Thoughts on Policing in Light of Recent Events

The developments of the past several months have focused sharp national attention on police practices and actions around the country. While the claims of police misconduct and brutality have proven to be without foundation in most of the cases that have been in the spotlight, some have been troubling and perhaps this is the time to reconsider and reexamine the role and practices of police departments.

It is entirely unclear that the demonstrations and rioting witnessed recently are due simply to police actions. As urban scholars such as Edward Banfield wrote regarding the 1960s riots, if police encounters seemed to precipitate the explosions, people took part in them often for reasons that had nothing to do with police brutality, racial prejudice, or injustice. Careful study of these current episodes will probably show the same thing. It also will likely show that violence-prone agitators had a role in stirring up the demonstrators and rioters, just as then. Further, most of the high-profile cases involving the use of lethal force by police have been against people who were not exactly outstanding citizens. They had just committed crimes and were in the middle of assaulting or threatening officers, as in the Ferguson, Missouri case. Tragically, the strident and irresponsible rhetorical attacks on the police have no doubt created an atmosphere that led to the assassinations of two NYPD officers in their squad car and to the targeting of other officers in New York City and elsewhere.

Having said all this, there is abundant evidence that there are problems. Authors such as John W. Whitehead, Judge Andrew Napolitano, Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence Stratton—hardly a gaggle of raving, anti-police, hard-left activists—have written pointedly about police abuses and the deterioration of a regime based on the rule of law that undergirds them. It is disturbing that we see a loss of respect for the police, but respect has to be earned. When one reads of numerous cases around the country in recent years where officers used lethal force against people they mistakenly thought were armed or reaching for a weapon, one wonders about the judgment and discretion of people brought onto police forces—and about the adequacy of their training. Also, why is lethal force used so frequently as a first resort? What happened to the nightstick? Shouldn’t more departments equip their officers with stun guns and other non-lethal weapons?

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Speaking of training, upon hearing of so many cases of police making arrests because of questionable interpretations of law one wonders if the required substantive background in criminal law is sufficient. When reports frequently appear, for example, of how police show up with CPS social workers at the doors of innocent families after flimsy anonymous reports of child abuse or neglect and threaten to force their way inside if parents won’t cooperate, one thinks that training in the Bill of Rights is especially inadequate. After all, the Fourth Amendment, probable cause, and the need for warrants is pretty basic stuff.

Training is just part of the picture, however. Are the right people chosen to be police officers? Just having no felony convictions and passing a drug test and a psychological exam doesn’t insure that someone is a person of good character. There is no consideration of moral formation more broadly, and spiritual formation—to say nothing of traditional religious convictions—couldn’t even be considered. No attention is given to an officer or officer candidate’s sexual behavior, so long as it’s not illegal. So, if one is cohabiting or, in some jurisdictions, has a partner of the same sex it’s completely irrelevant. State and departmental standards reflect the flawed cultural perspective that people’s lives can be compartmentalized, so that one’s lack of sexual restraint will not affect behavior or self-control in other areas—even when it concerns something as crucial as police work.

While the virtue of courage is certainly a prerequisite for police work, so are sober-mindedness, good judgment, and forbearance. We should not only expect police to refrain from lethal force as a first resort in the most serious circumstances, but to be restrained in the use of their other powers—such as arresting and writing citations—in lesser ones. Law enforcement doesn’t involve just punishment or “knocking heads”; it also involves instruction, motivating people to do better in other ways, and indulgence of people’s shortcomings and efforts to do their best. Maybe these are things that police need to keep in mind more in such areas as traffic enforcement, where most people have their most frequent contact with police—and which often result in the greatest loss of respect for them. I remember well when as a ten-year-old visiting my grandparents in Ord, Nebraska how a local police officer would park his squad car visibly in a street across from their house, just off the state highway, and quite successfully got motorists to slow down as they entered town just by honking his horn at them.

That gets us perhaps to the most basic issue: how the police role should be understood. I think there was much to commend the nineteenth-century notion, where police were as much social workers, in a sense, as they were law enforcers. In a way, the silly 1960s sit-com Car 54, Where Are You? got it right. The officer duo were routinely involved in the neighborhoods they patrolled as helpers of the people and problem-solvers. Scholars of the police have commented for decades about how the squad car drastically changed the nature of policing: it put a barrier between the police and the public and disconnected them from the community. Even if it’s understandable that police today would feel too vulnerable using this approach, there is something commendable about the “cop on the beat.”

To be sure, “community policing” is a partial attempt to return to this old notion of the police, but for an array of reasons—a lukewarm commitment, rank-and-file officer resistance, bureaucratic problems within departments, the overwhelming character of crime problems that crowd out attempts at a new approach, etc.—it seems not to have had great success or caught on widely.

Over-militarization of the police has also probably helped to spawn the current troubles. If police are treated as even more of a paramilitary force than they were before—with the federal government providing an array of military hardware—it almost certainly reshapes police attitudes about the use of force and their relationship to the community. Another cause is over-criminalization. As more and more matters have been brought into the criminal law, the expectations on police have gotten greater, the opportunities for hostile interactions with citizens increased, and the likelihood of disrespect for the police enhanced. State and local governments expect the police to be revenue collectors, so we see overzealous traffic law enforcement and police cracking down on such things as street sales of untaxed cigarettes (which led to the Garner tragedy and the unhappy aftermath in New York City). Runaway federal and state regulatory law has made law enforcement people the “heavy,” as they’re called on to stop conduct that a few decades ago no one would have dreamed would be illegal or was treated strictly as a civil matter. This has probably further skewed the attitudes of law enforcement personnel about their role and prerogatives and damaged public respect.

It is a further problem that police have too often resisted public scrutiny, as seen in their unflinching resistance to civilian review in the 1960s. Moreover, both public officials and the citizenry have generally been too indulgent of the police. Seemingly driven by the attitude that they have a hard, dangerous job mayors have not wanted to root out problems in their police departments or insist upon policies that would crack the traditional “code of silence” and make it easier for upright officers to report misbehavior among their colleagues; legislators have erected legal roadblocks to accountability (it’s a crime to file a false complaint against a police officer in Ohio, which almost certainly has a “chilling effect” on rightly aggrieved citizens and so probably violates the First Amendment); and citizens on grand juries are reluctant to indict officers for genuine misconduct. Instead of allowing a kind of “minimalist” standard to prevail—“we should give the police a lot of leeway to do their job”—they should be held to the exacting standards expected of professionals generally, perhaps more so since they have a monopoly of coercive power in the community. Citizen rights should not have to be a casualty of permitting the police to cut corners.

While there is a lot of misinformation—and dis-information—about police conduct, there are enough disturbing facts over a long period of time to say that changes on many levels are needed. This is not a left/right issue, but one that, as John W. Whitehead has said, has implications for the sustainment of our constitutional republic. It also is a human-dignity issue. How the police—as among the most visible representatives of the state—treat people is one important dimension of how well their human dignity is being respected.

 (Photo credit: Shutterstock)


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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