itself: an end to qualified immunity, complete obliteration of collective bargaining and unionization for police, and reduced provision of military-style weapons and training provided to local police forces.”

“Without stripping the police of the political leverage that protects them from punishment,” he continued, “and the equipment that convinces peace officers that they are soldiers at war, no other reforms are likely to yield durable effects.”

In a June 10 New York Post article on police reforms enacted in Camden, New Jersey, Stephen Eide notes that the measures New Jersey officials took by creating a new police department “allowed officials to enact an entirely new union contract.”

“Camden teaches that, before presuming that the problems with a city’s police department are ‘systemic,’ first focus on the bad apples (most cops in Camden were rehired),” writes Eide later in the article. “Union contracts can be a major stumbling block to sensible reforms.” 

Nonetheless, Eide told the Register, that stumbling block is the same found with other public unions in the country. When asked about how best to address the problem of police unions, he said, “That question is best addressed to progressives. If [public school] teachers should be allowed the right to negotiate over working conditions, such as due process for misconduct allegations, shouldn't cops? Or if bad actor cops should be easily fired at will, why shouldn't bad actor teachers?”

But fellow Manhattan Institute senior fellow Daniel DiSalvo indicated that as with most unions, especially in the public sector, the political often trumps questions of justice.

In a June 12 online panel sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, “Policing the Police: Lessons Learned in a Time of Urban Unrest,” in which DiSalvo and Eide both participated, DiSalvo noted that “police unions have a very odd position inside … the public sector labor movement and the labor movement overall. Most public employee unions are strongly politically or very closely aligned with the Democratic Party. For example, the major teachers’ unions give their campaign contributions overwhelmingly to Democrats. Police unions, on the other hand, have formed strong alliances with both parties and are often closely tied to Republican parties in state and local governments.”

He added that police are in a kind of political no-man’s land when it comes to seeking changes in policy and other law enforcement reform.

“People on the political left tend to be more skeptical of the police, but they also want to generally defend unions, so they're often in a little bit of a bind when it comes to how to treat police unions,” he said. “People on the political right are often concerned that criticizing police unions will be mistaken for criticism of police in general, and people on the political right are generally more supportive of the forces of law and order in general, whereas they're also more critical of labor unions.”

Joseph O’Brien