Demanding a Better Police



Plato writes that those who are called to protect the republic, the guardians,

are to be educated on four virtues — wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.

They are to be “the best of our citizens.”

For the past four decades one question has continued to puzzle me, “Why don’t people demand better policing?” Incident after incident comes and goes from the abuse of protesters to hasty and tragic police shootings. Add to this the war on drugs, police militarization, and the lack of police civility, and all this is at a crisis stage. There seems to be a constant follow of police misadventures throughout our nation.

After each incident, the anger predictably wanes. Quickly, it’s back to business as usual with few changes or improvements. After three decades of police service and another 20 years as a close observer of police, my question is finally beginning to be answered.

At first, I didn’t want to believe what I have come to realize. In spite of our proclaimed love of liberty, equality and fairness, our lack of concern for what police do is because they exist to keep other people in line, not us – the good folks (read: white, well-to-do folks). No one really cares what police do to others as long as they don’t do it to them.

This reminds me of a study done a number of years ago concerning how citizens in the U.K. viewed their police. Overwhelmingly, they found that most everyone thought quite highly of their police. A deeper look revealed that most citizens surveyed never had a personal contact with them. However, those who did had a much lower opinion; in short, more contact, lower opinion.

Recently, I met with a number of white college students who said the same thing They were vaguely interested in police, thought they did a good job, they liked to see cops on television, and liked to see them walking around, but none of them ever had a personal contact with police.

So, there lies the problem. Most caring people tend to support group homes for orphans and shelter for the homeless — but not in their neighborhood. This is so common that we call this attitude “NIMBY” – not in my backyard!

When it comes to police, I think it’s the same. We don’t want police in our backyard; we want them in other people’s backyards (Read: people who are different from us and do not live in our neighborhood). Others are easily distinguishable by the shade of their skin, the vehicles they drive, their cultural mannerisms and even clothing. And, of course, we all know where others live and where they hang out. And so do police. So when police show up in the neighborhoods of the others they always seem to find plenty to keep them busy.

But here’s the rub. If we organize, train, and field our police to control others, what does that say about us? Why does such a distinction exist between others and us in our society? And do we think that others don’t want the same things we do — safe and secure neighborhoods. But I suggest the most important question before us is whether or not we feel we have a social, moral, and economic responsibility to others?

These are questions those who live in a free, democratic society need to ask. Sure, there will always be others, always haves and have-nots, but should we not work toward helping everyone succeed? After all, our founders built this nation on some very important ideals – that we all are endowed with certain unalienable rights. All of us.

If we are to succeed as a nation, we will have to assure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. In countries around the world where only a few have and everyone else has much less, the job of police is to dominate and control those have-nots so they don’t bother and take things from the few who have. Those societies are not interested in others, only themselves. In short, their police exist to protect them from the many who are poor. But this is not the role of police in America. In a free and democratic society like ours, police have a unique and special role to exist for everyone’s benefit, not just a few.

In my opinion, here are some major issues police need to address and they need to start addressing them right now.

  1. FORCE.  Their quickness to use force, including deadly force, when dealing with incidents.
  2. MISTRUST.  Mistrust caused by the lack of connection, relationship, and an on-going, two-way communication with the communities they serve.
  3. DISRESPECT.  The absence of courtesy and civility when dealing with people of color, the mentally ill, youth, immigrants, and the poor – others.
  4. SAMENESS.  The lack of diversity in police organizations in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
  5. UN-INFORMED. Few police with four-year college degrees and those who do work within an organizational atmosphere of anti-intellectualism.
  6. CLASSISM. Over policing the poor through aggressive traffic, drug, and petty offense enforcement.
  7. MILITARIZATION.  The overuse and misuse of military equipment, weaponry, and paraphernalia.

What most people fail to understand is that the job of police in a free society is not to be warriors who control and dominate through fear, but guardians who safeguard and protect everyone. In our society, police are to model our dominant values.

Unfortunately, these two radically opposed ways of policing confound and blur whatever discussion there is today about the role police. When it comes to responding to public protest or waging war on drugs, we see warriors. They dominate today’s images. But it’s the wrong image and the wrong kind of police work.

Nevertheless, resistance exists. In many of our nation’s cities and neighborhoods there is forward progress from the guardians who work day in and day out walking, talking with, and respecting those with whom they serve. Guardians identify problems in their assigned neighborhoods and work with community members to solve them — that’s community policing and guardians, not warriors, do it. But this isn’t showy work. It’s not like cops on television. It doesn’t grab headlines like robo-cops and their armored vehicles do. But what guardians do is keep all of us safe, treat all of us with respect, and operate within the rule of law.

But it’s not just being stopped, frisked, and disrespected by police that drives the negative feelings that many others have toward police. It’s the accumulation of the personal accounts of family, friends and neighbors, newspaper articles, and television coverage of questionable police behavior. It is the result of a warrior mentality when operating in the neighborhoods of others; stopping and frisking their children, mistakenly knocking down their doors, and treating them with disrespect.

But most of us don’t know this. We don’t have a clue because warriors work in other people’s neighborhoods, not ours. But it’s about time we realized it. A wise nation makes changes before the wake-up call comes and conflict occurs. The time to prevent a troubling future is now.

We can continue to ignore the growing warrior model among our police because we think it’s good for us. And we can choose to be silent and not stand up in our neighborhood, school board, and city council meetings for the others. But if we do, we fail our police, our nation, and ourselves.

If we fail to demand police who guard and protect, we all will eventually suffer. We will cease to be a moral nation. It will be a great national mistake to allow police to drift away — unaccountable, closed, unresponsive, and militarized. If we stand by while others are systematically detained, controlled, arrested and disfranchised, we become the problem.

What should we be doing? We need to have a clear understanding that a guardian-oriented police is an attainable and realistic demand. Police can be changed and improved. It’s not impossible. But it does take will and persistence. We must demand that police in our cities and towns be men and women of integrity. We must demand they be honest, well-educated and trained. And we must demand they act respectfully to us and to others, control their use of force, and work closely with us.

There is really no alternative. We can no longer have two competitive systems of policing in America – the militarized warriors and the community-oriented guardians. If we wish to be a nation that lives our values and secures our inalienable rights for everyone, then we know what we must demand.



  1. This was excellent, Chief.

    The drug war, though terrible for society, has provided a bit of a wake up call for some middle class white people. As aggressive drug war policing has started to effect more in the comfortable middle class (think of cases such as the raid on the mayor’s home in Berwyn Heights, MD), people are more cognizant of the fact that this is a war on US and our civil liberties, not just “those people.”

    Nonetheless, the focus of aggressive policing and mass imprisonment remains on poor people, especially poor black people. If white people were incarcerated at such a disproportionate rate, I believe the United States would have already moved away from the prohibition mindset. But since “the other” is most profoundly effected by our “tough on crime” measures, we are still way behind.


  2. If you look at the history of policing, it has alway been used to protect corporations and wealthy people from the rest of the American population even during the period of slavery.

    We should include district attorneys in our quest for better, improved policing since they are view as law enforcement officers; although, I don’t see them getting injured/killed in the line of duty compare to the street cops. We need to vote for district attorneys who do not hestitate to take on the police even if it means that the police will avoid or stop trying to help the district attorneys prosecute cases because the district attorneys depend on the police for collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, etc. Then again, maybe the district attorneys should have their own large force of investigators if they can’t expect help from the police.


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