Heaven Is Where the Police Are British

Chris Mason, an Middlebury Police Officer, shares his perspective on policing and what brought him to policing.

Heaven Is Where the Police Are British 07.27.2014 OOS Sermon by Chris Mason

My name is Christopher Mason, and I am a police officer.

I speak it as a confession – AA style – partly out of facetiousness, but partly to highlight a tension that rests at the heart of my professional life – it’s a perceived tension, that is very frequently commented upon. The comments are almost always framed as compliments – often they go something like, “I really hate cops, but you seem okay.” Which is very gratifying, of course – it’s always nice not to be hated – but it’s rather disconcerting at the same time. Once, after getting an article published in the local paper, somebody enthusiastically told me, “I assumed somebody had written it for you.” She was just that amazed to discover a humble police officer could effectively express complex ideas.

In those happy moments when I’m seen as intelligent it’s often considered a bold contradiction to my profession – the same if I’m perceived as polite, charming, engaged or tolerant.

I suspect the idea of me being these things may have more to do with my accent than my personality – an entrenched tendency among Americans to regard English people as much smarter and much nicer than they really are – a tendency that causes my long-suffering spouse no end of frustration – imagine for a moment articulately expressing an idea and having it politely disregarded, then having the man next to you say essentially the same thing and having him lavishly praised for his wisdom and insight – such is her cross to bear – or, one of her crosses.

But, whatever the true measure of my faculties and charms, it certainly reveals something about peoples’ perception of police that they’re so consistently surprised by my occasional flourishes of intelligence and decency.

There’s an old adage I used for the title of this service which plays upon some classic European stereotypes – it runs:

Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French,
the mechanics German, the lovers Italian, and it is all organized by the Swiss.

Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss,
the police German, and it is all organized by the Italians.

My interpretation – assuming I’m reading the stereotypes accurately – is that people like the idea of their police being polite – even if they assume the opposite. Again, I think my accent is a tremendous asset.

Beyond the intellectual, emotional and social shortcomings of police, the only assumption made about them with greater frequency is that they eat vast quantities of donuts, and are, by extension, overweight and lazy. This has caused me considerable personal grief, because I used to enjoy the occasional binge – but now the fear of validating the image is so powerful, I won’t go near one in public.

Of course, this isn’t the whole story – I’m sure most people possess a more nuanced concept of  idea of police – but the negative associations are so ubiquitous – they are reproduced so frequently and with such consistency in our culture, that I don’t imagine anyone can avoid being influenced by them. What images flash through your mind when you think of police? Noble images – or images of brutality? Do you think of acts of kindness and self-sacrifice – or is your mind irresistibly drawn to that moment when an officer gave you a ticket despite your most elaborate and convincing excuse – or worse, despite your most endearing puppy-dog eyes?

What does it mean that police officers are seen as dull-witted, crude, brutal, morally corrupt, gluttonous and indolent? Certainly there are officers who display these qualities – and I’m sure all of us occasionally succumb. I’ve made some pretty dull-witted choices in my time – just ask my aforementioned spouse. But the power of the image speaks to a deeper association.

It’s curious, I think, that when police are depicted as heroic they’re almost invariably acting outside the boundaries of the law – a noble individual on a crusade for justice. We like our heroes to be rebels – the wronged and the persecuted, standing against oppression and exacting vengeance upon the wicked. Plucky, noble America, facing down the might of the evil British Empire (my accent may be against me on that score).

Institutional authority is something that makes us profoundly uneasy – it’s associated with despotism – with all the modes of government we like to reject as anti-democratic. Institutional authority is in many ways the antithesis of the American ideal – the ruggedly independent frontiersman – and what could be more symbolic of that authority than a police officer – from the officious uniform and the intimidating vehicle, to the short hair, and militaristic weaponry – the very term, ‘law enforcement’ reeks of oppression.

So, given all these negative associations, why did I choose to become a police officer? After all, I was certainly not immune to the prejudices – some of them remain with me even now.

It’s a question every cop gets asked, over and over – why did you become a police officer? Typically we come up with an easy, well-rehearsed response – something along the lines of, “To help people.”

This answer always struck me as too trite, so I started telling people it was for the health insurance – which is true – but certainly not the whole story.

A more honest answer is that I realized one day – almost as a revelation – what qualities might be required of a good, effective police officer.

My falling off the horse moment happened when I was living in Virginia, working in Charlottesville. A vehicle I owned was hit by a car in a parking lot, and the operator drove away, scraping a couple of other cars on the way out and leaving a pile of shattered glass on the asphalt. A police officer showed up, and eventually the driver was identified and summoned back to the scene. It turned out he was mentally impaired – possibly due to medication – possibly due to a lack of medication. I watched the police officer get increasingly irritated with this infuriating individual, and I realized that law enforcement must regularly consist of dealing with people who have limited personal resources – or people whose resources are outstripped by a crisis – and the goal is to bring some measure of calm and stability into the chaos that creates. It struck me that I might be good at that, being, on the whole, a rather patient and tolerant individual. It also struck me that I might find it tremendously rewarding.

In essence, watching that poor, beleaguered officer steadily losing his cool, helped me to see that the qualities most essential in law enforcement are the exact opposite of the things most commonly associated with it – basically compassion, tolerance and patience.

As that seed germinated – and keep in mind, I was living in a hippie commune at the time – I came to realize, that policing, in essence, was an enterprise dedicated to supporting and strengthening community – that it’s fundamental purpose is to combat the things that undermine social connectedness. It occurred to me, crimes are not crimes because they’re an affront to some ultimate moral order – it’s not about good and evil in an abstract, idealized sense – crimes are crimes because they do violence to the social fabric. Theft makes it impossible to trust, violence propagates fear – even traffic patrol exists to diminish injury and death on our roads, and so reduce grief and suffering. If you want to understand drug enforcement, it’s essential to view it in terms of its social impact – if an adult makes the conscious choice to get high, that’s one thing, but if they’re stealing and committing acts of violence to support their habit, that’s quite another. It all comes back to community.

With that in mind, the leap from hippie commune to police academy isn’t quite so startling – though I admit, the cultural whiplash was severe.

In essence I became a police officer for the same reasons I moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains to live in an intentional community – to help build a stronger sense of neighborhood – and to be an engaged, constructive member of that neighborhood.

And so I found the Middlebury Police Department – a department committed to community policing. Perhaps one of the few departments that would have hired someone with my eclectic background. Or maybe it found me – some sort of cosmic destiny thing.

And here I’ve been for the past 5 years or so – and it’s become clear that moment of clarity back in the parking lot in Charlottesville was a moment of true prescience – police work is social work, far more than it is straightforward enforcement – and even those more classic functions are rendered effective through community presence and trust. At its heart police work is a collaborative social enterprise.

I don’t imagine that’s surprising to many of the people here today – but I think it bears emphasizing. One thing that has really surprised me, however, is the process of arrest. So often it’s imagined as a violent, intrusive experience – which it certainly can be, but there’s another dimension to it that’s almost never portrayed – a bizarre and powerful intimacy. Often it’s adversarial – the officer is perceived by the person being arrested as the root of the problem – the instrument of their suffering – but, at the same time, the officer is the person who’s there as the emotional impact unfolds.

Frequently I find myself in the position of a confidant – I’m looked to for support. Sometimes after the screaming, and the colorful language, and possibly even the hurling about of things – a peculiar bond develops, and I learn about a person’s trauma serving in Iraq, or the loss of love – I hear tales of loneliness and grief – and shame, and, all too often, self-loathing. I see people at what might be one of their most vulnerable moments, and by demonstrating that though I am implacably holding them accountable for their actions, I don’t believe they’re essentially bad, they’re often willing to permit me a privileged glimpse into their brokenness. It amazes me that through a very basic demonstration of compassion, people in situations that are characterized as among the most fundamentally hostile, can establish trust and respect – it’s a stark demonstration of the power of compassion.

Of course, these are the sublime moments, when I’m able to ‘love Humanity’, as Cummings put it – despite how reckless and destructive the person might have been – and despite how desperately they’re striving to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. There are certainly those moments when I’m driven to ‘hate Humanity’.

As a police officer it’s a daily challenge to love under difficult circumstances – to love in the face of anger and abuse – it’s a daily challenge to acknowledge the inherent dignity of people who are seemingly stripped of every last shred of it – and it’s a daily challenge to feel a sincere connection with people who express hatred toward you.

I believe these are the most fundamental and profound challenges facing police officers – and it is by meeting these challenges that officers ultimately serve and strengthen their community – yes, by enforcing the law, but enforcing it from a place of reverence and striving always to reach a place of grace.

With that in mind, I’d like to end with a prayer – it’s a prayer that doesn’t really reflect my theology, but seemed appropriate nonetheless:

Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, the truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy

O divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

To be understood, so much as to understand;

To be loved, so much as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

A poem by e. e. cummings:

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both

parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard

Humanity i love you because
when you’re hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you’re flush pride keeps

you from the pawn shop and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down

on it
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity

i hate you