Morris: The Police — Back to Sir Robert Pool
by Leo Morris
“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.” – From the nine principles set out in Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel’s General Instructions issued to every new police officer in the Metropolitan Police of the Greater London area, starting in 1829
PEEL’S DIRECTIVE to win the public’s approval was No. 2 on his list, right after the duty of police to “prevent crime and disorder” and right before securing the willingness of the public in the “observance of laws.”
That’s the whole concept of policing in a nutshell. Public safety is possible only if the public trusts that laws are just and police are fair in enforcing them.
Maintaining that trust is – our should be, at least, an ongoing community endeavor, as police adapt to new realities and residents respond to practices they prefer and ones they object to.
But communities in Indiana and across the nation today are embarking on massive re-evaluations of police practices and public safety efforts that were prompted not by the evolution of local conditions but by a national outcry over the death of one man at the hands of police in Minnesota.
That outcry has led people to conclude that the bond between police and public is more fragile than ever. That may be true in some communities more than others; the danger is that all communities will be treated the same both in public opinion and official policy.
Certainly, there is a nationwide rift in our perception of police, a racial divide we have never gotten a handle on.
Consider two tableaux, both indelibly imbedded in the public consciousness. Each represents a mother instructing her son in how to handle the police presence in their lives.
One mother tells her son that the police are his friends. They are the good guys, and he should turn to them if ever he’s in trouble.
The other tells her son to always be careful in his encounters with police. They don’t need a reason to be suspicious of him except the way he looks.
Both mothers are right – from their perspective – and trying to deal with the groups the two of them represent tests the endurance of Sir Robert’s wisdom.
Police are caught between the two groups, one with no trust in the current system at all, the other with an abundance of it. One group keeps shouting that “Black Lives Matter” and that attempts to dilute that message mean the rest of us still aren’t listening. The other group insists that “All Lives Matter” and to behave otherwise will destroy the principle of equality under the law.
The task of police is to win the trust of one group without weakening the trust of the other. But that task should have always been a part of the community agenda. If it is only being addressed as a standalone item in response to perceived pressure, rather than being a part of the community’s regular growth, the search for “social justice” for one aggrieved group could overshadow the equal justice all citizens are entitled to.
Police have a monumental power over us and thus a monumental obligation to use that power wisely. It is up to all of us to demand that police treat us with respect and use their lethal authority with restraint, but we can’t do it in a way that leaves them feeling despised for doing a dangerous job.
We can argue all day about whether a particular deadly encounter should have sparked such national turmoil, but in fact it did, and we are where we are.
The question is what to do now.
Here in Fort Wayne, and likely in other Hoosier cities, leaders are leaning toward the “8 Can’t Wait” national initiative to tame to the use of police force. The recommendations range from commonsensical to wishful thinking: Ban chokeholds and strangleholds, require de-escalation, require warning before shooting, exhaust all alternatives before shooting, obey a duty to intervene, ban shooting at moving vehicles, require use-of-force continuum, require comprehensive reporting.
None of them, alone or in combination, will prove to be a cure-all.
There also seems to be such a desire for police body cameras that their adoption is a near certainty. That won’t be a panacea, either. They can increase transparency, which might increase trust, but they will create other issues, such as a further loss of the privacy that is eroding daily.
But they are proposals worth talking about as long as we keep a couple of things in mind.
One is that we treat each police department as unique, with its specific strengths and weaknesses, instead of all being fixable with the same nationally inspired (or dictated) prescription. Most aren’t perfect, but neither are they overrun with racist predators.
The other is that we try to transition from the concept of group identify to one of individual sovereignty. Police should see each of us as citizens, all with the same right to justice, rather than members of demographic groups whose clout ebbs and flows with the political tides.
Our goal should be for police to seek and preserve public favor, to quote Peel again, “not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law.”
And we have to rediscover, if we have lost it, our “willingness in observance” of the laws that can transcend our tribalism and make public safety a collaborative effort instead of a club not everyone feels like a member of.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.