What Police Reformers Can Learn from Russell Kirk

Police stand guard in front of a boarded up shop during a demonstration against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Anaheim, Calif., June 1, 2020. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Amid such vast and rapid change, it is a healthy thing — as ever — to take a breath and to consider the words of the great American moralist.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he past few weeks have not been kind to traditional, cops-on-the-street policing. In the aftermath of a few heavily reported black deaths at the hands of the police, even Republican politicians have been pressured into introducing new legislation aimed at holding officers accountable for hostile and aggressive behavior. On the other hand, left-wing activists have called for reforms ranging from modest police-department budget cuts to the outright dissolution of policing. This shift in momentum is not confined to the realm of words: Local governments have answered the demands of Black Lives Matter and other groups by effecting large-scale changes. New York City, for example, has announced that it will entirely disband its anti-crime units, a move which, by definition, is certain to embolden enterprising criminals. On the other side of the United States, Los Angeles plans to cut $150 million from the annual budget of its police department — a decision some say is not nearly enough. But the greatest remolding of all comes from the middle: Minneapolis’s city council looks determined to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department.

Amid such vast and rapid change, it is a healthy thing — as ever — to take a breath and to consider the words of the great American moralist Russell Kirk. In his essay “What is Conservatism?,” Kirk lays forth what is essentially an argument for conserving: “Conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. They prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.” How might one interpret these words in the context of police reform? Quite clearly, the “devil we know” is policing in its current form. Kirk, for one, does not gloss over the problems with the desired objects of his conservation; on the contrary, he admits that great evils afflict any society, as evil is inherent to the human condition. In the same way, we should acknowledge the issues with policing as we know it: It can be intimidating, authoritative, and even menacing. Moreover, police departments have, on the whole, a markedly worse rapport with racial minorities than with whites — a tragic state of affairs, whether the mistrust is grounded mostly in perceived or factual discrimination. But what is the alternative to modern-day policing? In truth, there are two: radical reform and measured reform.

Radical reform, whether through the abolition of police departments or through their dramatic attenuation, may be said to be the “devil we don’t know.” How, after all, are we even to imagine a society in which no one may be there to answer the call when a theft, rape, or murder is occurring? We would be right to prefer our current devil to this unknown one. But take even the case of budget cuts, which are somewhat less radical: Assuming that the funds drawn away from police departments and given to minority communities result in long-term crime reductions, we are still left with an interim period of many years during which the police will be less able to do their job. Certainly, this will be the case whenever we speak of fully dissolved crime units or nine-figure budget cuts. This is another unknown devil: an unstable period of power vacuums that might well lead to unforeseen social disorders.

Rather, those changes for which we should strive are the prudent, measured ones: The restriction of the power of bad-apple-shielding police unions, the rigorous teaching of deescalation techniques, and the administration of thorough psychology tests to all aspiring officers, for example. Dallas, Seattle, Baltimore, New York, and Las Vegas, for instance, have pioneered deescalation training and have subsequently enjoyed fewer civilian complaints. There is no contradiction between the desire for such reforms and the adherence to conservatism, as Kirk teaches. “By proper attention to prudent reform,” he writes, “we may preserve and improve [our] tolerable order.” Nevertheless, Kirk exhorts us not to abandon the greater principles: “If the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are forgotten, then the anarchic impulses in man break loose: ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned.’” It is all well and good to reform policing. But to abandon the institution of policing, to suppose that relying on a man or woman to answer the call when danger lurks is permanently outdated — or that, through proper social engineering, it will become outdated — is to embrace anarchy.

Kirk wrote that we are irredeemably flawed, and that we will always need to come to terms with our own sin no matter how much faith we place in our modern social programs. The realization that we need the police to enforce justice is, as with many other truths, the result of “centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice” — the careful discernment of what is compatible with our nature from what is not. It is unlikely that, spurning generations of wisdom, we might “make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste,” such as the discovery that the police have been a superfluous, oppressive entity all along.

Cops are not saints; anyone who has been pulled over for trivial reasons can testify to the fact that there are those with whom it is much more pleasant to interact than the police, and that the institution of policing could benefit from reforms. But police nevertheless serve an important role in our long-crafted society, and it would be the pinnacle of hubris to suppose that we could escape the chains of human nature — and the wisdom of our forefathers — in rejecting them.

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