September 3, 2020

Our American policing industry has a self-induced identity problem: it sees itself first as an enforcement business not as a crime prevention and order maintenance public service. American policing has adopted an overarching enforcement approach and a “thin blue line” perspective, both of which are unhealthy for a democracy. A culture defined by compliance, arrests, and a defensive perspective of exclusion is destined to alienate those who are policed. It also eclipses officers who run into burning buildings and dive into raging rivers. It is time for the policing industry to do a self-check.

The enforcement centerpiece of American policing has done one thing well: delegitimization of American policing in communities of color. Those communities, unlike my neighborhood, do not trust the police (though, they want to). Gated communities get police services, communities of color get law enforcement. The difference? Legitimacy. Albert Einstein and M.L. King recognized the role of justice and equity in peace—is it time for others to do so?

Both men placed responsibility for peace in government. Einstein said it with scientific economy, “Peace is the presence of government.” Sir Robert Peel recognized the essence of the values that inform this thought when he published his policing principles in 1829.

Peel, who influenced the formation of American policing, is now a footnote, replaced by zero tolerance enforcement and compliance. For brevity, I will modernize, paraphrase, and truncate Peel:

Prevent crime and disorder instead of relying on repressive enforcement; policing derives its authority from public approval and sustained public respect; policing must have the willing cooperation of the public to function; there is a negative correlation between public cooperation and the use of force and compulsion to achieve police objectives; obtain public respect through impartial and unbiased application of the law; apply physical force only after exhausting verbal persuasion and only to the minimum amount needed to achieve public order; the police are the public and the public is the police; be a dispassionate and competent fact gatherer, leave adjudication to the courts; and recognize that police proficiency is demonstrated by the lack of crime and disorder, not the presence of enforcement activities.

These nine principles were premised on three key values:

Successful policing equals a low crime rate, not a high arrest rate; crime prevention requires the participation and trust of the public; and public support is derived from ethical conduct, hiring people who accept ethical responsibility in the performance of policing, and purposeful application of persuasion and empathy before resorting to force.

Peel recognized that compliance and enforcement affronted dignity and kindled the fire of resentment (use enforcement sparingly). Peel’s principles even foreshadowed the spirit of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, 34 year later: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” How have we strayed so far off course?

Much of the answer lies in the policing industry’s equivocation with ethics. Ethically based decisions and policies require concerted and deliberative processes that weigh procedural fairness, consideration of disparate impact, and equanimity. There is a democratic element to ethically informed policing. Instead, police executives acquiesced to, and police unions chose, the “thin blue line” of enforcement and temporized over their affirmative responsibility to forthrightly participate in transparent planning processes that solve problems. In sum, policing ethics were marginalized. Our policing industry has used 25 years of community policing to mask continued entrenchment of an enforcement and compliance culture. Are we to believe that the status quo is fine but for minor modifications?

The policing industry has been waging war on drugs since 1985 and on terrorism from 2001. The war on drugs is a complete failure but it has entrenched civil forfeiture, pretext car stops, stop and frisk, no knock warrants, 4 am raids, and prison as the normative functions of police. The war on terror has eroded civil liberties and militarized police culture. The American policing industry has adopted all the negative attributes as normative functions—said another way, as what police do. Perhaps, making policing more about ethically informed public service and less about trendy authoritarian fads that seem to arrive every 20 years is the answer.

Change will not come from slogans: it will come from transparency, empathy, forthrightness, and open loop thinking that recognizes mistakes and learns from them. The needed correction is not as simple as right from wrong—although documentary evidence on this point continues to mount—but right from the harder right.

Communities must study and understand the policing trends that now inform policing and then challenge police executives and police unions to defend them in forthright debate. There is little science behind many police practices and policies, therefore, undoing them is best achieved not from violence, but from informed, thoughtfully constructed, and undaunted questions that go to the heart of the issue: does policing make us better people?

The author, a former New Jersey police officer and retired special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is a graduate of Clemson University’s Master in Public Administration program.


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