Politics & Policy

A Police-Reform Agenda as Old as Policing Itself

People gather at the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct station to protest, after a police officer was caught on video pressing his knee into the neck of George Floyd, who later died at a hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., May 27, 2020. (Eric Miller/Reuters)
The founder of the first modern police department suggests a path forward.

The recent death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and the riots and anti-riot police actions that followed them, have made new radical libertarians out of some of our friends on the left, who are demanding the defunding and abolition of city police departments. As Dan McLaughlin points out, their cheerleaders in the media are undertaking yogic exertions to pretend that left-wing radicals proposing to abolish city police departments are not left-wing radicals proposing to abolish city police departments. Apparently, we are to apply the Selena Zito method and take them seriously but not literally.

There is someone we might consult about a plausible police-reform agenda: the founding father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel.

Police departments as we know them today are a relatively new kind of agency. We have had courts, sheriffs, bailiffs, etc., for a long time, but the first modern police department did not exist until Peel organized the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829. It is to Peel that we owe the modern notion of “policing with consent,” the principle that police agencies operate legitimately only where they operate with the consent of those subject to their powers. The situation in Minneapolis and elsewhere suggests that the local police agencies have lost the confidence of at least a portion of those to whom they are responsible, and that their legitimacy is therefore in question. If there is anything at all of substance to these riots and the spectacle of Nancy Pelosi kneeling in kente cloth (“dressing up like a Wakandan chess set” in the low-pH assessment of screenwriter Eric Haywood), then that question of legitimacy is it.

(It may be that the riots are only tangentially related to any real policy agenda and are instead simply a manifestation of the ancient instinct to conduct penitential rites during a plague. That’s my read.)

Peel’s nine principles of policing articulate more of a reform agenda than the would-be reformers do. We should consult them.

Peel insisted that civil police were to be understood as a more liberal alternative to (attn: Senator Cotton) using military forces to quell disorder and relying on excessive punishment to terrorize the citizenry into submission, which had been the previous model. We have strayed far from that ideal, not only in relying on the threat of military force during the recent episodes of political violence but also in reshaping our municipal police departments to look and think more like military units than civil authorities. We have given the police military weapons and military uniforms, the results of which have ranged from the ridiculous (the SWAT team in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, skulking around in woodland camouflage when answering a domestic call in a famously treeless environment) to the dystopian (riot police dressed up like extras from Starship Troopers, that great American testament to aspirational fascism). We arm the police like soldiers and we dress them up like soldiers, and we tell them they are at war — with drugs, with crime, but, ultimately, with the citizens they purport to serve.

And what was Joe Biden’s famous crime bill if not a semi-hysterical attempt to impose through the terror of severe punishment that which could not be achieved through other means?

Peel believed 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” and that the police must “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.”

(The “Peelian Principles,” from which I am quoting, may not have been put on paper by Peel himself.)

The death of George Floyd did not result from the “minimum degree of force which is necessary,” or anything close to that. The more general problem is that the police are not generally trusted to ethically and intelligently determine what the appropriate minimum degree of necessary force is and surely do not universally deserve such trust, as many police departments have demonstrated on many occasions.

Peel advised that the confidence and consent of the public were to be gained “not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy . . . 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.” The word “courtesy” stands out in those sentences. You can have courtesy, or you can have a state of “war” — it is difficult to have both at the same time.

And that may help us to understand why many police critics remain unmoved by data suggesting that there is no obvious widespread racial disparity in the use of deadly force by police; unjust police killings, this line of criticism holds, are only part of a larger pattern of targeting and mistreating African Americans that ranges from disrespect and discourtesy to racial profiling, and so the (contested) data on deaths do not reflect the more general facts of the case. If George Floyd had survived his ordeal, the behavior of the police would not have been any less wrong — it would only have produced a less shocking and dramatic outcome.

That kind of behavior comes from a bunker mentality, an us-and-them view of the world. Peel’s advice foresaw this as well: “The police are the public and . . . 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.” We no longer even pay lip service to the notion that the police are the public and the public are the police, as attested to by such developments as “qualified immunity” and laws establishing that assaulting a member of the general public is a less serious offense than assaulting a police officer. We have taken a civil office and made a kind of caste of it.

The final Peelian Principle: “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.”

Well.

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