As we continue to mourn and reflect on the loss of George Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes even though he was already restrained and in handcuffs, we agonize over whether our country’s police departments will finally make the changes necessary to end this kind of brutality and racism. Real systemic changes are necessary and they will require bold and thoughtful leadership. They are the kind of changes the Catholic Church in the United States finally made in the face of terrible child abuse by priests that was doing irreparable harm to thousands of victims who continue to need our support and prayers. In 2002, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops put together a charter of procedures to deal with priests who were accused of abusing children that has greatly reduced the number of reported cases of child sexual abuse by priests in the last 18 years. (This is not to say that the Church doesn’t still struggle with properly dealing with the abuse cases that occurred prior to 2002 and it sadly also doesn’t mean that abuse doesn’t still happen in rare cases.) Here’s what the Bishops have done: they established a zero tolerance policy for accused abusers, made it mandatory to report all allegations of abuse to law enforcement agencies, created Safe Environment training to teach church staff and volunteers how to recognize the behavior of offenders and what to do about it, put together Codes of Conduct to clearly spell out what is acceptable behavior, put in place background checks for all staff and volunteers who come into contact with children, appointed Victim Assistance Coordinators to make sure victims voices are heard and set up intensive background and psychological testing for those seeking to become a priest. These were huge, systemic changes for an organization that, like most organizations, resists change. Prior to making these changes, the Church was focused on protecting priests and the institution rather than on justice for the victims. It took great courage and fortitude along with a lot of work and investment to finally put these policies in place. The same will be true for our police departments. Our police departments need to establish a zero-tolerance policy for brutality and racism and guilty police officers should be terminated and criminally charged. Police departments should set up independent review boards to ensure that victims are heard and their rights are upheld. New, improved and ongoing training is needed for all members of a police department to clearly teach what behavior is not acceptable and to empower and encourage all members of the department to report violations. Finally, new officers should undergo a thorough background check and psychological testing to root out individuals who may struggle to deal compassionately with people of all races and backgrounds or who have violent tendencies. (This is not to say that police departments haven’t implemented some of these and other policies against racism and brutality or that all police officers are guilty of such actions.) These changes will not be easy, they do not come without a cost and they will be resisted by many people. It will require a shift in priorities from protecting police officers and police departments to protecting the rights of the people they have sworn to serve. Perhaps this time we will have the courage and fortitude necessary to make the systemic changes that George Floyd’s death cries out for.
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