Our Standards and Expectations of Police in America

Even before the US Constitution was ratified by the original states, twelve amendments were proposed. They were intended by their Anti-Federalist supporters to place firm limits on the power and authority of the Federal government. Ten were ratified within three years of the ratification of the Constitution itself. None of the amendments increase the powers of the federal government; most limit them.

  • The government can not establish a preferred religion nor ban the practice of religion.
  • Citizens can assemble freely.
  • The government can not limit the power of the press.
  • Well regulated citizen militias may bear arms for the security of the state.
  • Government searches of private property must be proven to be warranted.
  • Imprisoned people have the right to a fair and speedy trial.
  • In all but the most minor cases, a defendant may request a trial by jury.
  • The government may not retry a case already settled by a jury.
  • The statement of these rights does not mean there aren’t other rights held by citizens.

Collectively, these rights all favor individuals against government power. It is more important to protect the rights of man than, say, to ensure the truth is found in a trial. Police are the most immediate form of the power of government. From local meter maids through state-wide police and patrols all the way to specialized Federal bureaus and agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms or the Secret Service, originally charged with stopping the forgery of currency, these are the officials that the authors of the Bill of Rights had in mind. Law enforcement officers have to prove many things to a jury to convict an alleged criminal, and they must do so for each successive crime a person is accused of; the burden of proof is not lowered, for example, for convicted felons; “he did it before, so he probably did it this time, too,” is not a legitimate grounds for conviction.

Recent accusations of police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, and the subsequent murder of two New York City police officers bring all of this to the forefront of my mind. Prosecutors in both Ferguson and Staten Island are informally accused of not trying hard enough to secure an indictment of police officers who killed suspects. Supporters of the police argue that most police officers aren’t racist and that law enforcement is difficult, dangerous work.

To many Americans, though, whose encounters with police have been difficult and confrontational, the difficulty and danger of the job doesn’t warrant how police officers too frequently perform their jobs. The police benefit from laws that make crimes against the police worse than the same crime against normal citizens. In particular, violence against police officers is punished more harshly than other violent crimes. This is understandable; we want the police to be able to protect us against violence and to be the force criminals don’t dare fight. At the same time, though, we also hold police to a higher standard. They’re supposed to know the law better than citizens (with the possible exception of attorneys), and they’re supposed to be trained how to enforce the law without violating the rights of citizens. A police officer must know about the rules of evidence and chains of custody. He must know about his peculiar place in society, as both protector and feared force of government power.

When a police officer shoots someone, he or she must know better than anyone the exact process that must be followed to allow fair judgement of the shooting. The judgement must be fair to both the shooter and to both the victim and the citizens whose Constitution represents a collective fear of government power. It does no good to give the benefit of the doubt to either the police collectively or the citizens protected by the police collectively.

The common perception is that law enforcement, collectively the police and the prosecutors, regard themselves as a collective battling criminals and supporting each other do to so. The perception is that those charged with policing the police, the internal affairs units of any name, are held in contempt as people only detract from the efficient enforcement of crime. Police unions often support their members accused of brutality in a way that reinforces the perception of an “us versus them” mentality. Rare is the time when police and prosecutors turn on one of their own when there’s any room for doubt. Even a choke-hold death caught on camera isn’t enough to convince police and prosecutors to secure a conviction of one of their own. All citizens hear in response is that a situation isn’t as simple as it seems, that it was more dangerous than we realize, that an officer felt threatened and had cause to fear.

I have no patience with people and organizations who can’t admit to having faults and weaknesses. I have no patience with my alma mater for having such a blind faith in itself. I have no patience with a police union that lashes out at celebrities who protest against police brutality. There is no place for arrogance in law enforcement; the police must always recognize that a mistrust of authority is woven into our country’s founding legal documents.

If the police feel that the public doesn’t understand the facts of a case, they must persuade us, not lash out at us. They must also accept that the price they pay for the added protections some laws afford them is the added scrutiny the public pays them, the higher standards we expect them to uphold. I have no doubt that we need strong law enforcement in this country. Anarchy, a lawless world in which might make right instead of the law making right, is not a valid option for a highly functioning society and economy. However, we need strong enforcement of the legality of all citizens, not merely those not involved in law enforcement.

The Constitution doesn’t demand that we trust government; the Constitution demands that the government prove itself to us. Lately, it has been too arrogant to do so, and the relationship between police and citizens, especially minority citizens, has suffered.


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