Two recent events in northern Idaho illustrate very well the downside of empowering police departments to act aggressively in their day-to-day activities. The first is an encounter over whether a young man uttered the words “nickel sack” or “Nickelback.” The second is the police shooting of a dog in a van. A brief scan of the articles’ comment sections yields no surprises; many people recognize that policing as we know it is deeply flawed. But beyond calls for lawsuits – which only punish taxpayers and therefore do nothing to fix the system – and “more training” for officers, there are few suggestions on what ought to be done.
As with any social or political problem – especially a relatively new one – the most crucial step is identifying the true causes. If the causal origin of the problem is misidentified or misunderstood, we are unlikely to find a genuine fix. Excellent work has been done regarding “the militarization of the police” – the names Radley Balko and William N. Grigg come readily to mind – and insofar as informing people is the first step to change, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of this work. But once we have a clear enough picture of the problem, we should strive to address it in the most complete and sensible way possible.
To do this, I want to employ a distinction made by farmer/poet/essayist Wendell Berry between public and community. He writes:
As I understand the term, public means simply all the people, apart from any personal responsibility or belonging…A community, unlike a public, has to do first of all with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, “We belong to our community,” but never “We belong to our public.”
Berry goes on to note the following characteristics of a public:
A public government, with public laws and a public system of justice, founded on democratic suffrage, is in principle a good thing. Ideally, it makes possible a just and peaceable settlement of contentions arising between communities. It also makes it possible for a mistreated member of a community to appeal for justice outside the community. But obviously such a government can fall short of its purpose.[i]
There is another important point, which is only implied in Berry’s remarks on a public system of justice; the use of force – i.e., physical coercion – should be within the public domain, where every person is equal in his rights before the law.
What has this to do with policing, which – I assume – almost everyone understands to be the job of the public rather than of communities? As always, we must keep in mind what policing is meant to accomplish. At the very least, its goals include (1) the equal treatment and pursuit of justice, and (2) ensuring safety.
The first leads us to designate policing as a public function, and (in this context) rightly so. We all recognize that communities have the potential to mistreat individuals, so we must insist on pursuing justice (i.e., using force) without partiality. The second has long been treated as a public matter, but since we are talking about responsibility to ensure mutual safety rather than enforcement[ii], it is properly the job of communities. What we have lumped together in contemporary policing, then, is at least two distinct functions that ought to be carried out by two distinct forms of human interaction.
In light of these somewhat abstract considerations, let us examine our current policing situation. As functionaries of the public, police agencies (at every level and jurisdiction) are expected to be impartial, objective, and protective of individuals against community biases. Yet, as Mr. Grigg tirelessly documents (albeit exclusively from an individualist-libertarian perspective), such agencies wield special privileges and powers in a monopolistic capacity. The tax-funded justice system has itself become a perverse sort of “community” in which special treatment of all kinds is routinely afforded to members. This condition is so widespread that equal treatment has become a newsworthy item.
Police agencies do maintain the most important aspects of public character – they are free from “any personal responsibility or belonging” and routinely employ force. “Qualified immunity” insulates officers from personal liability, and the Supreme Court has ruled that police have no legal responsibility or duty to protect anyone.
And yet so much of what police spend their time doing has less to do with objective public good than using force to uphold community standards. Noisy neighbors, loose dogs, and illicit drug use (to name a few) are issues best resolved by tacit neighborhood agreement and (especially in the case of drug use/addiction) moral encouragement or disapprobation. When actual damages against person or property are committed, it becomes a matter to be solved by an impartial judge.
Let us return to the pair of recent events. The “Nickelback” encounter is absurd because police attempted to enforce a community standard against using marijuana. Such community standards can be legitimate, but do not rightly sanction the use of force on behalf of the public. We can imagine a concerned neighbor politely confronting the young men about their suspected activities in the community, but we cannot imagine such a neighbor threatening them at gunpoint without coming to stark conclusions about his sanity and exercise of judgment.
The second story offers a similar lesson. No diligent citizen, investigating a suspicious van on behalf of his community, would be justified in approaching with his weapon drawn, instinctively shooting the moment he was startled. In fact, no person with the sense of belonging and responsibility to his community would even consider behaving in such a way.
What is particularly troubling is our toleration of aggressive police enforcement of community-level issues apart from any community (and often legal) responsibility. The rising outcry against this new norm is almost universally framed in terms of “rights violations,” and such violations abound to be sure. But the deeper problem, as I see it, is that something ostensibly public – policing specifically and the justice system generally – has supplanted the job of communities in numerous ways.
A real correction to abounding police abuse will be possible when individual responsibilities to community – in addition to individual rights – are recovered. In some places, it is already occurring. Dale Brown’s success story in Detroit is well worth a listen, and it confirms what advocates of healthy communities have long argued: It isn’t about money or equipment; it’s about self-sacrifice and devotion to a place you care about.
You can’t experience that through the public. But you can in a community.
[i] Berry, Wendell. “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” in The Art of the Commonplace, ed. Norman Wirzba. Counterpoint Berkeley, 2002, pg. 161-162.
[ii] Safety, after all, is not a law but a general condition, and so cannot be “enforced.”