Dangerous Duty

Being the wife of a police officer can be frightening if you live in one of America's crime-infested cities. But in Jersey City, New Jersey, the cops' wives know that any day their husbands risk being injured by . . . a paper cut. That's right. I said a paper cut. Because in Jersey City almost half the police officers never walk a beat. They're inside precinct stations shuffling papers. And their story illustrates what's wrong with government in many major cities today. The city's new mayor, Bret Schundler, was elected on a law-and-order platform. But his predecessors had already given many cops easy duty in exchange for political support. In fact, two trained officers were assigned simply to deliver inter-office mail. When Schundler took office, he was determined to change all that. He reassigned many police officers to street patrols. But the police union sued to stop him. And though the union lost in court, it may hold the trump card—namely, binding arbitration. Binding arbitration laws, written and passed by the state legislature, mean that whenever a union sues, the case automatically goes into compulsory negotiation. Often this works well to protect workers' rights. But the trouble is that the lawyers who conduct the negotiations are paid only while actually arbitrating a case. That means they tend to favor the union—in order to encourage a constant flow of new cases. This may explain why the average Jersey City cop receives a yearly pay package worth nearly $90,000. Yet all that money does not translate into better crime prevention. Citizens still wait hours for cops to respond to break-ins and auto thefts. The root problem is that state legislatures are setting many of the rules that govern local mayors—like New Jersey's binding arbitration laws. This is backwards. After all, when a citizen is mugged in Jersey City, the person he complains to is not the state representative; it's the mayor. Yet the mayor's hands are tied when it comes to real police reform. The system makes a mockery of the biblical "job description" for the state. The first duty of civil government is to maintain public order—as Paul says in Romans, to be a "terror" to those who do wrong and a safeguard to those who do right. When police officers pound the beat, they're carrying out the scriptural injunction to restrain evil and uphold the law. But when legislators in a far-off state capital frustrate local law enforcement, then the only people who live in "terror" are law-abiding citizens, as crime infests their neighborhoods. The solution to the problem is to apply the principle of local responsibility. If the city government is responsible for solving a problem, then the mayor should have the power necessary to do it—and should not be hamstrung by a distant state capital. This same problem plagues many of our hard-pressed cities. Each of us—as parents, employers, citizens, and officeholders—should have the power to carry out our responsibilities before God. That's a sound biblical principle. And it's a principle of good government as well.


Chuck Colson



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