In recent years there has been a growing concern over the militarization of local policing and a warrior-like image. This has been a product of the failed war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on terrorism and what people view in TV cop dramas, in popular movies and the news media. Beyond the worn-out war metaphor, the 1033 program, in which local police can receive surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense for use in their agencies, has raised eyebrows and focused attention on this image, be it real or perceived.
Police training academies that resemble military boot camps have also received criticism as contributing factors in the warrior-like persona of local police. Much of which you find in these stress-based training academies is antithetical to the philosophy of community-oriented policing and has little or nothing to do with the reality of day-to-day policing.
Warriors, those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who safeguard our shores from foreign enemies, are an indispensable fighting force protecting us from those in the world who threaten our way of life. Their role is predicated on the use of force and violence against our nation’s enemies.
Our local police are our guardians, charged with a much broader role in our society. Having taken an oath to observe and defend the Constitution, the glue that holds our society together, they are the guardians of our individual liberties and freedoms. And yes, unfortunately, on occasion they must use physical force, and sometimes deadly force, to protect themselves and the citizens they guard.
Unlike a warrior, our police officers do not have a clearly defined enemy to seek out and destroy while accepting collateral damage as a cost of prosecuting a war. Their role as guardians is much more complex. When they are called on to use force, collateral damage is unacceptable. Much of what they are tasked to do is more service-oriented in addition to taking measures to prevent crime and public disorder.
Of course, we must not lose sight of the fact that a critical part of an officer’s duty to protect is to respond to and investigate crimes, bringing the offenders to justice. However, even that is not the act of a warrior, but that of a guardian protecting the community from the predators within.
Over two decades ago, progressive leaders in the field of policing began to adopt the community oriented policing philosophy. As the movement grew, the policing principles of Sir Robert Peel, founder of the London Metropolitan Police Service in 1829, were embraced. Those principles centered on the role of a guardian, maintaining public trust, crime prevention and order maintenance, seeking voluntary compliance with the law, impartiality, a minimal use of force by police and success being measured not in the number of arrests but the absence of crime and disorder.
Peel founded London’s police service after a period of inadequate policing, rising crime, public disorder, riots and the overreaction of the military in maintaining order, which prompted the passage of England’s Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 calling for a new civilian police force.
From its inception, the police service was clearly differentiated from the military in order to gain the public’s trust. A centralized professional police force was not a popular idea and was met with resistance. Fear that an organized central police force would become another branch of the military, an occupying force, was paramount. To overcome this fear, in addition to adherence to Peel’s Principles, a clear distinction between police and the military was exemplified in the uniforms they wore, the prohibition against officers carrying firearms and the emphasis on maintaining the public’s trust.
American policing, having been modeled after the London Metropolitan Police Service, is rooted in a philosophy of police officers as guardians, not warriors. The evolution of policing in America has been somewhat different, however. Officers carry firearms, policing is less centralized, and as of late a warrior-like subculture has emerged that threatens the nature of policing in a free society.
The cop on the beat is not a warrior, an occupying force in an alien land, but a guardian protecting and serving a community, the community in which he or she is a trusted member, a trusted guardian of our democracy.
Karl Bickel is retired from the Department of Justice and has been a major city police officer, assistant professor and second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. He writes from Monrovia. KarlBickel@comcast.net.