The Price of Freedom
By Samuel L. Feemster, M.Div., J.D.
Join with me in praise to our God for the gift of life and for the privilege of living in a free country. Ours is a nation where officers of the law can assemble on a Tuesday afternoon for contemplative reflections without fear of repercussion or persecution for failing to doff official uniforms before entering into sacred space sanctified for worship. We thank Chief Cook and Sheriff Lawhorne for exemplary leadership that empowers officers and deputies in the city of Alexandria to chart a present course illuminated by the wisdom of collective experiences and guided by the promises of undaunted hope. We also acknowledge the participation of state and local public officials who support the mission, vision, and core values of law enforcement and pause with us for this memorial service.
Special Agent Feemster, an instructor in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy, delivered this speech at the National Police Week Memorial Service for Law Enforcement Officers in Alexandria, Virginia, May 11, 2010.
The history of law enforcement in the city of Alexandria dates back to the late 18th century when the fundamental need to care for one another provided the basis for community. Then, the purpose of government was to promote the commonwealth, and the primacy of the common good prevailed. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of individuals who are reliant upon each other for survival, citizens passed laws to guard against disorder, deviance, and destruction. Citizens hired fellow citizens as night watchmen to enforce these laws. The efficiency of night watchmen gave way to around-the-clock policing. Correctly surmising this evolution, Sir Robert Peel said, "The police are the public, and the public are the police."
Over a period spanning more than 200 years, the city of Alexandria has lost 17 citizens to death in the line of duty, 16 officers and 1 deputy. Without a doubt, these numbers reflect the increasing proficiency of recruitment programs, training curricula, and community support for a noble vocation where exposure to violent and predatory behavior is a constant threat. However, notwithstanding the collective best efforts of departments across our nation, our law enforcement family loses a member every 53 hours as a result of adversarial actions.
This week, our nation pays tribute to 127 citizens whose tour of duty as officers of the law exacted an awesome price. We who survive inherit the admonition to never forget the price of freedom nor neglect our responsibility to ensure the welfare of the public servants who guard the privileges guaranteed by our freedom. Primary among our duties as protected citizens is to be ambassadors and advocates for the priority of officer wellness for all law enforcement personnel who voluntarily respond to the call to unselfishly serve the communities that comprise our nation.
While we are gathered in the safety of this sacred place for a few moments of reflection and challenge, members of our global family will be exposed to circumstances that require appropriate and immediate interventions of varying degrees and dynamics. These circumstances that interrupt the pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness arise out of the human condition that influences individual behaviors, both good and bad, and dictates national strategies of international implications. In light of our shared fallen humanity, members of our family are constantly expected to perform as ministers of reconciliation.
While we are here, some will be dispatched to talk with children and seniors about our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Some will be tasked to maintain order through tactical presence and patrols. Others will be dispatched to encounter and traverse the evil and extreme toxicity that inhabit the crimes and crime scenes of human predators. These welcome and unwelcome tasks are endured by citizens who accept the moral obligation to serve the public interest—citizens who answered the call to law enforcement because nothing else could fulfill them intrinsically.
Some scholars suggest that in our society, the concept of calling rings with a decidedly spiritual chord. This perspective resonates in my spirit. The extended family God gave me also was populated with individuals whose calling card was a particular skill at which they were especially adapted. My grandfather was a very skillful livestock dresser and backyard butcher. His reputation for salvaging the "whole hog," so to speak, resulted in a constant demand for his services.
Around our church, Aunt Alice was able to coax the most reserved child in our community to memorize and admirably perform a scripture recitation on Children's Day. Everyone understood that she was born to nurture and encourage children.
Throughout the Ebenezer Association of Churches, Reverend Samuel L. Raper was known as an awesome builder of churches. He led five congregations to build and pay for edifices that included classrooms, administrative offices, and simple sanctuaries imbued with ethereal qualities. No one doubted that Reverend Raper was called to help disenfranchised congregations navigate the minefields of institutionalized socioeconomic discrimination.
Then, there was Mr. William Edwards: the shop teacher, Future Farmers of America advisor, and part-time auxiliary police officer who had no lawful authority but arrested the community through exemplary leadership and influence. Everyone in the community believed in Mr. Edwards.
At a very early age, it became apparent to me that certain people seemed called or especially equipped to perform tasks essential for the welfare of a community. Through exposure to Pastor Osborne Howell—a man who bought, bagged, and delivered coal to impoverished citizens living in the slums of Cleveland County, North Carolina—a theology of "calling" began to take shape in my mind. The connection between the church and a pastoral call began to crystallize, but it was less clear whether God called livestock dressers and police officers.
More than a few incidents over the past 33 years redirected my course and modified my understanding of what it means to be fully engaged in a divinely ordained calling. Between law school and seminary, my weekly schedule included investigating and arresting individuals who disobeyed man's laws and teaching and serving other individuals who professed obedience to God's laws.
Matured by the experiences and exposures afforded by the complementary public services, it became clear to me that the equitable enforcement of just laws is an inherently spiritual vocation. Seasoned officers appreciate the distinction between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Likewise, confronting sectarian and civil injustice in the course of public service and private pursuits underscored the reality that adherence to ethics and sectarian religious practice does not make individuals nor their practice inherently spiritual. Conversely, the impartial enforcement of just laws is spirituality personified.
In view of these realities, it is my belief that special people are called into law enforcement: people who desire to serve the public interest and who embrace the motto of respect, responsibility, and results; people who appreciate that their vocation links them to fellow workers and a larger community; people who are able to embrace the transformative power of spiritual maturity. Given the nature of law enforcement and the character of individuals who are called to become officers of the law, it follows that law enforcement officers are ministers of reconciliation. 911 does not ring at the church, parish, synagogue, temple, or shrine. 911 rings at all local police departments. In every community across our nation, people hear in the sirens the harmony of help and hope, the promise of rescue and relief. Law enforcement officers are the ministers who meet the needs of friends and strangers in their darkest hours. They possess the unique ability to give or restrain liberty with equal compassion and dignity as circumstances dictate.
How shall we memorialize officers whose response to another citizen in crisis ended their tour of duty? Is it enough to pause 1 day a year for a few hours? Indeed, it is proper for us to look back and embrace the memories and memorials that we inherit. But, we also must look forward and envision a future where each passing year will witness fewer and fewer names added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial. Toward this end, our present embrace of best practices for training and equipping officers, based upon past experiences and future expectation, is arguably the proper way to remember those who were called to give their lives in the line of duty.
While we are gathered near our nation's capital to embrace and experience her expressions of gratitude during National Police Week, some of us present are suffering from unacknowledged and unresolved issues resulting from extant law enforcement practices and toxic exposures, practices that may be exacerbated by the unrealistic expectation that we are, without multidimensional training and commensurate community resources, able to rise above the very human frailties that make our presence and service essential. It is my responsibility to remind us today that ministers of reconciliation, as hardy as we might be, sometimes need to be rescued, revived, redeemed, and restored.
For much of this decade, it has been my privilege to pursue the development of a new body of knowledge regarding the nexus between spirituality and law enforcement. These efforts, currently embodied in a Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) project, Beyond Survival Toward Officer Wellness (BeSTOW),1 target the development of the internal weapons of spirituality and spiritual intelligence that police officers must cultivate to pursue our profession at the highest levels of human potential. BeSTOW is designed to move officers beyond survival toward officer wellness through spiritualityoriented policing.
Sisters and brothers, citizens of Alexandria, we must take care of our own. The priority of officer wellness should be the signature of our memories and of our hopes.
1 For additional information, see Samuel L. Feemster, "Spirituality: The DNA of Law Enforcement Practice," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2007, 8-17; "Spirituality: An Invisible Weapon for Wounded Warriors," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 2009, 1-12; and "Wellness and Spirituality: Beyond Survival Practices for Wounded Warriors," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2009, 2-8.