The Proper Role of Police

Monday, June 29th, 2020

Over the past decade, we have seen a decline in trust of law enforcement in certain communities, especially in minority communities. A society needs a way to defend and uphold all people’s rights including protecting people against murder, injury, robbery, vandalism, or fraud, whether committed by individuals or organizations. However, Author Alex Vitale argues that we should not use the police to address every social issue in our society and explains why that approach leads to more violence:

“Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. But police are violence workers. That’s what distinguishes them from all other government functions. … They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested.

“So when we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence, because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests. That’s what really is at the root of policing. So if we don’t want violence, we should try to figure out how to not get the police involved.”

Essentially, the job of the police is supposed to be to protect and serve the people by stopping crimes of the kinds listed above. The police are victims of a system that is asking them to address all the social ills that politicians fail to address, and they are not trained to be social workers or counselors. This creates unnecessary stress and puts the lives of officers and members of the public at risk.

 

When there are underlying social problems which can be factors resulting in crime and violence, the job of legislators is to address the root causes of those social problems – that’s not the job of the police. The legislature needs to reform government policies that cause social problems, such as many laws that favor special interests, including government favors to various corporations (corporate welfare), and government subsidies to major owners of land and natural resources – such government favoritism distorts the entire economy, resulting in poverty and conflict. (See the DFC essay on Poverty and Inequality). Legislation and policing] are separate functions, and it is a natural division of labor between those two aspects of government.

Even when the police are called to stop a crime of one of the kinds listed above, the goal should be to only use enough force to stop the crime – it should not exceed that amount of force. There can be high pressure situations, but the aim should be to uphold that principle.

 

As part of achieving police reform, we can redefine the definition of crime and limit the role of police. The Democratic Freedom Caucus distinguishes between victimless crimes and crimes in which there is a victim:

“One of the basic functions of government is to stop crime. In order to use police resources wisely, the government should distinguish between victimless crimes and crimes in which there is a victim. Murder, bodily attack, kidnapping, vandalism, robbery, and fraud all involve victims. However, gambling, pornography, and use of tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana in private are victimless crimes, if no one is forced to participate. Police resources should focus on crimes that involve victims. It is usually impractical to enforce victimless crime laws.”

Adopting this approach to police reform should reduce the amount of violent confrontation between police and the public at large and restore trust between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect. Community organizations, such as Neighborhood Watch, can also play a role by cooperating with and supplementing some aspects of policing.

It’s also important to emphasize civilian oversight of the police function, including accountability. We should reform the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity”, which is a judge-made doctrine that protects police officers from civil rights lawsuits, so it has the side of effect of reducing the police incentive not to engage in civil rights violations. As a further reminder of civilian oversight of policing, when someone graduates from the police academy, instead of the badge being pinned on by the police chief, it could be by a civilian official such as the city manager or mayor.

Sources:

DFC Platform – Democratic Freedom Caucus

Author Alex S. Vitale Talks ‘The End of Policing’ After Floyd Death : Code Switch : NPR

https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2020/06/03/457251670/how-much-do-we-need-the-police

 

 

Rebecca Skipper

 

Each policy essay is based on an interpretation of a way to apply the DFC Principles. Except where indicated by the author’s name, the policy essays are written by representatives of the Democratic Freedom Caucus