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HEARTS of the CITY | Navigating the Real World

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

March 12, 1997

Today's Question: In the debate over how or how much to upgrade the firepower of the Los Angeles Police Department to combat heavily armed criminals, do you see any ethical or moral elements to consider? Or are they simply practical issues of public safety, individual rights and governmental politics?

Dennis Prager

KABC radio talk show host, author and frequent lecturer at synagogues and the University of Judaism

The wording of the question is instructive. It distinguishes between "ethical-moral elements" and "practical issues of public safety," etc. The sooner our society recognizes that public safety is a supreme ethical-moral issue, the more ethical and moral our society will be. What is more morally significant than the right of innocent people not to have their body attacked, life taken or home violated? The primary ethical-moral question in this issue is: What type of arms better enable the police to defend the innocent? And the morally obvious answer would seem to be this general rule: The good guys ought to always be better armed than the bad guys.

Donald E. Miller

USC professor of religion and co-director of USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture

The police exercise power on behalf of the state to protect its citizens. But this is not all. As they walk through neighborhoods and talk with citizens, they serve as a symbol of benevolent authority to many youths who may lack appropriate models of that in their lives. I believe that the Los Angeles Police Department should have firepower that is proportionate to that of the criminal element. But I favor relegating it exclusively to highly trained SWAT teams that are invisible to the citizenry except for rare instances. The typical officer on patrol should carry nothing more than a basic sidearm. Their chief personal protection lies in sophisticated communications technology that they carry.

Michael Josephson

President-founder, Josephson Institute of Ethics, Marina del Rey

When an event occurs like the North Hollywood shootout, it is our responsibility not to panic but to be careful about making moral judgments. We cannot overreact by arming police to the teeth, which may in the long run be dangerous to our citizenry; e.g., errant police, overuse of weapons on the street. Yet, protecting people is the first order of the day. Perhaps more high-powered weapons can be made available and accessible in high-risk situations. It is like the cloning issue. We don't want to see animal cloning stopped out of fear of human cloning, but we still have to approach the subject very thoughtfully from every perspective--scientific, ethical, etc. Without panicking, we must achieve a delicate balance.

Compiled by JOHN DART, Times staff writer

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