Applying Just War Theory To Community Policing (Nathaniel Grimes)

Current Events, Just Policing

How can peace-minded Christians (specifically Roman Catholics and Mennonites) find common ground on the problems of war and policing?

A decade ago, Gerald Schlabach put forward a proposal for “Just Policing”, which is worth reconsidering today in light of two recent developments.

The first is the media attention and nationwide grassroots organizing around the problems of police militarization and brutality, and bipartisan calls for reform. The second is the historic Vatican conference that took place this spring, in which participants, including Schlabach, further problematized “just-war” rhetoric and called for deeper church reflection (including a papal encylical) on “just peace” and nonviolence.

Schlabach’s proposal of “Just Policing” is meant to draw Catholics and Mennonites, both just war-theorists and pacifists, into dialogues and practices that might make the world less violent. Towards this end, he makes at least two helpful critiques. The first is that just-war theory has too often simply been a means for justifying and legitimizing war, rather than a proper means of discernment. He also (rightly) criticizes Mennonites for the tendency to focus on the avoidance of violence at the expense of deep practices of community peacemaking, and for the way in the twentieth century they have focused so much attention on war and militarism without extended critical engagement of policing.

He proposes that pacifists and just war theorists work together towards a system of “community policing” which might serve as a model for international systems of peacekeeping and peacemaking. “Community policing” in this proposal is marked by police that are demilitarized, that use force only as a last resort, that seek the common good of communities of which they are a part, and that work to prevent crime and create peace rather simply punish offenders.

The main sticking point in the “Just Policing” proposal that would keep pacifists and just war theorists apart was the question of whether Christians can support, or even participate in the use of lethal force.  Readers can judge for themselves the extent to which Schlabach and his interlocutors found any possibility of common ground on that subject.  However, Schlabach’s critiques may prove to be useful in allowing Christians to discern the function of policing, and the ends to which the force – lethal or otherwise – intrinsic to modern policing is used.

“War is the continuation of politics by other means.” This famous line from von Clausewitz is used by one of the contributors to “Just Policing” as a negative example of what he refers to as the “realist” position on international warfare. The implication is that practices of “community policing” are in fact a viable alternative to warfare – just policing, not war. In this framing, policing is a form of peacemaking for the common good.

However, inSociety Must Be Defended” Michel Foucault provides us with another means of analysis by inverting von Clausewitz’s line, claiming instead “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” The power dynamics of modern policing make it a site of political contestation, a very real war. Recent reports from places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago echo what poor people and people of color have been saying around the country – the police seem to be an occupying force that plunder instead of protect the most marginalized.

Given this evidence, perhaps the most helpful way to approach both policing and war is not to reframe war in terms of policing, but first to analyze policing as a form of war. With this approach, we can apply Schlabach’s critiques in a way that does not take policing for granted, but marks it as an institution which Christians will need to discern together how to engage.

If the just war tradition has too often taken the political necessity of war for granted, this same instinct has also led to a deficiency of “just war” theorizing with regard to the police. What might it look like to apply all the criteria of this tradition to the practices of policing? How might the preferential option for the poor guide our reflection on the carceral state as an institution that disproportionately targets the underclass?

The Mennonite pacifist tradition can likewise contribute by engaging with modern policing as vigorously as international warfare, and not limiting critiques to the obvious acts of violence caught on so many dashcam and cell phone videos. Rather than simply excusing ourselves from policing conversations, or abstaining from participation in state violence while at the same time depending on the order it creates, how can we offer alternative visions of community life together?

Together as Christians who uphold the sanctity of life we should certainly work towards fewer deaths, but also a deeper definition of life. If the police do not kill, but still serve as agents of economic and social domination, can uncritical acceptance of their role be considered “pro-life” in any meaningful sense?

These analyses will be a challenge for all peace-minded Christians, because it will not allow us to take the institution of police for granted as a public good. We will have to pay attention to the historical and social function of policing and of the carceral state as a whole, regardless of the intentions of those who serve in policing roles.

This kind of discernment must not be content to think of policing as we might like it to be, as theoretical, neutral enforcement of the law, but may allow us the possibility of witnessing to a form of community that is organized both by the Catholic option for the poor, and the Mennonite commitment to nonviolence.

Nathaniel Grimes is a Mennonite seminarian in West Chicagoland studying political theology and critical theory.

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