Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both…
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That is where I sense we are today in policing. We have a choice: two roads, two directions, ahead of us. We can no longer travel both. And the road we choose will soon make all the difference in our life together.
- Police are to primarily be the arm of our government to enforce and maintain public order.
- Police are to be guardians and protectors of our lives and civil rights. They are to be fair and just in how they maintain public order.
Police can be both. But how much they are over and against the other is why there is a crisis and struggle today.
For police in a totalitarian society it’s all about order; in most cases there are no civil rights to think about — let alone protect.
But police in a democracy, a free society such as ours, which claims there are certain “inalienable” rights — among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the function of police must be very different from those who represent a totalitarian government.
Police in a free society by their nature must do a number of other things beside keep order — they must honor and protect individual rights sometimes over and against the state. They must respect and treat with dignity everyone they have contact without exception, and be accountable, reflective of the community they serve, and have utmost control of the sacred trust given to them: the use of lawful physical force.
Police in a free society also have the responsibly to care for those who cannot care for themselves among many other duties. (See ABA Standards Relating to the Urban Police Function for a good description of those necessary duties.) The role of police in a free society is very complex and requires calling the best of those among us, and giving them proper training, equipment, and leadership.
This is the struggle and “the road less travelled.” This is the identity crisis now facing us. We must decide which road we will take. And then we all must work to make sure we remain on that road and not get lost; to always be guardians and protectors of our people’s “inalienable” rights.
It is time for bold action. If we let this moment pass, I assure you we will have a most troublesome future far beyond what we are experiencing today.