Are We Police or Drum Majors?
Do you ever feel our place is with Joan Baez and her ilk, protecting Joe Hill and the worker rather than the status quo? I understand we need to operate within the law. But can we have a conscience of our own? I'd argue we have to. We are not soldiers. I believe we are cranky social workers. And we cannot be the strong arm of political expediency. Kent state there and Orgreave in the UK show we need to be better. I'd love you to lead the conversation.
First of all, it’s great to hear from you. Often we people only discuss or consider social media on the basis of the many negatives that can be associated with it. Rarely, do we recognize times, such as this, in which social media affords the ability for people to connect and gain value from each other across great distances.
Ten years ago it would have been virtually unthinkable for a police officer in the U.S. to be able to connect with one of their contemporaries in the U.K., allowing the two of them to engage in meaningful conversations and discussions. For this alone, I am thankful for the advent of platforms like Facebook.
Now in terms of your message, often we define “law enforcement” or “policing” as being the actions undertaken by our nation’s police forces. However, the question you posed requires one to examine the deeper core and philosophical nature of what it means to “police” a society. It begs one to consider are the conventional actions of modern policing truly consistent with the overarching theme of law enforcement?
Essentially, on a deeper level in regards to what a police force is supposed to represent in society, are the actions of modern policing actually consistent with the role law enforcement is supposed to serve? Ultimately, this all boils down to being able to answer the question:
Is there a pristine and inherently absolute definition of what it means to police?
The origin of policing can be traced back to 1050 B.C.E. in the Chu and Jin Kingdoms in China. During this era in ancient China, groups of individuals called “Perfects” oversaw civil administration and handled investigations, much like modern police detectives. Additionally, around 700 B.C.E. a form of policing can be seen in Ancient Greece. Rather curiously, the ancient Greeks used publically owned slaves for crowd control, and to deal with criminals and prisoners.
The first true organized government police force didn’t emerge until around 1667 with France when King Louis XLV established the office of “Lieutenant General of Police.” During this time police in France were tasked with “ensuring the peace and quiet of the public and private individuals, purging the city of what may cause disturbances, procuring abundance, and having each and everyone live according to their station and their duties.”
Eventually, the modern form of policing as we know it today would not emerge until 1829, with the Metropolitan Police Act, and Sir Robert Peel’s establishment of the Metropolitan Police Service in London, England.
Ultimately, the Metropolitan Police Service would be the first modern and professional police force in the world, and serve as the model for how policing is conducted to this day.
Prior to the establishment of the Metro Police, the public’s view of the police was that it was merely another tool of government repression against its people. In order to try to distance the Metro Police from this public view, Peel established a set of nine core standards for policing. These standards are known today as the “Peelian Principles.”
The foundation of Peel’s view of law enforcement was that policing must be done by consent. Essentially, the authority and power a police force has over the populous are based on the implicit consent of the citizens. In fact, every one of the Peelian Principles was based on this view of “ethical policing,” in which a police force should be politically neutral and dependent on the public’s approval for their existence, actions and behaviors.
Ultimately, The Metropolitan Police and the Peelian Principles became the model for which virtually all Western police forces function to this day.
Based on this I would suggest that the Nine Peelian Principles are probably the most accurate portrayal of what the police are supposed to represent and how they are intended to function – with the words, “supposed to” and “intended to” being the most critical areas of concern.
In his 1956 book New Study of Police History, historian Charles Reith said that what made the Peel model for policing unique was that it “derived, not from fear, but almost exclusively from public co-operation with the police, induced by them designedly by behavior which secures and maintains for them the approval, respect and affection of the public.”
However, can we honestly say that modern policing still functions in this manner today?
Is it an idealistic cliché to believe that policing can ever truly be legitimized by the consent of the people when the actual direction and control of a nation’s police forces is dictated by the government?
Essentially, how can the public ever have legitimate influence over how they are policed whenever the ones doing the policing are established, funded, and enforcing laws or orders are set down by the government?
In fact the paradox of policing by consent of the people is such a significant one that in 2012, the Home Office in the United Kingdom elaborated on the Peelian Principles of consent policing by formally stating, "the power of the police coming from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. It does not mean the consent of an individual. Rather, no individual can choose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law."
Now, the counter-argument to this paradox would be that in a democratic society it is the people who elect their leaders, and therefore even if it is politicians that are giving the orders to a nation’s police forces, those political leaders are merely a representative extension of the people.
Suddenly we find ourselves jumping down a rabbit hole because to examine this paradox one has to ask, “How confident is the public that their political leadership is actually representing their needs?”
According to a report published by the Pew Research Center in October of 2017, 51% of Americans are “Not Satisfied” with their current political system, with 46% reporting being “Satisfied.” In the same study, those figures essentially flip-flop in the U.K. with 47% being “Not Satisfied” and 52% “Satisfied.”
A May 2017 study by Pew found that only 20% of Americans trusted their elected leadership “Always” or “Most of the time.”
Lastly, just a few weeks ago a study was published by SSRS that found that only 37% of Americans had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. Comparably, only 30% viewed the Republican Party favorably.
Eventually, this finds us sitting at a table with the Mad Hatter, The Dormouse, and The March Hare, suddenly pondering the question:
What do the police represent if they are public servants that serve at the direction of a government, that the majority of the public does not trust and are not satisfied with?
Honestly, I am not sure there is an easy answer at all to this question.
I agree with what you said when you said that the police are not supposed to be soldiers. In fact, this was a strict belief of Robert Peel when he established the Metro Police force. The police were organized along civilian lines, rather than paramilitary. This was why Peel deliberately manufactured the Metro Police uniforms in blue, in contrast to the red color of the British military uniforms at the time. Additionally, Peel rejected all the inclusion of police ranks that included military titles, with the exception of Sergeant.
The modern police forces today have shifted in stark contrast to Peel’s initial separation of a paramilitary structure. Most, if not all, modern police forces use rank command structures that are almost identical to the military. Additionally, the prevailing culture is militaristic with an emphasis on obedience to orders. Moreover, at times, modern police forces have appeared almost indistinguishable in terms of equipment and technology to that of the current combat soldier.
With that said, especially in America, it is hard to deny that the level of threat that modern police officers can face is comparative to that of an irregular military force. Essentially, the mass availability of 5.56, .223, or 7.76 caliber rifles in the United States makes the necessity for comparable firearms or level IV body armor understandable.
In fact, it would be hypocritical for me to not acknowledge this considering I have an M4 carbine rifle, level IV vest, and ballistic helmet with me in my police car at all times.
In November of 2016, I found myself sitting alone in one of the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In front of me stood the exact same pulpit that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached at. Mere steps outside the door to the church was a reflecting pool, in the middle was the tomb and final resting place of the greatest civil rights leader the modern world has ever known.
As I sat there in Dr. King’s church, I listened to an audio recording of the last sermon he ever gave at that church before he was murdered. The sermon was called, “The Drum Major Instinct.”
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, is self-evident as being his most famous speech. However, in truth The Drum Major Instinct sermon he gave two months and two days before his death is probably far more profound.
In his sermon, Dr. King describes the “Drum Major Instinct” as being our human ego that compels us to always be better than others. Now, I won’t post the entirety of Dr. King’s sermon. However, I highly suggest everyone take the time to listen to it. You will discover his words thirty-nine years ago, ring every bit as true today as they did then. I will however, share this except:
“The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem… So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."
Ultimately, from the moment I read your message, I couldn’t help hearing Dr. King’s words over and over as I pondered what you said.
The fundamental question that needs to be asked by each police officer to themselves is who are we policing? Who are we serving? Who are we protecting?
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that last year during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, as I watched law enforcement turn water hoses on protesters to protect the big oil industry, I didn’t ask myself those very questions.
We cannot deny that those infamous images of police K9’s biting African American children in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 3, 1963, the ones in control of those dogs reigns were police officers.
Therefore we must ask ourselves now, are we principled enough to say that we would not cross the lines of violating human rights and enforcing unethical laws today? Would we be bold enough not to hide behind the cliché of “just following orders?”
Is there a point in which we accept that the 2016 report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed the current estimate of Americans who use illicit drugs represents 7.5% of the population; meanwhile the American police forces in total only represent .34% or less than 1% of the U.S. population? Essentially, the war on drugs is literally one that cannot be won because presently law enforcement is outnumbered by resources available by 2,200%.
There isn’t a single military commander or national government that would even consider waging a war when they were so outnumbered by the oppositional force.
Eventually, the entire question you asked comes down to considering is there indeed a line that the police have to make the choice, “Are we defending the public and people or are we defending a governmental machine?”
In truth, I don’t have an answer to that question. In my opinion, the police should be representative on an ideal that is the epitome of blind justice and righteousness. The police should represent a society’s moral compass that is willing to condemn misdeeds and unethical conduct by anyone including those within the government and even their own ranks.
Am I idealistic or is this ideal perfect image of policing realistic?
That too, I do not know. However, it is a question I spend a significant time asking myself.
At the end of the day, your question has hit the bedrock of my entire motivation and purpose for much of what I do. It may seem odd or that I am overstepping my bounds of being “just a cop” when I speak out against racism, prejudice, unethical behavior, or when I discuss political issues.
The only even feasible solution I have to the question you asked is to accept Sir Robert Peel’s most famous quote:
“The police are the people and the people are the police.”
Essentially, an ethical society helps ensure ethical police. Moreover, accountability for ethical behavior in our elected leadership helps safeguard the likelihood of the police being asked to enforce unethical laws.
Eventually, an answer to what you asked is not easily found. However, it is indeed probably one of the most profound questions we need to be asking.
At the end of the day, I pray that there is still enough righteousness amongst society that your question is one that can be answered by the courage and willingness of those who wear the badge. I pray that in the end the question hasn’t already been answered and some of us simply refuse to acknowledge it.
I pray that if indeed the “police are the people and the people are the police,” that the pristine and inherently absolute definition of what it means to police... is exactly what we see.