National Police Remembrance Day Service
29 September 2011
St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane

Address by Archbishop Aspinall
Reprinted with permission

Today around our nation there are gatherings like this one to remember and honour police officers who have lost their lives while serving their communities.

It is right and fitting than we should remember and honour them. Their service, their sacrifice on behalf of us all, their legacy from which we benefit, are all good reasons for us to pause and reflect with gratitude. Their courage, their bravery, their mateship and camaraderie we also acknowledge with thanks. We recognize that in many ways the people we remember and honour today are role models, holding up for us values and lives which we admire and aspire to.

And yet we honour them even more fully if we are prepared to reflect a little more deeply on their experience and on what we as a community ask our police service to do on our behalf.

Hugh Begbie, an Anglican priest and one time a Defence Force Chaplain, has written about the experience of soldiers who have served in times of war and he notes certain parallels with those who serve as police.

If you take the time to listen to soldiers or to police officers, Begbie (2011, 72) says, it will become clear that they have ‘inhabited a morally dark place.’ We send such people off, in our name, to deal with the seedy, dangerous, underbelly of our society that most of us would prefer never to come near.

We ask our police to deal with the drug trade and the theft and violence that surrounds it. We ask them uncover the trafficking of young women for sex. We send them to deal with alcohol fuelled violence and domestic violence and race-based violence. We ask police to protect children from child abuse and exploitation and track down offenders hidden behind sophisticated information technology systems. We send our police to confront the trauma of accidents and natural disasters and hostage incidents and terrorist attacks.

Needless to say, this is not the romantic stuff of television or movies where all is well within the hour – or two at most.

Nothing can convey the dark reality: the chaos and confusion following an explosion or major fire or significant accident. Nothing prepares one for the trauma of dismembered bodies, the brutal impact of high-powered weapons on the human body, the smell of death, the sense of fear, the threat of being overwhelmed, the struggle to control anxiety and panic (ibid).

And nothing can prepare people for the soul-searching that goes on afterwards.

We ask our police to go into dangerous situations which can’t but help evoke fear. We send them to deal with dehumanizing situations that can only result in distress.

But there’s another fear, and another dimension of distress, which often go unnoticed and unmentioned. We ask our police to protect us and to ensure standards of safety, decency, civility and reasonableness are observed. This is how we expect people in our community to behave. This is how we expect to be able to live. This is what we hold to be good and true and right.

But we require our police to go into places where these standards are not observed. Where, to protect themselves and us, they must use force and coercion. We forget that sometimes this means crossing the very line we expect the police to defend. That can create real psychological and spiritual turmoil for our police.

In highly charged situations carrying the real prospect of physical harm police make decisions about how to respond. Good operational training no doubt takes over in those instants and they do what needs to be done. But do we stop to think about what happens when the crisis is over, when the adrenalin stops pumping and the danger is past.

Sometimes there is endless questioning of self, of whether I did the right thing or not. Could I have done something differently. This can haunt an officer who has had to use extensive or even lethal force.

Hugh Begbie points out the parallel Catch 22 for the soldier who is asked to kill. If he overcomes his natural resistance to killing and does so, he is likely to burdened with guilt; if he does not he may well face the burden of comrades being harmed and great shame. He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Having lived through all manner of traumatic situations police officers may experience a sense of isolation. They can find themselves unable to speak about what they’ve been through even to those who matter to them most. Unable to explain what it did to them. Partly that might be because they want to forget. And partly it might be because it’s just not possible for outsiders, as it were, to understand what it’s really like because it is so out of the ordinary.

So police officers, like soldiers, can experience a kind of moral ambiguity. They come face to face with a collision between the virtues of courage, mateship, justice, sacrifice and the vices of immorality, exploitation, violence, anger and even killing.

This can create what Peter Marin calls –

Moral pain … having done something … which, when it is over … [you] find unforgivable, for which society has no forgiving mechanisms, and which has so radically changed you, that there is no way, even with outside help, that you can come to terms with what you have done and the changes that have occurred.

At a deeper level … you suddenly are aware of what all human beings are capable of doing – you are conscious, perhaps forever, of the evil or violence that exists side by side or immediately beneath the surface of civility of which society is made and conscious of the proximity of death which hovers right next to or beneath life (Marin, 1994, cited in Begbie (2011, 79).

This profound collision between virtue and vice, between good and evil, is reflected in our readings today. The passage from Revelation depicts war in heaven with Michael the archangel and all his angels fighting against the dragon. They are timeless metaphors of the timeless struggle. What the reading affirms is both the reality and bitterness of the confrontation, but also an eventual victory.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, St Paul reflects on the supremacy and power of love which endures all things, bears all things and never ends.

Today we remember and honour our departed brothers and sisters. We do so more truly and more deeply if we are prepared to acknowledge the reality of the dark places to which we send them on our behalf. Our gratitude can only be heightened if we are honest about the psychological and spiritual turmoil going to those places creates.

In the face of those realities what sustains us is not a false, romantic picture of courage, mateship, sacrifice – real as those things are. We have no need to paint our colleagues as perfect, as saints. What sustains us is a sense of faith and hope that notwithstanding our failures and shortcomings we are still made in the image of God and at a fundamental level we are accepted and loved and forgiven. And beyond that the same God is at work in the world, despite all appearances to the contrary, and in the end will see love, justice, truth and good prevail.

In this faith and hope we honour our fallen friends, knowing that their service was not in vain.