Civil Liberties

What Policing Should Look Like

How can we build an ethical police force based upon the concept of Constitutional policing by consent?



Over the past four decades, the federal government has flooded American law enforcement with billions of dollars worth of financial incentives and military equipment in order to leverage local police toward support of the war on drugs—at the expense of law enforcement's primary mission of public safety. These failed federal policies and their collateral incentive programs have generated a mission creep that is transforming U.S. cops from peace officers to militarized warriors.

National debate surrounding the shooting of an unarmed black teenager and the response by police in Ferguson, Missouri, has produced a clear consensus that this militarized transformation of American law enforcement—and all that comes with it—is not exclusive to Ferguson and should not be a part of the American landscape. So how can we change? How can we build an ethical police force based upon the concept of Constitutional policing by consent?

All law enforcement officers take an oath of office. Most police departments have published codes of conduct, ethical standards, core principles, and other ideals intended to provide guidance to officers in their delivery of professional, compassionate, and constitutionally-framed community service. However, dependency on federal money has diminished the resolve of many police executives to uphold and defend the organizational doctrines they so proudly display above the portals of their buildings and on the home page on their websites. Instead they have been motivated to support a status quo that has served to suck dry the reservoir of community goodwill essential to effective policing.

In order to refill that reservoir of goodwill, we first need to dip into the values elucidated by Robert Peel in the 19th century. Here are Peel's "Nine Principles of Policing": 

  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.

Using Peel as the foundation for building an ethical, Constitutional police force, we should reshape the landscape of American policing with immediate reforms that include:

  • Ending the war on drugs.
  • Prohibiting the use of local police resources to "partner" with the federal government in programs that divert police resources away from matters of public safety in favor of federal policy.
  • Ending federal programs, such as the 1033 program, that provide materials, training, and equipment to local law enforcement. 
  • Ending local law enforcement's dependence upon all funding that promotes a mission contrary to Constitutional policing.
  • Ending asset seizures not accompanied by a criminal conviction.
  • Establishing "consent search" policies that prohibit fishing expeditions and unreasonable detentions.
  • Establishing effective civilian oversight to independently investigate all allegations of police misconduct. 
  • Establishing stronger ties with our communities by supporting full transparency related to allegations of police misconduct and establishment of police policy.
  • Repealing all legislation that conceals the identity of police officers from the public when internal investigations involve police shootings, allegations of excessive force, and matters of honesty and integrity.
  • Ending arrest quota management practices and reward systems.
  • Establishing policies that address the abuses of "interfering" and "failure to obey" arrest laws.
  • Restricting police union activity to matters related to wages and working conditions and prohibiting the use of membership funds to influence local elections.
  • Prohibiting the use of public funds to support membership in law-enforcement organizations that support goals and lobbying activity contrary to the mission, goals, ethics, and policies of local law enforcement.

With these kinds of reforms in place we could begin to heal our communities; diminish the mass incarceration of people of color; allow more parents to be with their children and fewer children to be sent to foster homes; recognize that addiction is a health rather than a criminal-justice problem, and supplant prison with treatment; abate the arms race between the police, gangs, and cartels; end police profiling; and restore the requirement of reasonable suspicion as an irrevocable feature of constitutional policing. Then, and only then, will we be able to return to a true model of policing in which the police and the people are one.