GUEST COLUMNIST | A vocation to serve and protect

In June, at an audience with Pope Francis in Vatican City, Italian police officers were thanked for their service. The pope emphasized to them, "your vocation is service," and he highlighted how their mission as police officers "is expressed in service to others" through their "constant availability, patience, a spirit of sacrifice and sense of duty."

Adhering to this understanding of their calling and its expectations, the pope noted, maintains the trust and "the confidence and esteem" that the people place in them. One officer present, Matteo Gianerelli, said he appreciated the pope's words and affirmed that being a policeman means for him "to help people, the people who need my help."

Gianerelli said he joined the police because his father was an officer who provided a good example for him to follow.

I, too, followed in the footsteps of my mother, who was a police officer in Florida. I initially became a correctional officer there in order to work my way through college. Later, as a young professor I also volunteered as a reserve police officer and I served as a police academy ethics instructor.

When I undertook these duties in law enforcement, I genuinely hoped to serve and protect the community, as the memorable motto puts it. As a Catholic moral theologian, I think Pope Francis's words to police officers are spot on.

Unfortunately, I also know how difficult the job can be for law enforcement officers, who often deal with the worst side of people, as well as dangerous situations. The job can make an officer cynical. Many criminologists and police experts warn about the temptation toward an "us versus them" mentality. The emphasis on the use of force as the core or essence of policing, rather than a necessary instrument, is also worrisome. A "military" model of policing exacerbates these problems. And each of these is worsened when racism is a variable.

In Catholic moral teaching, racism is intrinsically evil and never morally justifiable. On the use of force, as with the military — actually, even more so — the use of armed force for "legitimate defense" must be subject to "rigorous consideration" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2309) in order to be morally justifiable. I say "more so" because police are dealing with fellow citizens, not foreign enemies.

When Sir Robert Peel (after whom the "bobbies" are named) established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, he intentionally distinguished them from the military. Proactive rather than reactive, fellow citizens and partners rather than an occupying force, they were what we used to call them: peace officers. Prominent police ethicist John Kleinig refers to this as the "social peacekeeper" model of policing, and community policing at its best exemplifies it.

Pope Francis is correct: "Your vocation is service."

Winright, the Hubert Mäder endowed associate professor of health care ethics at St. Louis University, is currently writing a book on just and unjust policing. 

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