Proximity to or partial cause of societal challenges is not new for American policing. In fact, this aspect of law enforcement is a foundational reason citizens formed such forces.
Early law enforcement in Colonial America was based on the concept of “kin” policing where people were literally responsible for looking out for their relatives. This was followed by the “watch”system where men volunteered to be responsible for community crime control, along with performing many other social services.
As cities here and in the U.K. grew and the industrialization of cities brought large numbers of people in from the fields, using volunteer groups to “police” others became impractical. Street maintenance, sewers, and health concerns in cities that had grown too large too quickly became the job of other public employees.
Semi-structured groups in America functioned to address some matters, and constables and sheriffs handled these functions along with tax collecting. A growing country, and established countries elsewhere, faced social unrest for various reasons and in the U.S., this meant quelling disturbances using locals or state militia members. England’s advancement of a formal police department in 1829 in London under Sir Robert Peel provided the template for bringing a more orderly approach to the primary job of law enforcement. Large American cities developing their own forces through the mid- to late-1800s.
Racial and ethnic conflict from the entrenched practice of slavery and the marginalization of immigrants arriving to build the growing country (and be your ancestors) gave police a set of duties related to controlling other humans, sometimes in brutal ways. In the South, slave patrols were the first paid police. Police facilitated the election of select politicians, but eventually a movement surface to have police guided by laws and limitations put on their authority.
The long hot summer of ’67 and lingering racial inequality positioned police departments to quell riots. The underlying causes and conditions were a product of a country struggling to live up to the identity it claimed. This was similar to policing itself transitioning from the political era of the 1800s and early 1900s to the reform era that saw the implementation of civil service hiring exams, police training, merit-based promotions, a distancing from overly-close ties to politicians. But social unrest during the Vietnam War focused attention again on the use of police to arguably “keep the peace” …sometimes with a repressive overtone.
The localized, sometimes parochial, nature of the fragmented U.S. criminal justice system is a vestige of the country’s birth, railing against strong central government. The natural consequence of such a system is greater priority-setting locally, regionally, or by state. A challenge that accompanies this politico-cultural reality is a lack of any meaningful or compulsory procedural consistency in the way that communities do policing. To be sure, the reform or professionalism era brought the previously mentioned training which gave way to state standards for recruit curriculums. But the training in common practices is not tantamount to a standard to which all must adhere.
I began my career as a patrol officer in the late 1970s. Like most officers, I wanted to help others. I still do. For those of us who spent a career in criminal justice, we have many stories and memories of doing the right thing, of giving aid and comfort, of removing a predatory criminal from the community.
Deeply experienced and less experienced officers right now are contemplating their role in the community. How do we help when the limits of authority are not entirely clear? This lack of clarity is not unique. Most agencies and officers struggle through the early interpretations of various laws written to satisfy many constituencies, resulting in challenges until law and society have settled the issue.
Law enforcement can do much to mitigate the negative potential for backlash by the minority of citizens who loudly decry an officer asking or telling people to maintain social distance or desist in an activity that public officials have designated as against the best interests of the whole community.
So, what do we do? Go slow, use your words, use your citation book if you must, document, leave your BWC on if you have it. Know that there will be criticism by some for what you do – and for what you do not do. This is also nothing new. Please do not act as though it is, because that does not help. Citizens look to law enforcement officers to be more than they are. We have long bought into the crime-fighter image, as well as the wise mentor to those who need counsel. While not always equipped to achieve all that people would have us do, be mindful of your limitations and give it your all.
If the profession of policing was easy, everyone would do it, right? As you nod your head and feel proud–and you should–take a few minutes to think about the many, many people in jobs across the country who are doing their part – an essential part – to help others.