Socially Contracting a Dream

While talking with a number of clergy in Minneapolis about their city and their police (of which I was once one of those police) the important concept of “social contracting” came up.

That brought me back to my university days and Philosophy 101, the Enlightenment. and the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and our nation’s Founders.

A social contract is an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection.

A social contract in which we all agree is that which we continue to struggle throughout our nation’s history. It is why we have a Black Lives Matter movement. How shall we live together in a crowded, diverse community? How many of my “rights” am I willing to give up in order to have a safe and orderly city in which others can also enjoy its benefits? These and other disquieting questions from gun rights to the wearing of face mask continue to challenge system of government.

This theory of social contract covers everything from how we drive our automobile to whether we will recycle our trash. The contract is most visible in our laws and how we sanction those who do not follow them (that is, not obeying/agreeing-to the Contract. Our greatest example of a social contract is our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution along with our written laws.

Social contracts most certainly involve police who, more often than not, are called to respond to those who deviate from it as they caution, warn, cite, and arrest offenders. We invoke the Contract when we talk to, sanction (or report) the behaviors of others whom we feel are violating the Contract — when our neighbors don’t mow their grass, play loud music during bedtime hours, pile trash in their backyard, and drive recklessly in the neighborhood.

Eventually, police will be called concerning Contract violations (most explicitly put into our community’s laws and ordinances.

How do we expect police to act, to sanction, Contract violators? And, most importantly, when and how do we want our police to use physical force to enforce the Contract? (And remember that everything in the social contract is not necessarily codified, it is often implicit and cultural.

I suggest today that we do not have agreement across our culture as to when and how police are to enforce the Contract. That’s what the protests are all about. So when people protest against police use of deadly force on a citizen, they are met by armed and armored police. Often police are there not present to facilitate the Constitutional right of citizens to protest, but seemingly to restrict or prevent it. So, assembling to protest an egregious or unlawful act of an individual police officer turns into another incident in which the police appear to be collectively violating the Contract. That is often how protests become violent and collective explosions.

I propose that we have a deep and intense community discussion about the police parts in the Contract, both explicit and implied. I also suggest that the community has traditionally overlooked (and often avoided) their responsibilities in clarifying the Contract and holding their police accountable to that Contract.

Somehow over the last two decades (most likely beginning September 12, 2001) police began “armoring up” and militarizing their operations in terms of firepower, dress, and policy. Did we have a community discussion about this? Did we approve police morphing from their community-oriented stance of the 1980s to the robocops we see today?

That is why I argue strongly that given the protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis (a tipping point) we should not eliminate our police, but rather call them into account; discuss our social contract with them and our expectations.

This discussion should result in re-imagining the police role and function in today’s society — including (especially) how they will use physical force in carrying out their duties.

During this discussion with police it will be necessary to re-affirm the importance of preserving human life in our society. People matter. The extinguishing of a life by an agent of our government should be carefully managed, controlled, and infrequent.

The other thing that matters is image. How police look is important. It sends a strong message. Do today’s police project the message we want to convey to school children and those marginalized and vulnerable in our society? Softer images, softer uniforms, are possible.

When I think about the future of policing a free and diverse society, I hold a dream. The dream comes from years of being a cop and leading police officers plus more than two decades watching, teaching, and writing about them.

It goes like this: I dream of police who are Emotionally intelligent, college-educated, well-trained In the best-known methods of their craft, good listeners, compassionate, practitioners of Procedural justice, peacekeepers, problem-solvers, controlled in their uses of physical force, and led by mature, committed, servant leaders.

This is my dream. I hope and pray it is yours, too.