It is certain that political power is of God, from whom proceeds nothing that is not good and lawful … [i.e.,] political power considered in general, not descending in particular to Monarchy, or Aristocracy, or Democracy, comes directly from God alone; for this follows of necessity from the nature of man, since that nature comes from him who made it … Note, secondly, that this power resides, as in its subject, immediately in the whole state, for this power is by divine law, but divine law gives this power to no particular man. Therefore divine law gives this power to the collected body. … As is evident, it depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, or consuls, or other magistrates are to be established in authority over them; and, if there be legitimate cause, the people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, or an aristocracy into a democracy, and vice versa, as we read was done in Rome.
—St Robert Bellarmine SJ, De Laicis
John Ball urging on Wat Tyler during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
✠ ✠ ✠
The wretched record of the police in this country, from institutionalized racism (deliberate or not) to inadequate oversight, has been, quite rightly, a continuous theme in the news for years now. I suspect one reason we sometimes find it hard to believe—and (there’s no way around it) by we, I basically mean white people—is that, like the gross violations of privacy revealed by Edward Snowden and the barefaced lies the state has used to cover them up, we can barely believe that a systemic corruption should be so blatant. Surely they could never get away with it, we think; which is how they get away with it.
Rereading this excellent piece from the illustrious Cracked.com, I do think there’s a solution. That solution is both harder and simpler than something like putting cameras on policemen, beneficial though that would probably be in the meantime; nor is it as naïve as merely taking care to practice affirmative action in hiring officers, though that too would very likely help. But I think what’s needed is a philosophical and cultural overhaul of the whole idea of police work.
The essential problem that seems to underlie this mess is that the police are thought of as government officials in contrast to ordinary citizens. That they may have very silly or nasty habits of mind in dividing ordinary citizens into good and bad, is only a secondary implication of this root problem.
Sir Robert Peel, who championed domestic legal reforms in Britain in the 1820s and first devised the modern police force,1 didn’t consider them agents of the government. What police were—as the name police implies, deriving ultimately from the Greek πολίτης ‘citizen’—were ordinary citizens whose job was to discharge social duties that every citizen had; the difference lay in the fact that policemen were paid to devote their full professional time to those duties, not in a different authority. Two examples that really drive home the difference in approach: in the UK, there is no crime called resisting arrest, and they’re not allowed to lie to suspects about what evidence they have.
It’s not clear whether Peel wrote them himself, but the Nine Principles of Policing (which were included in the general instructions to every new officer from 1829 on) sum up the philosophy fairly well—what, in Great Britain and a few other places, is called policing by consent:
1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
2. To recognize always that the power of the police … is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions, and behavior, and on their ability to maintain and secure public respect.
3. To recognize always that to secure … the approval of the public means also securing the willing coöperation of the public in the task of securing the observance of laws.
4. To recognize always that the extent to which the coöperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity … of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
5. To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law … by ready offering of service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing,2 by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public coöperation … and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion …
7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that … the police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
8. To … refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
9. To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
That’s a really different picture of law enforcement than we have in the US. I think it’s a much better one. It’s certainly far more compatible with any meaningful idea of self-government. I suspect it’d alter the gun control debate substantively, by altering the gun situation substantively. And I think it could be done here.
Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), pimping.
Now, it’d be extremely tough to do. There would be resistance, and not just from current police officers (many of whom probably don’t want a reduction in their powers or an expensive and tedious retraining): I’m sure there are people who have a vested interest in maintaining and heightening the current suspicion and hostility between the police and the public, just because, wherever there is a systemic injustice, there’s somebody taking advantage of it. Moreover, it would involve training new police officers, and retraining old ones, which means not only the cost of training but finding trainers suitable for the task; and, while the training was going on—and even afterward—the conflict of old habits and new principles would make police work extraordinarily difficult, instead of just highly difficult.
On the other hand, if there is no systemic police reform, I fear that rioting and revolt aren’t out of the question. We’ve seen them already in Baltimore. Whether it’s put into practice or not, Peel’s principle that the police can’t do their work without securing and maintaining public approval and coöperation is less an instruction than an observation. The scales must eventually balance themselves: if they won’t be balanced by free choice, they will be balanced by the forces of nature, and one of the forces of human nature is that oppression and injustice are more intolerable to the human soul than even bloodshed.
Though the aforesaid riots may have had a somewhat different genesis than the media reported ...
We must, of course, be careful to avoid the Politician’s Syllogism: Something must be done; this is something; therefore, this must be done. And we must remember, too, that every system is run by flawed human beings, and that no solution, however potent, is the Elixir of Life. But I think the virtues of Peel’s principles speak for themselves as far as desirability, and I think we can and should take steps toward them.
A few possibilities:
1. We could encourage (perhaps even require, though I’m hesitant about that) police officers to live in the area they police, and form relationships within it. Respect is next to impossible to maintain, and persuasion next to impossible to practice, without a good social reputation among the people whose respect you need and whom you are trying to persuade.
2. Without necessarily going through a total overhaul of their education, give the police some psychological and social training, especially in deëscalating conflicts. One thing Charley Clark (the author of the article I linked above) points out is that, when guns come out, every decision becomes binary: shoot or don’t shoot. Lengthening that list of options would be pretty great, especially adding some along the lines of ‘Get them to chill,’ in which case everybody wins. An important aspect of this would be ridding our society, particularly and emphatically our police, of the noxious idea that disrespect toward policemen is in some way criminal—that idea is little less than the door to tyranny.
3. Introduce some new limits to police powers. It is, inevitably, all but impossible to instill respect for law if you do not follow the law yourself, and the liberties allowed to police—especially (though not only) in the disgusting matter of screwing confessions out of suspects, not infrequently through flat-out lies, and often getting innocent people to confess out of despair and exhaustion—have probably done more than anything else to ruin them in the eyes of the public.
✠ ✠ ✠
1And from whose first name the apparently bizarre nickname bobbies for British police comes.
2We could start, for instance, by not punishing people for being homeless.