Where is Sir Robert Peel when we need him?

Recent weeks have seen several cases of police and/or prosecutorial misconduct.  The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, NY are well-known, but by no means the only cases.  I wrote yesterday about the tragic outcome of a police raid in Haversham County, Ga., and also learned of the acquittal of a Fort Bend, TX man after what appears to be a gross abuse of power by the law enforcement authorities (according to another source, the police lied to a judge in order to obtain a warrant).  In throwing out a lawsuit in the latter case, a judge ruled:

“There is no freestanding constitutional right to be free from malicious prosecution.”

Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? – but it’s true.  That’s the legal reality we face.

These are only a few of the many accusations of bias, incompetence and egregious abuse of authority leveled against law enforcement agencies and officers every year.  Radley Balko has done a great job of documenting them in his book and his regular articles in the Washington Post.  The ACLU and other organizations have also put a great deal of energy into documenting and exposing such cases.

Police, on the other hand, respond that the public doesn’t really understand the stresses of the situations in which they find themselves.  Some appear to believe that everyone’s against them, and have therefore adopted an “us-versus-them” attitude.  Others take refuge in the “thin blue line” mythos, defending each other no matter what, always taking the side of brother and sister officers irrespective of the details of the case.

The trouble is, with perceptions of police overreach so widespread (and, let’s face it, so widely justified in terms of the number of reported incidents), there’s a growing over-reaction among certain sectors of the public, who now regard police – all police – as “the enemy”.  They’re not discriminating against the few bad cops who spoil things for the many decent ones.  They’re simply lumping all law enforcement personnel together, and all their actions, and condemning them all.

That’s what appears to have led to the murder of two NYPD officers yesterday.  The gunman posted online that he was “putting pigs in a blanket” in revenge for the death of Eric Garner.  He walked up behind the policemen as they sat in their car and shot them both in the head.  They may never have seen the man who killed them.  He’d earlier shot his girlfriend (who survived), then committed suicide when pursued by police into a subway station.  The police officers involved were completely innocent of any involvement in the Garner case;  but that didn’t matter to the gunman.  There was another attempted shooting of police officers in New York, but this one fortunately ended without any casualties.  A third incident was the shooting of an off-duty police officer in St. Louis, Mo. a couple of days ago.  We don’t yet have many details, but the circumstances appear to suggest a deliberate attack on him solely because he was recognized as a police officer – at least, there’s been no mention of any other possible motive.

More and more, it appears that any and all police officers are regarded by a large segment of our society as complicit in the Brown, Garner and similar cases mentioned above.  They’re perceived to be “guilty by association”, whether or not they themselves have anything to do with police overreach.  Given the widespread – and seemingly increasing – abuse of authority by many police officers and agencies, one can hardly be surprised by such a development;  nor by its expression in attacks on individual officers as a form of “revenge” against the “system”.  I’m sure there’ll be more such incidents.

This is the inevitable result of police attitudes, practices and procedures that emphasize their authority over the people’s.  I submit that many cops no longer see themselves as public servants, but as public masters.  They insist that their authority be recognized and instantly obeyed, or else.

This is the diametric opposite of what Sir Robert Peel, founder of the forerunner of all modern police forces in democratic societies, saw as essential for success.  The nine “Peelian Principles” remain a seminal contribution to the theory of law enforcement.  They are:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

There’s more at the link.

I can already hear the scoffing from police officers that those principles are utterly outdated when dealing with a society that regards the rule of law as nothing more than a polite fiction.  I can’t blame them;  our politicians and leaders in other spheres often appear to honor our laws more in the breach than in the observance.  Needless to say, our citizens all too often take their cue from their leaders (or is it the other way around?)  Nevertheless, any officer of the law who enters upon his career regarding the people he’s called to “protect and serve” as the enemy rather than his peers and fellow citizens is riding for a fall.  Sooner or later, someone’s going to provide one for him.

I don’t have an answer to the current situation.  I only know that police have overstepped the bounds of their legitimate authority on all too many occasions;  that innocent citizens have, indeed, suffered unjustly as a result (remember Salvatore CulosiJose GuerenaKathryn Johnston?  Cory Maye?  Three of them are dead.  Many others have suffered greatly – check the list of cases of police brutality for yourself.)  With so many cases on record, and more being added seemingly every week, is it any wonder that an increasing number of our citizens regard the police as the enemy?

At the same time, I think that law enforcement authorities have a point that their indisputable authority as enforcers of the laws passed by those we, the people, elect, is increasingly disregarded.  If we don’t like the laws that are passed, we should make sure we elect representatives who’ll repeal them and pass laws more in accordance with our wishes.  If we don’t do that, we have no right to blame the police for the laws.  However, increasingly we live in a society that scoffs at laws.  John Adams famously pointed out:

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

We now live in a post-Christian society, where many of our citizens behave in a way that can only be described as immoral and irreligious (at least by the standards of Adams’ day).  Many also forget that our second President warned:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

I can only hope and pray that our Republic isn’t headed there.  The size and scale of the conflict between sections of our society and law enforcement doesn’t give me much confidence.



  1. A couple of points:

    First off, it's not a case of 'a few bad cops.' Not any more. If I know my friend committed a crime, and I lie, destroy evidence, or otherwise cover up that crime, am I not an accessory? The 'my brother, right or wrong' mentality is for gangs, soldiers and outlaw motorcycle clubs. When it becomes part and parcel of being a cop, then every cop–unless they are actively engaged in attempting to remove the thugs from their department–is just as guilty, whether they personally swung the baton or not.

    As for 'changing the law,' sorry, my friend…that's off the table. There's a growing awareness in this country that the system is corrupt to the core, that the rule of law is dead, and that even if the police blatantly violate every law on the books in their persecution of you, all too often they'll be cleared anyway.

    Or, to quote a bit of graffiti I saw years ago: "Who ya gonna call when the cops are the criminals?" And who do you turn to for justice when the justice system itself is indifferent, if not outright complicit?

    Our Republic isn't 'headed there,' brother…it's there already.

    Almighty God, help us.

  2. People in general need to read Rule 7 and pay special attention to the second half.There are always bad apples in any barrel usually you don't toss out the whole barrel in these instances the protesters have determined the whole barrel is rotten. Too bad they don't see the irony involved with how they are being tossed out in the same way L.E. is.

  3. Peter,
    there would appear to only be one practical method to correct the police problem. There are two basic approaches, internal, and external. The external version, where society decides to gut them in various ways, both legal and illegal, will probably end up destroying our current version of law enforcement. The end result will not be pretty, and possibly not very effective in the long run.

    An internal fix will require that the good ones revive the Peel Principals to the letter, and take on the bad cops with great effort. They may be able to clean up their own house, but, there may no longer be enough of them to be effective at it. In the long run, this would be the preferred method.

    We are long past the "few bad apples" part of the timeline. Of course, this percentage will vary considerably from dept to dept, state to state, state to fed.

    One of the basic problems I see, is the fact that most badge carriers are full time cops. There is a built-in bias in the cop profession against part-timers, for some reason. I think this needs to change. Making the majority of badge toters part time would force them to mix with the public as part of the public. I would ban any second jobs in any part of law enforcement or security, to avoid that "us-against-them" mentality. That siege mentality is a very big part of the current police problem. That HAS to be changed.

    Bandaid-ing the problem will not fix it. Either "law enforcement" returns to a "peace officer" mentality, or it is toast. The attitude of cops in general has been bad for at least forty years,from observation. This is not an overnight change on their part. But, they are not going to get such a long time frame to reverse course.

  4. I think folks need to reread the US Declaration of Independence. If you don't see the corollary you might be sticking you head in the sand.

  5. Police work has always been somewhat incestous, and it's become completely so in the last decade or so.

    A LEO will trust another LEO with whom he works daily; he will trust another LEO in the same agency, but to a lesser degree; he will trust a LEO who works for a different agency, but to a still lesser degree; anyone not a LEO is regarded with substantial distrust; they're "the other."

    Unfortunately for all involved, the public is well on the way to having the same opinion of cops.

    Cops associate, on the job and to a great extent, off the job as well, with other cops – it's a protective enclave that establishes a barrier between law enforcement and the citizens they were hired to serve.

    It may be that the barrel holds only a few bad apples, but when it's not possible to differentiate the bad apples from the good ones, what then?

  6. A very large part of the problem is the slow devolution of our society into chaos and lawlessness.

    We talk about the "few bad apples" within the police profession, while we seem to ignore the much larger number of bad apples among the general public. We hire police officers to deal with those bad apples, and they do, on a daily basis. This daily experience with the underside of society tends to color a persons attitude. If the majority of the people you deal with day in and day out are assholes, pretty soon you stop giving people the benefit of the doubt and everyone starts to look like an asshole. It is an entirely human reaction.

    Unfortunately, it's a vicious circle. The police increasingly mistrust the public, and the public increasingly mistrust the police.

    What's the solution? I don't know. Getting rid of the bad apples withing the police profession would be a good idea, and maybe going to some kind of external review board for serious complaints would be a start.

    However, I believe the ultimate solution is going have to begin with a change in the attitudes of the general public to no longer tolerate lawlessness and general assholiness within society.

    (Before anyone goes there, I am not nor have I ever been a LEO. But I am still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.)

  7. The trouble with "bad apples" is that for every corrupt policeman, there's a dozen or more who let him get away with it, and they all need to be removed, along with their superiors, the people who chose them for their positions and the people who trained them.

  8. The problem with the few liars, looters, murderers, or otherwise unscrupulous LEOs is they wear the same uniform and badge the good ones do. This creates 2 problems for me. First, I can't tell the difference between the good and the bad when I meet one, so I'll tend to assume the worst in order to increase my odds of safety, or at least coming out even. Second, until I hear a chorus of the good ones demanding the bad ones be escorted out on a rail, I must assume the good ones endorse, or at least passively approve of, the crimes committed by their peers against the citizenry, of which I am but one.

    Bottom line to me is that the deck is stacked against the law abiding citizen almost as much as it is against the law breakers.

    It's been a long time since I quietly picked up a check at the register for the LEOs over there in a booth, but I used to do it fairly often. I feel that is unfortunate, but I didn't make their bed, they did.

  9. Roy has the right of it; the cops are merely a reflection of the assholery in society at large.. #7 the police are the public and the public are the police, suggests we are all responsible for enforcing some level of civility, but have you tried to admonish the teen throwing trash or the neighbors playing loud music at 2am? "Fuck off!" is the usual response. Is it any wonder that the police tend to strong arm first and question later? I have no solutions.

  10. I would add a rule for legislators who make the laws the police must enforce: don't make a law that you are not willing to have the police kill someone to enforce.

  11. I've recently been through the "Justice" system due to a frivolous law suit where the individual who sued me would not go away, would not follow the resulting restraining order and would continue to lie to the cops and to the judge.

    The problem is not just the police; it is the entire justice system for which there is no justice. The individual who sued us would come into court and make false claims, and have his friends and child come in to back him up. We actually had video evidence to show the lies, and the Judge ruled "De Minimus." As explained to us it was to keep things from escalating. What the individual learned is there is no consequence for calling the police falsely to act as your attack dogs, nor to make false claims in court. The suit was initially ruled frivolous (we’ve been to court numerous times) and we were awarded attorney’s fees. But when someone doesn’t have the money, there is no recourse available and effectively no consequence to the individual. Frankly the courts are showing there is no consequence to abuse of the system.

    As I was warned by my lawyer; even if the guy swung at me and hit me and I did nothing, likely the cops would still arrest both of us. They don’t decide guilt or innocence; that is for the courts to decide. The cops are getting less and less discretion and even when they make an arrest the justice system isn’t competent.

    The same individual was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, but the case was dropped after over a year when the evidence was lost (photos of the injuries) and one of the Police Officers moved away. Through all of this I’ve dealt with a number of cops. There are some good ones, there are some bad ones and most seem to be caught somewhere in-between. My concern is not only have we lost the concept of a Peace Officer but we have also lost the concept of Justice. Even the good guys are pretty limited with what they can do by the system for which they work (They don’t work for the tax payer.)

    Refer to William Lind’s work on 4G warfare – The State is only as legitimate as it provides security. As the Justice System loses credibility, so will the state – with the law abiding citizens who want the state. Once you lose the support of your base, failure is imminent. We are on a downward slope and I have no idea how to reverse it. When told to get involved, if you do, you will find the “Professionals” patronizing and suspicious of the “wannabes.” Our system is following Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

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