In New York, as I am sure in many major cities, it is common to find many members of the departments who are Jewish. But isn’t their faith antithetical to police work? My conservative Jewish Intern will explain. As we are traveling through the Hanukkah season we must not forget the members of the Jewish faith in Blue. — Gary and Anne
An Officer and Jewish
Today, we have reached a point in time where discrimination is not only discouraged—it is illegal. This is with regards to gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. Despite this, there are many things to consider within a religious group. In this post, I would like to discuss with you some considerations that must be evaluated for Jews who want to join the police force.
The Chumash (one of the sections of the Jewish bible) requires that Jews establish a police force. Indeed, a robust police force is a required feature of all Jewish communities. At the same time, the bible makes it very clear that police officers are enforcers, not executors of justice, or punishers. The role of police officers is to find and prevent criminal activities. Their responsibilities do not include exacting retribution against those they feel are deserving. This is an important distinction that is emphasized many times in the bible—and it is a distinction that bears emphasizing here. Studies show that there are three main levels of police force: legal, extra-legal, and excessive. Most notably, many cops maintain that extra-legal force (while not within the technical confines of the law) is allowed and necessary depending on the situation and other abstract factors. In other words, many times cops see themselves as the executors of justice, while, in fact, their role is really meant to be enforcers of justice.
And yet, despite the requirement to establish a strong police force in every community, historically, the Jews have had a distrust for the civil authority. This often led to a disinterest in joining secular police forces. For instance, it is recorded that one Jewish man was a detective and investigator for the Roman police force, and his friends all told him this brought about “divine displeasure.” The story ends there, but many Rabbis explain the reasoning here. In these ancient time periods, the secular government was oftentimes unfair and unjust. People did not receive fair trails, and punishments were regularly inhumane and excessive. For this reason, this man’s friends frowned upon the practice of ratting our Jewish criminals to the Roman authority. This, however, was the case in that particular circumstance. Today, joining secular police forces are seen as a respectable profession in the Jewish community. Why? Because the laws and consequences in this country are executed fairly, equal treatment for all. In such a case, the bible permits reporting on other Jews, even if they are alleged violators.
In fact, in some cases it is even encouraged to join the police force! One concern many people address is the idea that the bible encourages us to lead lifestyles of refinement and poise. The concern here is that being exposed to a life of violence and authority that invariably comes hand in hand with police work may be incompatible with the personality and the psyche that God encourages us to pursue. But, many Rabbis explain that this is not a valid concern. Indeed, it is recorded in many books that everyone has different personalities and inclinations for different professions. The bible says there are those people who are predisposed toward violence and blood. Instead of trying to counter their very nature, we should encourage them to pursue positive professions that are align with their personalities. For instance, such an individual should become a butcher and sell animal meat. In psychological terms, this is called sublimation, a Freudian defense mechanism. Sublimation is a mature defense mechanism where socially unacceptable behaviors (such as murder and violence) are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable behaviors (such as become a butcher). Eventually, this can lead to a permanent alteration of the initial inappropriate impulse.
Police work is just like this. The bible does not want to discourage people who have a penchant for control, authority, even violence and toughness. Instead, it wants to nurture it and find positive outlets for such behaviors. Becoming enforcers of the law—particularly in developed countries in which we can rely on the fact that the laws will be just and equal—is one such way to do so.
Reports from Jewish police officers also show that “Jewish cops often feel in their work a sense of moral mission that is intertwined with their Judaism.” In other words, many cops (Jewish and otherwise) are motivated by their faith. This moral framework can help Jews navigate the more unpleasant realities of police work. Many Jews encourage a lifestyle of “tikun olam”—making the world a better place. Working with law enforcement gives these Jewish individuals a sense that they are working toward a greater goal, one of betterment for our society.
Today, there are about 3,000 Jews in the NYPD. While this is a small percentage, it should also be noted that many Jews volunteer for citizen watch programs (called “shomrim” in the Jewish communities). In addition, Jews have a long-standing history with law enforcement in America. Historical records show that a Polish Jew living in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in the 1600s demanded that the governor allow him to take up arms alongside the other colonists in order to protect his home.
Perhaps Jews will always feel a sense of being an “outsider,” especially when it comes to being a police officer. And perhaps Jews will always look at authority figures with a sense of trepidation (considering what happened with the Holocaust, this may even be a valid concern). But the fact that Jews are becoming increasingly involved with local police forces is definitely a step forward in the right direction.
Police Psychology Intern
Blog Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.
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