A few years ago a friend of mine was minding his sister-in-law Adelaide’s son for the afternoon. The day was hot and sticky, so Mike took five-year-old Zach to a local pool. When it was time to go home, Zach ignored Mike and refused to get out of the water. Mike’s temper flared. In a pique of anger, he lifted Zach out of the pool and slapped the boy’s behind.
As quick as the impact landed, so too arrived Mike’s regret and remorse. They were not a family who hit their kids. Zach’s cry registered surprise as well as sting, though the sting was obvious: a red mark emerged beneath the boy’s bathing suit.
The next day Mike was arrested. Zach’s parents had called the police and filed a complaint. Thus began the spiral of officers, attorneys, and social workers. Thus ceased civil contact between two segments of the family. As a white male without a previous record, Mike’s punishment was light: a fine; counseling; probation with the eventual possibility of a fully expunged record. Mike’s action prompted other changes. A long-time high school teacher, Mike decided to change careers for fear that his impulsive temper might flare in the classroom. And though Mike voiced consistent penitence, sometimes the consequences of that afternoon turned him belligerent, for however light his sentence might have been, it added up to a whole lot of wrath for a single slap.
At the time of the incident, my concern for my friend centered on his logistical challenges in navigating the criminal justice system. Mike completed the checklist of activities required for his punishment. By any objective measure the case is successfully closed: Mike will think twice before raising his hand again. Yet the rift between the two families has hardened.
Mike’s story came stampeding back into my head during a recent Zoom training about transformative justice. This summer’s agitation about police brutality has, belatedly, made me question how exactly police ‘protect and serve’ us. I’ve also begun to understand more deeply the structural flaws in a justice system premised on punishment. Under the guise of protecting the victim, we basically freeze the relationships of all parties to a crime at the worst possible moment. Restorative justice offers a positive direction; it seeks to bring parties together, address what transpired, and shape punishment in the form of amends. But transformative justice takes a step beyond. Transformative justice contends that the judicial system cannot address the root causes of criminality because it is rooted in a system that’s inherently unbalanced—the United States of America. Transformative justice empowers people to seek justice outside of existing systems. Not as vigilantes. As engaged neighbors and citizens, who mutually take care of one another.
As a white person living in a safe neighborhood, this idea is foreign to me. When we are harmed we call the police, and they ‘protect and serve’ us. However, that mindset does not apply to poor communities and communities of color. These sectors of our society don’t see police as a solution. Police represent the problem, and they represent it with guns on their belts.
As the ramifications of transformative justice sink into me, my friend’s tragedy has reemerged in my mind. Mike and I rarely talk about his abusive act and subsequent punishment anymore; or whether he misses teaching, hanging out with Adelaide and Tom, or watching Zach grow up. In Mike’s case, the police did the right thing: arrested a man who struck a child. They acted appropriate to their role from the moment they were called on the case.
But the precepts of transformative justice redirect the pertinent issue in this story. Why were the police called in the first place? Mike will never know what Zach told his parents when the boy returned from the pool; he will never see how bad that bruise turned, or why Adelaide and Tom decided to call the police. What he does know is that they chose to hand the situation over to the law rather than communicate directly with their brother-in-law.
Somewhere between the 1950’s and 2010’s we, as individuals and as a society, began offloading the difficult task of getting along and taking care of each other to government authorities. I pick the year 1950 only because there was no way, when this rather fat, clumsy, bullied boy was growing up, that my parents would call the police when a neighbor slapped my behind. No way. Yet in 2020 many Americans make a libertarian cry for less government and more individual freedom, and then defer a family dispute—serious, yet completely internal to the family—to the public arena.
We have grown to expect social agencies to provides services that families used to provide themselves. Our schools provide lunch, and breakfast, as well as a Friday backpack of weekend food for undernourished students; senior programs provide meals, social activities and rides to appointments. The same expectations apply more and more to our policing. Adelaide and Tom had every ‘right’ to call the police; their son had been struck. But what they did wasn’t right. It was safe, non-confrontational, even easy. In calling the police, they avoided the hard work of having to address a difficult problem within their own family. As a result, the family is permanently diminished.
Reshaping how the police protect and serve us—all of us—requires all of us to reconsider how we lean on the police. Call them less. Communicate amongst ourselves more. Even, especially, when it is difficult to do.