Punish and Protect or Serve and Police?
In his first appearance of the February 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, was portrayed as an antagonist of Spider-Man.
However, in the ensuing 43 years since that first cameo, The Punisher would end up becoming one of Marvel Comic's most popular and successful characters. His trademark skull logo would spin off and become a recognizable symbol of masculinity and the willingness to commit violence for a greater good.
Over the last four decades, The Punisher has become both fictional character and representation of a cultural set of beliefs. This includes his trademark insignia becoming almost synonymous with military, para-military, and gun enthusiast culture.
In the comic book, Frank Castle becomes a vigilante who wages a one-man war against crime and assumes the persona of The Punisher, after his wife and two children are murdered by the mob. The Punisher’s name is fitting given his character represents the epitome of the anti-hero. The Punisher is very comfortable with employing violence against his criminal enemies.
The cultural representation of The Punisher ultimately comes as an extension of the fictional character himself. The Punisher insignia encompasses a cultural set of beliefs that the means justify the ends when it comes to fighting crime. The belief that violence to any extent is justifiable provided those in which it is engaged on are deserving based on their unlawful behaviors.
To some degree, every comic book character or super hero is truly an extension of the personalities within a society. In this regard, indeed there are more than a few people who self-identify with The Punisher, if not by action, at least by belief.
In February of 2017, a small Eastern Kentucky police department, announced that it would be removing The Punisher skull insignia the agency had placed on their police cars. The removal of the stylized skull decals came as a result of concerns by the public after the agency had the logo placed on the hood of all eight of the vehicles in their fleet.
The Department's Chief of Police said that he, “wasn’t trying to stir anything up." and that he "considered it to be a ‘warrior' logo.” “That decal represents that we will take any means necessary to keep our community safe," the Chief said.
The Chief's intent may have been completely honorable, however, just like the fictional character Frank ‘The Punisher’ Castle, the problem is not necessarily with what is palpable, rather it is what is intangible… it is a belief.
Sir Robert Peel created the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. Peel set forth the principles of policing a democracy, and famously declared, “The police are the public and the public are the police.”
Essentially, Peel’s philosophical design of policing a democratic society involved an organized group of people that arose from within a society, that was entrusted with enforcing the law, and maintaining public safety for a collective populous.
When established in 1829, the London Metro Police were guided by nine principles which represented the agency's core mission statement. All nine of the principles were rooted in the understanding that success in policing was solely dependent on public approval of a police force’s existence, actions, behavior, and ability to secure and maintain public trust.
Number five of those principles that was issued to every new police officer at the Metro police was: “To seek and preserve public favor, 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 humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.”
Now, the “Peelian Principles of Policing” may be 188 years old, however, the overall philosophical approach is the exact same guiding tenants that helped form the Boston Police Department, in 1838, when it became the first police department in the United States. Additionally, Peel's principles and concepts represent the body of modern policing to this day.
The framework of modern policing is based on policing by consent. Policing by consent means that the power of the police comes from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. Policing by consent does not mean that an individual can consent to not obeying the law. Quite the opposite, no individual can choose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law.
In democratic societies, laws are created and passed by legislators, who are democratically elected by the people. Therefore, the people as a collective are always supposed to be in control and not a government that is independent of the people’s reach.
One of the primary methods of maintaining equitable policing by consent can be summed up by number eight of the Peelian Principles, which requires a police force 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.”
Essentially, the administration of justice, de facto punishment, must be compartmentalized from the police forces in order to maintain impartiality of justice. Ultimately, this is why the Catlettsburg Police Department should have removed The Punisher decals and frankly shouldn’t have had them on their cars in the first place, because mindset that underlies “The Punisher” belief, is not representative of what the police are supposed to be. The police aren’t the punishers. In fact, we aren’t supposed to even be a facet of punishment at all.
When The Punisher mindset is allowed to be a part of the police culture, it fosters a belief, both inwardly and outwardly, that the job of law enforcement is to punish citizens. However, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. The police are supposed to be completely detached from the punishment process altogether. This is the exact reason why the criminal justice system is comprised of three distinct branches; the police, the courts, and corrections.
A law enforcement officer’s job isn’t to punish or render judgment whatsoever. Instead, the police are responsible for enforcing laws so as to arrange the meeting for judgment and punishment. Even when a police officer testifies in a judicial proceeding, they shouldn’t be doing so in order to achieve punishment for a violator. Rather, they should merely be laying out the facts of an event that demonstrates a violation so that another can render judgment.
When you create a “punisher mindset” in policing it places too much burden on the police by instilling an attitude that the reason crime exists is due to a lack of punishment on their part.
Truthfully, this type of attitude can be fostered by a frustrated public, who’s only view of the criminal justice system is overwhelmingly the community’s local police force. Suddenly, the police become responsible for criminal acts or recidivism within society, that ultimately is a result of disastrous attempts at rehabilitation of criminal behavior by flawed judicial impositions.
Essentially, a police force then begins to assume that, consent of the public’s desire in policing, involves extra-judicial punishment.
The problem with developing a cultural mindset of the police as the punishers is it ultimately usurps or erodes a police force's ability to be impartial in its views and actions. Essentially, violations of the law are no longer a necessity, because the ultimate goal is the eradication of crime, which is perceived as the independent role of law enforcement.
One may wonder, what’s wrong with the eradication of crime and isn’t that the job of the police? No. It’s actually not the job of the police. At least not in totality.
The problem with The Punisher mindset of making the police responsible for the eradication of crime is that it fosters an entirely new philosophy of policing. This new philosophy of policing is contradictory to what successful law enforcement is in a democratic society. When the police are responsible for the eradication of crime, their efficiency is measured by police action in dealing with crime and disorder.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of system many American police agencies operate under today. An agency or even individual officer’s effectiveness is measured by quantifiable measures such as the number of arrests or citations issued. This is the measurement of police actions and not actually efficiency of policing.
The actual measurement of police effectiveness is the absence of crime and disorder and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them. When police effectiveness is measured by the absence of crime and disorder and not how much crime and disorder a police department takes action upon, an agency is actually functioning harmoniously within the principle of public consent policing. The public desires to have crime reduced, they do not desire to have criminal enforcement action imposed on them in absence of communal crime problems.
When success is measured by police action and the concept that law enforcement is responsible for the punishment of criminal behavior, this leads to police actions being taken against the non-criminal public. Even if, crime is actually reduced, a police force must still engage in enforcement action, because that is the only measurement of success one can have. This fosters a suspicious view of the entire public because any one member of a community can be a potential criminal and therefore in need of action upon them.
In order to protect the sanctity policing in a democratic society, the standard that the police cannot operate as society’s punisher must be equitably universal. You cannot condone a punishment style of policing for one demographic of society and not the other. You equally cannot look the other way if it is happening. Because what you allow in one demographic, becomes the overall belief in what policing is supposed to represent. Therefore, the punishment mindset of policing, that was once only condoned in one community, ultimately becomes the universal style of policing for all communities.
At the end of the day, when it comes to the nations police forces, development of “The Punisher Mindset,” can spell disaster to consent policing and what law enforcement is actually supposed to be. It also creates a chaotic realm in which the police, themselves, are unhappy and constantly feel the burdens of responsibility that is outside their scope of operations. When you police as The Punisher, the public becomes the enemy. In a democratic society, this cannot ever be successful, because the consent for policing comes from the public.
Ultimately, just as “the police are the public and the public are the police.”- If the police punish the public, then the public will punish the police.