As Los Angeles assistant chief of police in charge of police operations, Robert Vernon directs a staff of 8,300, including all of the city’s patrol officers. Vernon is also a lay preacher and an elder in John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, a former chaplain of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and the author of L.A. Cop: Peacemaker in Blue (CT, March 18, 1988, p. 12). Vernon spoke with CHRISTIANITY TODAY shortly after the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers raised national debate about police brutality. On advice from attorneys, he did not comment on details of that incident.

How does your biblical faith integrate with being a policeman?

I’ve heard some officers give testimony of making arrests and then witnessing to the person in handcuffs in the back seat of their car. I don’t think that’s right. I think that’s abusing power. My faith intersects with my work in terms of being fair, keeping my word, telling the truth, not using excessive force. Hopefully, because of that, I am then invited to give my reason for what makes me different.

The Bible clearly teaches that we are to be submissive to government, and it doesn’t give any exceptions as to what kind of government. I believe it does give us one exception, and that is when government issues a direction to force us to do something completely opposite from what God has specifically told us to do. For example, if government tells us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to murder, we should not follow that rule from government.

The direction that police officers have is to uphold the law. Romans 13 specifically indicates that officers act as ministers of God, and in that context it talks about the use of deadly force. It says that [an officer] does not bear the sword in vain—clearly an endorsement of the proper use of force. And I emphasize the word proper.

In light of current events, when is it proper for a police officer to use force when making an arrest?

To answer that, let me first provide a little groundwork. I think that Jack Webb in an old “Dragnet” series program made a very profound statement when he was dealing with a cop who had gone wrong. He said to his partner, “You know what our problem is, Frank? Our problem is we have to recruit from the human race.”

The thing that we who are in law enforcement, as well as people outside, must remember is that police officers are human beings. As such they are prone to all the emotions of all other human beings—anger, fear, whatever—and they make mistakes and allow themselves on occasion to be overcome with emotion. I think the job of police leaders and policemen is to take steps to ensure there are systems to control and prevent those kinds of mistakes from happening.

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I feel very strongly about this, because police officers—and only police officers—have nearly summary power to take away the three basic rights that Americans have: the right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. For that reason there must be a tremendous amount of integrity. And we must earn the [public’s] trust. In my 36 years [in law enforcement], I have seen cases and have personal experience where the trust has been abused. Excessive force has occurred in the past and, unfortunately, it will in the future.

The real question is, What does a police department do to prevent that, when the prevention fails? What corrective action does it take? That’s the important issue.

How do you respond to the claims of Operation Rescue that the Los Angeles police used excessive force in removing rescuers from abortion clinics?

I’m absolutely against abortion. I think abortion is murder, pure and simple. So my problem is with Operation Rescue’s tactics.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I knew that Operation Rescue was coming to our city, I went to my board of elders and asked for their counsel. They said they believed the tactics [used by rescue participants] of violating the law, resisting arrest, and then lying about their names were wrong, and that the police department was correct in enforcing the law. So that is the posture I took.

In that I also adopted the principle of consistency. The LAPD has always demanded that the arrestees accompany us on their own power. We have never used stretchers in Los Angeles to carry away any kind of demonstrators. For instance, during [protests against] the Vietnam War, we used what we call a “come-along” hold.

To treat Operation Rescue differently would be saying, “Because I believe in their goal, I’m going to alter the policies of the LAPD.” I think that would have been wrong. And so I warned them ahead of time. I said we would have to demand that once they are personally arrested they get up and accompany the officers. Some of them chose to do that; in fact, most of them did go along with us. About 20 percent did not; they went limp, or some put their arms under their bodies and stiffened and resisted as best they could without becoming aggressive.

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With regard to the current situation (in Los Angeles), how personally responsible do you feel?

I’m part of the leadership of the LAPD, and even though I’m quite far removed from that incident, as the saying goes in the navy, “It’s on my watch.” So I do feel a sense of responsibility. Even though I, along with Chief Gates, have consistently preached the principles that are completely opposed to what happened, although we trained the people properly, although we disciplined those who have deviated—although we’ve done all those things, there must be something more we can be doing. We never want to give up and say we can’t control this.

What have the past few weeks done to you personally, emotionally, and spiritually?

I experienced many emotions, and many of them all at once—shame, embarrassment, anger. How have I handled that? Number one, my relationship with the Lord is such that I take things like that to him. I’ve asked him to give me the wisdom to help me to make the correct recommendations to my boss, to support him, and to do the right thing, not only about this incident, but with the officers who were involved in it. It’s been very taxing on me. It’s taken an awful lot of my energy and time and will continue to do so for weeks. I love this department. I love what it stands for, and because of that I believe as a Christian that I must do what I can to support the 8,300 men and women who go out there every night and do the job right. And the vast majority of them do.

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