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Police officers are not mere government functionaries, but rather angelic beings bearing a divine commission to impose summary punishment – and must be obeyed, prayed for, and never spoken of other than in tones of chastened gratitude and unalloyed reverence. This was the message preached by Pastor Jay Dennis of Lakeland, Florida’s First Baptist Church on the Mall during “Law Enforcement Encouragement Sunday” on October 4.

In his zeal to preach the gospel of submission to state “authority,” Pastor Dennis – who is also a notable anti-pornography campaigner – ignored a multitude of sins committed by the Lakeland PD, including huge sexual misconduct scandal implicating several ranking officers. He likewise chose to ignore numerous incidents in which innocent people have been beaten and even mutilated by the LPD’s ministering angels of divine justice – but Pastor Dennis appears to believe that nobody on the receiving end of state-consecrated violence can be regarded as truly innocent.

Pastor Dennis opened his sermon in entirely predictable fashion by citing the thirteenth chapter of the New Testament’s Epistle to the Romans, which is widely (and, according to some orthodox Christian clergy, mistakenly) construed as counseling unqualified submission to political rulers.

"`Do you want to have no fear of authority?’” asked Dennis, reading from the modern language translation of the passage.” “`Do what is good and you will have praise from the same…. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing.’”

“When [the apostle] Paul speaks of `authorities,’ by application that includes law enforcement officers,” Dennis told the congregation. “So here is the idea: When you obey the law, you have nothing to worry about; however, if you do wrong, and if you break the law, you should be fearful. The sword here is the instrument of punishment, and today that would be their weapons. God has given to these officers great authority that must always be respected.”

The first problem with Pastor Dennis’s interpretation is the fact that not all laws are morally valid, and some cannot be obeyed without violating the principle recognized by ethical people – religious and non-religious alike – recognize as the paramount moral law, often called the Golden Rule. During the 1850s, for example, tens of thousands of Americans of good conscience – including some Christian clergymen -- systematically violated the Fugitive Slave Law by refusing to allow federal marshals to abduct black individuals and deliver them into the custody of other human beings who claimed them as property.

Many other Christian clergymen of that era condemned efforts to protect self-liberated slaves as rebellion against “authority” and the “rule of law.” Had he been living at the time, Pastor Dennis – on the available evidence – would most likely have been in the second group.

Secondly, it is impossible for people to obey the “law” as the government defines it. As constitutional attorney Harvey Silverglate has documented, each American, during a typical day, commits at least three acts that could be construed as felonies worthy of a prison term – even when nobody else is harmed, or any property damaged. All that is necessary is a sufficiently ambitious prosecutor aided by law enforcement officers willing to enforce the “law” even when doing so is incompatible with justice.

Perhaps the most serious misrepresentation offered by Pastor Dennis is his casual endorsement of the idea that police are endowed with the authority to inflict summary punishment, rather than being commissioned to investigate offenses and, where appropriate, detain people suspected of crimes. This is the import of the pastor’s statement that the weapons carried by police are the equivalent of the “sword” that serves as “the instrument of punishment.”

If police officers have unqualified power to impose punishment on people who have done no injury to the persons or property of others, why shouldn’t they be feared, and perhaps hated, rather than respected?

Florida Southern College student Joanna Youssef was not committing a crime when she was encountered by two of Lakeland’s exalted emissaries of the divine state. She and a friend were having an argument, which attracted the attention of Officer Nicholas Ivancevich, who forced her to the ground and handcuffed her. While she was prone, shackled, and helpless, a police dog named Quanto escaped from a patrol vehicle and attacked her, rending her flesh and leaving her scarred and traumatized.

The victim was charged with “resisting arrest without violence,” but the county attorney dropped the case. A perfunctory internal review by the department found that neither of the officers involved in the episode broke department policies, and dismissed the mangling of Youssef as “unfortunate.”

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The misfortune experienced by Susan Eberle was not a result of a chance encounter with the LPD, but rather of her decision to seek employment with the agency. For several years, the married woman, who worked as a civilian crime analyst, was used as a sexual plaything by several officers. An investigation by the state attorney’s office found that Eberle’s efforts to get help were thwarted by superiors intent on covering up the crimes and protecting the offenders.

“As many as ten sworn LPD officers have engaged in sex acts and sexually suggestive behavior while on duty over the past seven years with an LPD civilian employee,” concluded the report filed by Jerry Hill, the State Attorney for Polk County. Seven of the officers admitted to the charges under oath; two others offered partial admissions. Several of them “are high ranking officers … directly responsible for training other officers at LPD. While some of the acts were consensual, many others were acts of sexual violation that “would potentially constitute felony and misdemeanor crimes as defined by Florida State Statute.”

Other acts “likely rose to a level of sexual harassment and certainly are considered unbecoming conduct in the workplace.” Just as seriously, other LPD employees “failed to intervene and stop criminal misconduct that was reported to them…. Alleged sexual crimes went uninvestigated, and evidence was lost.”

For that reason, no criminal charges were ever filed against any of the officers implicated in the scandal. Hill comments that the investigation of Eberle’s allegations “sheds some light on the serious shortcomings [of the LPD] in the areas of traffic stops, search and seizure, thoroughness of investigations, preparedness for trial, and complying with Florida Records law.”

“Had these members your department been more focused on the important responsibilities of law enforcement, rather than pursuing sexual encounters with a civilian analyst, the LPD might not be in the condition it is today," Hill admonished then- Chief Lisa Womack.

Several officers were cashiered as a result of the scandal. Eberle, significantly, was one of them: She was fired in September 2013 for “conduct unbecoming, untruthfulness, and required conduct and cooperation” in the investigation of her own claims. This means, in effect, that she was punished for the refusal of corrupt superiors to take her complaints seriously. Last April the City of Lakeland quietly paid Eberle $28,500 to withdraw a discrimination complaint she had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

To his credit, when the LPD’s institutional abscess ruptured in July 2013, Pastor Dennis said that the “light needs to be shown in this situation.” While he experienced a “gamut of emotions,” the pastor continued, “sadness prevails.”

While sadness is understandable, righteous outrage would be more appropriate, and less likely to be redeemed in the coin of cheap grace. Reforming the LPD required a deep, thorough, and painful treatment. The corruption disclosed in the report had metastasized into the marrow of the department. Merely excising a handful of employees – including both the chief and the whistleblower – wouldn’t be an effective cure. Little more than two years later, however, Pastor Dennis appears to consider the department fully rehabilitated, and worthy of something perilously akin to worship. He also seems to be less offended by the abuses committed by the department, than by people who criticize it.

“It grieves me on the one hand, and makes me angry on the other hand, when I hear the criticism, and disrespect towards, and violence directed at those in law enforcement,” the pastor declared during his “Law Enforcement Encouragement Sunday” address. “We want law enforcement to know that First Baptist Church on the Mall supports you one hundred percent, and is committed to pray continually for you.”

He urged his congregation to “Pray for a hedge of protection around their vehicles, that angels will guard and shield them from danger.”

A sounder spiritual prescription was offered by veteran Lakeland-area reporter Billy Townsend – who, by his own account, is not a particularly religious man – shortly after the state attorney’s office published its report.

“I want to thank Sue Eberle for giving the unvarnished, horrifying truth of her role at LPD in the last few years,” Townsend wrote. “It took great courage. She’s been publicly humiliated and shamed. Think what it’s like for her to walk into Publix. I suspect huge numbers of people think she’s the problem…. Many people call themselves Christians in this community. I’m not really one of them. But I’m praying for you and your family nonetheless. And I would think this offers true Christians a chance to walk in Christ’s footsteps. In any event, I pray that you find and enjoy an ounce of human kindness from this community.”

For pious cop-worshipers, whistleblowers are heretics worthy of stoning, rather than heroes who should be appreciated.