On the Proper Role of Police

Douglas suggested he would like to see this comment as an independent post, so I comply.
I've said this before, Douglas, but perhaps it should be said again. I think police work done right is just being a citizen full time -- and being a good citizen is about the most honorable thing you can do as an American. It's inherently an honorable thing to do, if you're doing it right, because honor is sacrifice and you're always ready to sacrifice your time, your energy, to help your neighbors.

Cattle get out of the fence? If your real neighbors are off at work, that's OK: there's a full-time neighbor you can call to help you catch them and get them out of the road. Somebody break into your neighbor's house? There's a full time member of the community to come take a report and serve as a witness in court, so that your neighbor can get their insurance agency to pay their claim. Same if there is a car wreck: here's a full time citizen who's ready to render first aid and serve as a witness to what happened in court.

If there's a crime, all citizens have the power to make an arrest and bring the offender before a magistrate, as well as to testify as to what happened. Even detective work is just citizen work -- which is why there are private detectives, just as bounty hunters are just using the ancient power of citizens' arrest. It's just that few people have time to spend trying to figure out a crime that happened in the past, and we benefit from having forensic resources that cost money (and require training), so we pool our resources and designate someone to get training we all pay for. But it's citizen work.

There's a riot? All citizens should get together and, guided by the officials they have commonly elected to take charge, help restore order. That official is usually the elected sheriff. When I was a boy, my father and the rest of his volunteer fire department (once again, just citizens! though you can call on them any time if you have a fire) were called up to help stop a potential riot in town. They didn't end up doing anything except being present with the water hoses, but you didn't need a professional riot force to do this -- nor lethal weapons.

So as long as the police are just full time good citizens, they're among the most honorable and valuable people in the world. When we professionalize them, though, there's a danger we'll forget this root -- that we'll think of them as a special class, and that it's "their job" and not ours to do these things. That leads to a lazy citizenry that stops doing its duty.

It's even worse, though, if the police come to see themselves as a special class, deserving of special powers and immune to the same laws that they enforce on everyone else. Then you get a menace.

But it doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be. There's a very good, very healthy way to do this.


douglas said...

One time I stopped to help a guy out who had just rolled his car- fortunately that only consisted of lending him my cell phone and staying to give witness to the police, and later the insurance. He thanked me by saying "You sir, are a citizen". I took that as a great compliment.

I wonder how many of our fellow citizens even understand what it means beyond the legal status.

Grim said...

It's a good question. It might be worth asking people what they think it means to be a citizen, and what duties they legitimately owe in accord with it.

My guess is most people will come up with "Jury duty" and "pay my taxes." Beyond that? But that is barely the beginning.

On the other hand, ask them "What are your rights as a citizen?" and stand back. They'll have a long list.

MikeD said...

I love this, Grim. And if I may, there is another citizen duty that we have professionalized to the point that everyone (they themselves AND the rest of society) seems to believe that they are a special class of citizen. I speak of the "press". "Press" always referred to a printing press, and "Freedom of the Press" referred to access to a printing press and the freedom to communicate freely using it without government censor or censure. It certainly did not refer to "printers", "reporters", "journalists" or indeed any other profession. It was a right that belonged to you, me, and every other citizen to communicate freely via the written/printed word to accompany Freedom of Speech and the spoken word. But if you ask most citizens now, they will tell you it is a special protection for those who work in the news industry.

This is why I vigorously defend bloggers as "the press", because they are citizen journalists, no better, worse, OR different than someone who does that job as their profession. One of the most annoying expressions to me is "credentialed member of the press." That phrase is utterly meaningless. Their "credentials" are nothing more than an employee ID card, and they are no more "the press" than a professional driver is "the vehicle." Those are just merely the devices they use to do their job, not the job itself.