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Who Will Guard the Guardians: Dilemmas of Policing

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“Policing needs to be seen as a profession to whose ranks people of every class might plausibly aspire.”

There were guys in my New Hampshire mill town high school who went to parties on the weekend not to dance but to fight. Actually, they were happy to fight during the week too if provoked. And however otherwise dull their imagination, they had no difficulty imagining provocations. Some, it seemed to me, fought to make themselves feel like masters of our shabby little universe, others for the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain. I wondered then whether having someone’s broken face on the floor in front of them was anticipatory payback for a future of pumping gas. But then I went on to Princeton where the most frightening guy on campus, a heavy-boned, hatchet-faced star of the wrestling team, was the product of a tony Baltimore preparatory school, who probably envisioned a career in investment banking. If one saw him in the midst of drunken weekend revels, he crossed the street. Class is not a precise predictor of thuggery.

When I think about policing, I think among other things about those guys in whom, whether through nature or nurture, rage has consumed empathy. To the extent that the state is responsive to ordinary people, it assumes the obligation to protect us from them. That is why liberals like myself—no less than conservatives—concede to the state the authority to maintain institutions of repression: police, prosecutors, criminal courts, and prisons. We want deterrence and where deterrence fails: isolation. But here is our first dilemma: Among the people attracted to a profession licensing repression (albeit theoretically for a good end) are those same guys, by no means a majority, but present.

Second dilemma: Policing is one of the most difficult jobs in any society but particularly in one as well-armed, suspicious of government, and divided by color, class, and culture as the United States of America. Policing calls for skills that do not naturally align: physical courage and toughness; empathy; sensitivity to cultural cues; emotional intelligence. And because it is the first-line instrument for enforcing quotidian compliance with the laws and regulations needed to maintain a healthy social order and capitalist economy, there is no profession more important for the preservation of a democratic state and more in need of highly selective recruitment, intense and prolonged preparation, and continuing education. To do their job correctly, police officers need no less (and probably more) preparation and ongoing training than our Navy SEALs and Green Berets, for their mission is more complicated.

Third dilemma: Virtually every Western society has ghettoes, areas in which relatively poor racial, religious, or ethnic minorities are concentrated and where they face multiple barriers to upward mobility. This is not simply a matter of poor schools and little-to-no capital but also the brute fact of isolation from the various networks arising naturally from the majority’s extended families and legacy friendships, as well as from its shared life in schools, teams, clubs, jobs, hobbies, and churches. Social networks are a key source of opportunity. In Sweden, for example, greater than two-thirds of all vacancy fillings in the private sector involve some kind of informal contacts. This is structural and not intentional discrimination. However diverse the minority ghetto population, its isolation from majority society gives it an identity alongside its various inherited ones, the identity of the outsider. Police units drawn from the majority population are thus bound to be seen as an occupying force.

Not only is the police the human face of the aloof comfortable consumer society; in addition, however well-intentioned and trained, it will aggressively threaten a class of ghetto entrepreneurs, the men and women (often, in reality, boys and girls), who find opportunity, otherwise exiguous, in the corners of the economy that the majority—acting through the state—has criminalized. Just as Jews with surplus capital became the money-lenders of Medieval Europe because the Christian Church had forbidden Christians to lend at interest (and while the authorities of various kinds excluded Jews from most other income-earning activities), entrepreneurial ghetto dwellers are drawn into the drug trade because the law keeps Walmart and Costco and the pharmaceutical companies (until opioids came along) out. If the sale of narcotics to adults were decriminalized or if the suppression of the trade were left to a force entirely distinct from the police, the latter could use its repressive capacity primarily to protect the ghetto majority from the small minority of natural-born predators in their midst (Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”) who graduate from stealing weaker kids’ lunch money to preying on adults in the legitimate economy.

As things stand now, what can be done to ease the conflict between police and ghetto communities, even as we struggle to eliminate the ghettos themselves? Policing can be more than deterrence, isolation and punishment, more than collective retribution. We need to raise the salience of its de facto helping dimension (like getting an injured person medical assistance) and lower the salience of its repressive features. And we need to lower the salience—indeed eliminate altogether—hassling the poor in effect for being  poor; society as a whole does enough of this in any event. If a poor person has a busted tail light, it is not out of choice. Instead of a ticket, he should be handed a voucher to have it fixed.

One thing we can do to raise the helping dimension of police departments is to elevate the incidence and quality of neighborhood foot patrols in ghetto areas and integrate patrol officers with civilians ideally drawn from the area and, thus, familiar with the customs and idioms of its principal occupants. These civilians would be trained to mediate disputes among local people and disputes between them and state institutions, and they would be educated to serve as a source of information about how to access state services or private ones subsidized by the state. Service as a patrol officer in one neighborhood for a number of years would need to be an important credential for rising in the force. Patrols would visit with shopkeepers, frequent local restaurants, visit schools, particularly primary ones, and encourage students to consider policing as a profession.

The most difficult relationship for neighborhood police to manage is with young men and women. To promote a positive relationship, police substations should be collocated with a medical clinic, computer-equipped study rooms, a leisure and sports center supplied with large screen televisions, media game rooms, a basketball court, and a workout room. Volunteers from colleges and the wider community with appropriate skills would coach individuals and organize teams that would compete intramurally and with teams from other neighborhoods.

Policing needs to be seen as a profession to whose ranks people of every class might plausibly aspire. Just as some cities, in an effort to integrate students of different colors and social classes, have created magnet high schools for the performing arts and science and engineering, there should be magnet schools which would be the first step on the fast track to high positions in the policing profession. To add to the allure, the training of officers should include skills that could be transferred to a post-retirement second career in the public or private sector. And just as there is a formal military-service preference in competition for public sector jobs, there could be one for retirement following distinguished service in the police. Employers’ associations could adopt a similar preference in their areas of the economy.

If these proposals sound wildly expensive, consider what we now spend on the whole system of so-called criminal justice and the immeasurable opportunity costs for families and the larger society when we maim, kill, or incarcerate millions of human beings who might otherwise have lived productive lives. Equally immeasurable are the costs stemming from the terrible social fractures and periodic eruptions of rage our current system of public order predictably produces.

Tom Farer is a professor of international relations at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He also served as an assistant to the commander of the Somali National Police force and as president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.   

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