Sir Robert Peel, who in his tenure as Home Secretary established London’s Metropolitan Police in the early 19th century, set forth nine principles of policing. They are as follows:
1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
Now, if I drew up a list of policing principles with intent to make them diametrically opposed to Peel’s, and then designed a police force around them, what do you think it would look and act like?
Regardless of your stance on the militarization of American police in general and the recent events in Missouri in particular, here’s a simple truth: a police department that loses the trust of the community it serves can no longer fulfill its primary function.
I am not anti-police—I recognize policing duties as one of the few legitimate and important functions of a state. But the War on Drugs, onerous and liberty-destroying as it is, has merged with the War on Terror, and as a result we have big-city police departments who are perpetually in conflict mode. It’s not that I mind the cops having AR-15s. What I mind is that “compliance by overwhelming force” has become the first and only tool in the toolbox in many cases. If you dress your cops like soldiers, equip them like soldiers, have them train like soldiers, and adopt the lingo of soldiers, it’s really no surprise when they sooner or later start feeling and acting like soldiers.
I don’t think the War on Terror/Drugs will end any time soon. There are too many jobs involved, too much power to give up, too many agencies making a living and justifying their own existence off perpetuating the whole thing. (Asset forfeiture laws in particular have done more damage to the Bill of Rights that any other piece of legislation in the last 40 years. This policing-for-profit business has to stop.)
I know many police officers who are upstanding both as people and professionals—who take their duties to heart and execute them with integrity and professionalism. But policing as a whole is in dire need of reform in this country, because it’s as far removed from Peel’s Principles of Policing as you can get, and everyone suffers for it: our communities, the officers, and the general respect for the law.
Where do we go from here? Anywhere but the way we’ve been going, because it’s not working. I’ll leave you with a link to this excellent WaPo article by Radley Balko, who has some insightful examples and suggestions to get our police back to something resembling peace officers instead of law enforcement professionals.