During the past few months when there has been so much discussion about police officers, I started to think a lot about how I view police officers, as one who grew up and lived in different countries. My views have been made by the many encounters I had with them.
I lived in Yugoslavia until I was 15 years old. I stayed as far away as possible from the police officers. Their station was next to our school and we saw them every day. I do not remember ever talking with a police officer. They kept their distance from us and we kept our distance from them. A couple of times during the year, my Father was called to the police station and asked about our church. This was very interesting because our church was four houses from the police station. They could see who was coming to church. Thus, for me, the police officers were a part of the Communist government and the government was against us, Christians. We were considered second class citizens because we did not accept communism as the governing reality. Now, in school I had conversations with my professors who were communists about communism and Christianity, but I never had a conversation with a police officer, the enforcer of communism and of a lifestyle that kept us all safe.
The greatest amount of contact I had with the police was when we went to a nearby town to get our passports for a family vacation in Italy. The passport office was a part of the police station. We submitted our passport applications, were interviewed as to our reasons for going to Italy, and we received the passports from them.
When we arrived in Italy and lived in the refugee camp for 16 months, I encountered the Italian carabineri. They were the opposite of our police officers in Yugoslavia. They were the friendliest bunch. They greeted us and they tried to be very helpful. I enjoyed seeing them, even though I cannot remember ever having a conversation with them.
My family settled in Detroit in 1966. In 1967, we had the Detroit riots. It was a frightening experience. I went to a downtown school and most of my classmates and friends were black. We had police officers in our school and they were very friendly towards the students.
The major change for me came after I went to college. While in college, my best friend decided to become a police officer. He completed his training and he was assigned to the precinct where our church was located. The church leadership discovered he had to carry his gun 24/7. This meant that he was in the church, singing in the choir, and leading the Young People’s Worship service, all while having his gun with him. It was a long discussion in the Board of Deacons, but the more reasonable heads prevailed and he continued to carry his gun in the Worship Service and was a fine leader in our church.
Because I was trying to understand the context in which many members of our congregations lived, he challenged me one day to go and observe one of his shifts. I had to sign a waiver stating that I was doing this of my free will and that the Detroit Police Department was not responsible if I got hurt. I was told what to do and what not to do and then the second shift began. The first few hours were monotonous patrolling. Then suddenly our car got a call. There was a man in the neighborhood that had a gun. We were the first car to arrive on the scene. My friend got out of the police car and after racking a round into the shotgun, he got everyone’s attention. I had never heard that frightening sound that a shotgun makes when it is racked. The car was searched by the other police officer and they found a loaded shotgun in their car and a couple of knives. A different car took the arrested person to the precinct while we went back to the streets that we patrolled before. There was another minor call later on in the evening. This ended my experience riding in a police car. I do not think that I will do it again! I came away from this experience with a great appreciation for our police officers who run towards danger, while the rest of us run away from it.
I have lived in this area since 1990, 7 homes from the police station; therefore, I am well-known by the local police officers. However, my first month in AH did not start very well. I visited another church in the area and I was crossing First Avenue with greater speed than allowed. One of God’s chosen servants was nearby and he put his lights on and stopped me in front of the church. I took the important papers from the glove compartment and my driver’s license from my wallet. He looked at them for a while and then said, “Sir do you think that I am stupid?” I apologized profusely and told him that in no way did I think that about him. “You gave me a library card instead of your driver’s license.” The Princeton University library card had a picture on it and looked very similar to my driver’s license. When I gave him my driver’s license, he said, “Oh, you are the new minister in town.” What a great introduction!
In the United States, the majority of police officers that I encountered had to do with my driving over the speed limit. In the Midwest in the late 80’s, I was stopped by a police officer who told me that he was willing to help me if I paid him on the spot. I explained to him that I could not do it. I was surprised a few times when various police officers would stop me and speak in a loud voice to gain authority over me and I became completely discombobulated. After I received the ticket, I would say to myself, “You speak so many languages, but when you are stopped by a police officer, you come apart and you sound like a fool! Learn to speak as one individual to another, and do not let that imposed authority disintegrate you.” Occasionally, I have been stopped and the police officer, instead of addressing me, the driver, would talk flirtatiously with one of my daughters about my speeding. There have been many pleasant interactions with police officers as well. I was stopped, I recognized my fault, the officer did his job, and we parted as friends – he practicing the law of God and I presenting the grace of God.
Currently, in the church where we serve, there are two members who are police officers. I am aware of the difficult job they do and often pray for them and their families. I am aware that as I was called to preach the gospel, they have been called to enforce the laws of the land. We all have a high calling entrusted by God and are required to do it with enthusiasm, passion, justice, and integrity.