I have no problem accepting that this country's law enforcement functions have overstepped the mark on many occasions. I've written about some of them in these pages, as regular readers will know, and I support holding officers and agencies accountable when they cross the line. It's also undeniable that American policing has often been about a one-sided enforcement of laws that were designed to benefit some parts of society, but not others. As Matt Taibbi points out:
Basically we have two systems of enforcement in America, a minimalist one for people with political clout, and an intrusive one for everyone else. In the same way our army in Vietnam got in trouble when it started searching for ways to quantify the success of its occupation, choosing sociopathic metrics like “body counts” and “truck kills,” modern big-city policing has been corrupted by its lust for summonses, stops, and arrests. It’s made monsters where none needed to exist.
Because they’re constantly throwing those people against walls, writing them nuisance tickets, and violating their space with humiliating searches (New York in 2010 paid $33 million to a staggering 100,000 people strip-searched after misdemeanor charges), modern cops correctly perceive that they’re hated. As a result, many embrace a “warrior” ethos that teaches them to view themselves as under constant threat.
This is why you see so many knees on heads and necks, guns drawn on unarmed motorists, chokeholds by the thousand, and patterns of massive overkill everywhere ... Police are trained to behave like occupiers, which is why they increasingly dress like they’ve been sent to clear houses in Mosul and treat random motorists like potential car-bombers ... senior officers value police who make numbers more than they fear outrage from residents in their districts. The incentives in this system are wrong in every direction.
The current protests are likely to inspire politicians to think the other way, but it’s probably time to reconsider what we’re trying to accomplish with this kind of policing. In upscale white America drug use is effectively decriminalized, and Terry stops, strip searches, and “quality of life” arrests are unknowns. The country isn’t going to heal as long as everyone else gets a knee in the neck.
There's more at the link.
Despite Taibbi's undeniable points, anyone with even the most basic understanding of human nature and human interaction will realize that police are necessary. There's a not insignificant proportion of humanity that prefers a criminal lifestyle, and lives it out of choice, not out of necessity. No amount of wishful thinking will change that. Therefore, current calls to abolish or de-fund police are beyond stupid. They ignore reality.
If you're not convinced of that, try working for a few days inside one of America's prisons. Deprived of their opportunity to prey on other citizens, what do the incarcerated criminals do? They prey on each other, and on the officers tasked with keeping them behind bars. There's a lot more crime inside prison walls than outside them, because when criminals are brought together in a small, concentrated space like that, they influence and exacerbate each others' worst tendencies. You could call it a "pressure-cooker" environment. I should know. I spent years as a chaplain, both part-time and full-time, trying to help prison inmates. I've written about it at some length.
In the process, I learned the hard way what works, and what doesn't. I'm here to tell you that appeasement, kind words and wishful thinking don't help as long as those incarcerated aren't willing to change.
There's a group in Minneapolis calling themselves MPD 150. They advocate for the replacement of that city's police force with what one could describe as "community self-policing". See for yourself. (Click the image for a larger view.)
Their agenda, their manifesto, is utterly ridiculous to anyone who has any real-world understanding and experience of criminals. I quote:
The transition to a police-free Minneapolis will require immediate measures to limit the harm routinely inflicted by the police in their normal functioning and steps to address the underlying causes of distress. First responder responsibility and on-site authority in crisis situations, public spaces and schools will be transferred to parties prepared to interact sympathetically and respectfully with the people. Social service functions will be relocated in community-based settings. Military equipment will be sequestered. The police are tasked with enforcing austerity – the extraction of resources and resilience from communities for the benefit of the rich – and controlling people’s attempts to survive, resist or self-medicate under its impact. Dismantling the police will require reallocating their budget and assets to support real solutions to community desperation: good, well-paying jobs, affordable housing, healthy food, empowering education, accessible health care, removal of toxins, etc. Ending the brutal police system is, by necessity, a program for a more just and resilient city.
That's so daft as to be laughable, if it weren't so serious.
- "First responder responsibility and on-site authority in crisis situations, public spaces and schools will be transferred to parties prepared to interact sympathetically and respectfully with the people." Oh, yeah? You're a first responder, confronted with a couple of muggers armed with knives. They want to get away with their loot. Kindly explain how you're going to "interact sympathetically and respectfully" with them. While you're telling us, I'll be selling tickets to watch your "interaction". I reckon it'll be a smash hit (literally) on pay-per-view TV.
- "The police are tasked with enforcing austerity – the extraction of resources and resilience from communities for the benefit of the rich – and controlling people’s attempts to survive, resist or self-medicate under its impact." Tell that to the average police officer and watch them fall over laughing. "Extract resources and resilience"? "Benefit the rich"? No, not in the least. They're there to stop criminals making themselves rich at your expense! As for "self-medication" . . . great excuse for being a drug addict, isn't it? And when you drive under the influence of those drugs, and kill someone in your zonked-out state, you should be treated with sympathy, instead of as the criminal you are . . . right?
- "real solutions to community desperation: good, well-paying jobs, affordable housing, healthy food, empowering education, accessible health care, removal of toxins, etc." I seem to recall that Minneapolis, like most cities of its ilk, had a lot more of those when the city was governed by people who understood the reality of where money comes from. It comes from businesses and individuals offering something to sell that people want to buy. From those sales comes salaries and wages for employees, taxes for the city, state and country, and all the other means needed for a community to sustain and develop itself. Take away those sales and all the economic activity that flows from them, and all you have left is wishful thinking. That's not economically sustainable, no matter how much you might prefer otherwise.
Yes, American law enforcement agencies are all too often flawed, with policies and procedures that frequently ignore Sir Robert Peel's fundamental principles for policing. They were the foundation for British law enforcement in the 19th century, and I think offer a perspective that would deal with most of the problems we encounter today. Sadly, even in Britain, their birthplace, they are today honored far more in the breach than in the observance.
The nine principles were as follows:
- To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
- To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
- To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
- To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
- To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
- To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
- To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that 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.
- To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and 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.
- To recognise 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.
I think we'd be far better advised to reintroduce and inculcate the Peelian Principles into American policing, rather than seek to abolish it. Yes, that includes "demilitarizing" our police. That should never have happened, and it remains a very serious problem. Take away the weapons of war from law enforcement. That's not their job. If things are bad enough, criminally speaking, that they have to have them, then we don't need police to deal with them - we need the military. The two functions are distinct from each other, with completely different mindsets and approaches, and should not overlap. If they do, we end up with police who behave like armed occupiers rather than peace officers - and that will put us straight back into the mess we're in right now.