Finding Purpose in Policing

We as a society are obsessed with answers. In the context of our most pressing issues, it makes sense on the surface as to why we focus our time on policies (solutions) rather than what we fundamentally believe (questions). The approach of answers before questions has been exacerbated recently by the rise of political tribalism. Increasingly, our connection to our political party has become a critical aspect of identity. In political tribalism, it is more pressing to defend the party policies than to evaluate whether these policies align with what we believe. Spending most of our intellectual lifting time thinking about whether the Republican or Democratic position towards an issue actually holds weight would take precious time away from crafting an argument on how to “own” the opposing tribe. Perhaps the beginning of the process around police reform is to ask a question about what we believe the purpose of policing is. When society answers that question, it will shape how the police themselves view the purpose of policing, and from there, change feels possible. This article provides no answers but instead poses a single question: Do we believe that the purpose of policing is to protect and serve the community? 

The community within this question represents society writ large. Most would agree that the Miami Police department does not have a duty only to protect and serve the members of the Miami community. If an Atlanta community member got into a dispute with a Miami community member, we would not expect the police officers from each precinct to respond to the call and fight each other in the protection of their community member. 

With that framework, there are a few different ways to respond to this question other than yes. One response is no; I do not believe it is the purpose of policing to protect and serve the community. That response is not accounted for in this piece. Three more common answers regularly provided are: 

  • Yes, I believe that, unless you commit/are in the act of committing a crime. 
  • Yes, I believe that, unless the police officer’s life is in jeopardy. 
  • Yes, I believe that, unless one community member has jeopardized the safety of other community members. 

Answer 1: Yes, I believe that the purpose of policing is to protect and serve the community unless you commit/in the act of committing a crime. 

There is an imminent danger in separating the rights and protections of a member of the community based on a designation of criminality, particularly in the context of our legal system. The police are not the deciders of crime in a democracy; That is why we have courts. If a community member’s house was on fire, would we first investigate whether or not an illegal act caused it and then “protect and serve” based on the investigation results? Even if the engulfed home was generally assumed to be caused by the house’s inhabitants, would we expect the firefighters and police officers to refuse the call and allow the home to burn to the ground? Almost every member of society would agree that this is not a pretext (community member committing/possibly committing a crime) for a police officer/firefighter refusing to protect and serve. Even if we believe that a police officer can see that a crime is being committed (and a violent crime at that), we should still reassess whether we think this means a community member does not have any right to be served and protected. Take the example of George Zimmerman. From a police officer’s perspective, his actions towards Trayvon Martin fit the mold of every conceivable definition of crime/criminality. Yet if we applied this “unless” logic and holistically suspended Zimmerman’s rights to being protected/served and he was shot dead in the immediate aftermath of his killing of Trayvon Martin, how would we rectify this with the fact that he was found not guilty in a court of law? Here, we see the danger of looking to police officers as the final deciders of criminality rather than a court of law. We, and the police, do not know for certain whether or not the law has been broken. Police play an essential role in the criminal investigation process; those who have committed a crime/are suspects in committing a crime will not simply show up at the court and turn themselves in. The purpose here is to recognize that police officers do not define criminality absolutely. Thus, completely suspending a community member’s rights for being a “criminal” does not actually fit into what we believe about policing. 

Answer 2: Yes, I believe that the purpose of policing is to protect and serve the community unless the police officer’s life is in jeopardy. 

Police officers are not societal martyrs protecting the community. We would not, as an example, expect a police officer to jump in front of a speeding car to slow it down to protect the community from a law-breaking member. However, it seems clear that society and the police themselves understand that to protect and serve the community, they must place their safety on the line to uphold this fundamental belief about policing. This is an agreement supported across political affiliation. “Society” unanimously condemned the actions of Sergeant Brian Miller, the police officer who essentially did nothing in the face of an active shooter on Parkland’s high school campus. He was initially fired and faced criminal prosecution for choosing to overvalue his personal safety at the expense of his duty to protect and serve community members. It would be ridiculous to argue that Brian Miller should be charged with a crime in protecting himself and then, in the next breath, argue that an officer has every right to choose to protect himself at all costs in a different context and situation. How do we account for these two contradictory beliefs? What would police policy look like if we acknowledged that police should not sacrifice their lives to protect the community/community members, but that the complete suspension of “serve and protect all community members” in the face of danger/personal harm is also not acceptable? 

Answer 3: Yes, I believe that the purpose of policing is to protect and serve the community unless one community member has jeopardized the safety of other community members. 

Does a school shooter putting the lives of multiple community members in jeopardy deserve to have their life considered under the “protect and serve all” agreement? It’s difficult to say what type of follow-up from police is required when one community member is jeopardizing the lives of many community members. Still, the answer to that question is a policy question; we are concerned with beliefs. Reckless driving (texting, speeding, intoxicated) killed nearly ten times more people than those who died due to being stabbed in 2018. Therefore, it would stand to reason that one community member driving recklessly would pose a more significant threat to other community members than someone using a knife with the intent to cause harm. Suppose a community member was behind the wheel of a car driving recklessly on the road with a decent amount of vehicles, and the community member refused to pull over despite the sirens of a police officer. Would we be ok with the police officer opening fire on the car driving recklessly? Of course not. Even if the reckless driver were on a stretch of road with no other cars, we would still as a society not accept a process by which a sniper would shoot the reckless driver in the face to kill them. We would expect the officer to give chase. We would expect the department to lay down tire popping tracks. We would expect the police officers to attempt to box in the driver. These are still dangerous tactics that do put the reckless driver’s life in jeopardy. However, none of these strategies give free rein to officers for the complete ignoring of our “protect and serve” societal contract, even though a reckless driver poses perhaps the biggest threat to other community members out there. 

We argue policies because they are the only things argued by our political parties. Politics has become a religion. Members of society in the fifteenth century took their cues from religious leaders, and we find ourselves in a similar predicament now. Approaching issues first from a belief (questions) standpoint allows us to dialogue without the bias and shame of coming to a conclusion that contradicts the one presented by the party we affiliate with. We have a lot more in common than the present political landscape leads on. Changes in policing are possible. We owe it to our fellow community members, the police, and ourselves to ensure a better community than the one we currently inhabit. 

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