A word of difference in tackling a recurring tragedy
ColumnKeeping the Faith

A word of difference in tackling a recurring tragedy

We heard much about “defunding the police” in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. We are hearing it again now following the vicious and fatal beating on January 7 of a 29-year-old Memphis man, Tyre Nichols — a beating that was captured on a series of damning videos. This time, though, not only was yet another Black motorist killed by police, the officers responsible were also Black, the Memphis Police Department they served in is 58 percent Black, and Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis is black.

That there was no effort to cover up this crime, as there was, say, in 1991, following the vicious beating by four white officers in Los Angeles that almost took the life of a Black man, Rodney King, does not matter to the defund crowd. The Black Lives Matter activist D’Zhane Parker, for example, said in a statement that Nichols’s beating “affirms” that only defunding the police will turn things around.

“Defund the police” was wrong when it first appeared, and it is wrong today. Police budgets are not the problem, and neither is it a matter of race. It is police culture that must be addressed.

Yale University law professor James Forman Jr., son of one of the last century’s most influential civil rights leaders, explained the issue this way: “What are the theories of policing and styles of policing, the training that police receive? All of those dynamics that propel violence and brutality are more powerful than the race of the officer.”

Reforming police culture, not defunding police departments, is a cause we must all support. Calls to “Defund the Police,” however, are more likely to dissuade us from doing so.

The word “defund” has only one meaning, regardless of what dictionary we use. Merriam-Webster, the Cambridge English Dictionary, and the New Oxford American Dictionary each uses different words, but they all say the same thing. To defund something is to take away the money from that something. The slogan “Defund the police,” in its unequivocal definition, means to take the money — all the money — away from the police. It is another way of saying “let’s get rid of the police altogether.”

That is not what this campaign should be about. Its goal, among other things, should be to reallocate police budgets to meet the problems that are so readily evident in such cases as the deaths of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols.

An April 2021 paper written by University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray and Clark Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute, addressed how reform may be achieved. It was published by the Brookings Institution.

“Police,” Ray and Neily wrote, “have to be of the people and for the people. Often times, police officers talk about themselves as if they are detached from the community. Officers often view themselves as warriors at war with the people in the communities they serve. Police officers embody an ‘us versus them’ perspective, rather than viewing themselves to be part of the community.”

While they acknowledge that “police officers rarely get credit for the everyday, mundane things they do to make their communities safe and protect and serve,” what is needed is “a change to police culture regarding how police officers view themselves and view others.”

What is needed, they write, is “a fundamental reconceptualization of both the mission of police and the culture in which that mission is carried out.” Policing, they argued, should “be about respecting individuals and not using force.”

Among the ways to achieve this “ethical approach to policing” is spending more time and money on the appropriate kinds of training police receive. “Nationally, officers receive about 50 hours of firearm training during the police academy,” the two professors wrote. “They receive less than 10 hours of de-escalation training. So, when they show up at a scene and pull their weapon…, poor decisions and bad outcomes should not be surprising…. Funding can be provided to have federally certified trainers who work with localities within states, counties, and cities.”

It is also crucial to add money to police budgets for mental health counseling that should be required on a quarterly basis, not just yearly or just occasionally, they wrote. “Recent research has highlighted that about 80 percent of officers suffer from chronic stress. They suffer from depression, anxiety. They have relationship problems, and they get angered easily. One out of six report being suicidal. Another one out of six report substance abuse problems. Most sobering, 90 percent of them never seek help.”

Although the two writers do not address this point, some funds should be diverted from police budgets to the communities police serve to support the kinds of problems that breed crime — poverty, homelessness, mental illness — problems police departments are forced to deal with daily but are woefully ill-equipped to handle.

A case in point is the killing of a 20-year-old mentally disturbed Arif Sayed Faisal, a computer science major at the University of Massachusetts Boston. It was the subject of “defund” demonstrations last weekend in Cambridge, Mass. Faisal was in a courtyard cutting himself with a long-bladed knife and some broken glass when police approached him. The Bangladeshi immigrant soon lay dead, after having been shot five times. A 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center — “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters” — found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed when stopped by police than other civilians. Such deaths, in fact, account for as many as half of all fatal police shootings, according to the study.

Here is what then Dallas police chief David O’Neal Brown had to say about such situations in a 2016 interview with the Washington Post: “Every societal failure, we put it off for the cops to solve. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.” (Brown today is superintendent of the Chicago police department, and he has worked to put his words into practice there.)

Making better use of some of the money that currently goes into policing is what “Defund the Police” should mean, but that is not what some of its most vocal supporters want it to mean, and it certainly is not what most people think it means when they hear that word defund.

That brings us to Jewish law. Halachah requires us to be very careful with the words we use.

Words can kill, according to the Bible, the Tanach, and according to our Sages of Blessed Memory and the many halachic authorities who came after them.

In the Tanach, for example, Proverbs 18:21 says: “Death and life are in the tongue’s power; and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and himself a translator of the Tanach, explains that verse this way: “A cultivated person delights in language and takes pleasure in its apt use, and this exercise of well-considered expression will [contribute greatly] to his profit.”

Then there’s Psalm 120:3, which reads, “What shall be given to you, what more shall be done for you, O deceitful tongue?” In the Talmud, the renowned Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explained this verse from Psalms this way:

God “said to the tongue: All the other limbs of a person are upright, but you are lying horizontally. All the other limbs of a person are external, but you are internal. And moreover, I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone [the teeth] and one of flesh [the lips]. What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done for you, to prevent you from speaking in a deceitful manner?” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Arachin 15b.)

Often, even oblique biblical verses are used to make the same point. For example, in Genesis 2:7, we are told: “And the Lord God formed ha-adam [the first human and]…blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and the human became a living being.”

The most authoritative Aramaic translator, Onkelos—whose translations appear side-by-side with the Hebrew text in many printed versions of the Torah—translated that verse this way:

“And the Lord God created the human [out of] dust from the earth and breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and it became in ha-adam a spirit uttering speech.”

Rashi, the great commentator of a millennium ago, expanded on this: “By blowing the soul of life into our nostrils, God was blowing into the human de’ah v’dibbur [understanding and speech.”

All these quotes say the same thing: Humans were endowed with the gift of God’s breath, meaning our soul. So the words we use must be chosen wisely, because to speak means to expel some of God’s breath. To misspeak—or worse, to speak words that can cause harm—is to abuse God’s gift.

Words can kill; in this case, the use of the word defund is likely to turn off the very people we need to effectively reform police culture, namely the politicians and the people who elect them.

A bill in the last Congress, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, would have gone a considerable distance in bringing about cultural reform. It passed the Democratic House but failed in the Senate because it lacked Republican support. That and similar bills are unlikely to see the light of day in the current Congress, but we can — we must — insist that our local legislators enact such laws in our state, and we must find ways to appeal to more liberal-minded Republicans in the House to vote for a reintroduced George Floyd Act.

We are held accountable for the crimes we commit. Police should be held accountable for the crimes they commit.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.

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