A System Under Indictment

12-14-2014Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

At the height of the sex abuse scandal in the Church, when one Grand Jury after another was issuing reports that were often short on facts and that created the suspicion that all Catholic priests were pedophiles, a dear friend of mine who was a DPS Officer pulled me aside and reminded me that too often law enforcements officers are all smeared because of a few bad apples on the force. He understood the pain and the frustration of not being able to do much about it and the injustice that comes when your entire profession is cast under a pall of darkness. That moment of solidarity gave me great comfort.

Since the Grand Juries in New York and Ferguson did not bring back indictments law enforcement officers are being put under the suspicion of racism. And not just racism but homicidal racism. So I say to our law enforcement friends what my DPS friend said to me: you are good men and women who do your best under difficult circumstances to protect our rights and safety and despite whatever vilification you are now experiencing many of us are grateful for your service, integrity and willingness to put yourself in harms way for the rest of us. This too shall pass.

And just as the Church has had to examine and rework its policies and procedures, so too we have an opportunity to rethink how policing is done, how to fix an often dysfunctional justice system and how to prevent our communities from deteriorating into an us-them reality.

This will require us to have an adult conversation about many things including the Grand Jury system. This system was designed to have an impartial jury, rather than a prosecutor determine if the evidence indicates a crime has occurred. The Grand Jury system has too often become politicized, lopsided and tilted in the prosecutor's favor since he or she decides what evidence the jury sees. As a result Grand Juries often do not see the full range of evidence, especially exculpatory evidence. Too often innocent people are indicted, their lives ruined even if they are later exonerated at trial. Or those who should be indicted are not because the prosecutor was biased. Even, whether in grand or petit juries, when prosecutorial misconduct is very evident, prosecutors are rarely held to account.

Secondly we have to seriously rethink the militarization of local police forces. Too often we see local police conduct military style raids with equipment designed for war not law enforcement. During the standoff with the rancher in Nevada, law enforcement showed up with fully automatic military rifles. It is unlawful for Border Patrol officers to use these types of firearms against anyone unlawfully crossing the border, yet they can be used against US citizens? This creates a sense of extreme intimidation and often becomes a provocation. Additionally when you train local police in military tactics and give them military equipment they can too often act like the military and not law enforcement. Is there really a need for law enforcement to approach citizens with such intimidating force?

It would also help if we stopped criminalizing everything. This creates an almost defacto police state where big brother watches your every move. Each one of you reading this commits at least three felonies a day without knowing it. Our criminal code has become so large that it is impossible to know what is lawful and what is not. You might scoff at this but anyone of you can be arrested, charged and convicted, no matter your not knowing that you actions, innocent enough have become criminal. And when we look at the case in New York, the man who died was selling loose cigarettes. Why? Well because of the anti-tobacco mania a huge black market in cigarettes now thrives since the price of cigarettes in NY now includes a 190% tax, making a pack too expensive for some, hence the desire to buy just one or two. Do police really have to spend their time arresting people who sell lucies?

The discourse by our leaders has to become a lot less divisive. The President, his Attorney General and the master charlatan Sharpton have done nothing but divide the people of this country. It might be a good political strategy to win elections but it is a horrible way to ensure domestic tranquility. In a word the us-them mentality where one side vilifies the other and imputes malicious motives is too pervasive in the US. Real leaders find ways to bring people together, heal the hurts and move us forward and most of all they act like our servants not our lords. That sadly is not happening.

Finally, the undermining of legitimate authority, the creation of a culture of victimization and our obsession with finding ways out of the consequences of our behavior all help create a world without any sense personal moral responsibility. The erosion of human dignity additionally adds to the acerbic way we treat one another.

In the end, as we hear so strongly in the readings during Advent only God can establish true justice. But maybe if we stayed closer to the biblical principles of justice, human dignity, reconciliation and self-giving love our society might look more like the peaceful kingdom Isaiah envisioned.

Fr. John B.

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