Who Are The Police Responsible To?

Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant”. Matthew 20:25 – 26

Today, the  Baltimore Police Commissioner was fired, in the wake of the recent riots there, which came in the wake of Baltimore citizen Freddie Gray. According to the Huffington Post:

“The announcement about [Commissioner] Batts comes just after a report was released by the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 detailing the lack of structure in the Baltimore Police Department during riots in the city that followed the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed man who died in police custody.

The union “received many reports from members who were deployed to the defensive efforts, stating that they lacked basic riot equipment, training, and, as events unfolded, direction from leadership,” according to the report. “The officers repeatedly expressed concern that the passive response to the civil unrest had allowed the disorder to grow into full scale rioting.”

I’m confused. The Police Commissioner was fired because he wasn’t good enough to the police? The Police Commissioner wasn’t fired because the police killed a man on his watch and then lied about it. He was fired because the police didn’t receive enough training to handle the riots they caused? The police response was too passive, according to the Police UnionTheir killing of an already injured man didn’t seem too passive to me.

The problem wasn’t that the police weren’t trained in riot control. The problem was that there was a riot in the first place! It was caused by the very police force that had to control it later! If the police force can’t figure out what the problem is, they can’t solve it.

In a situation like this, one has to ask, “Who do the police work for?”, “What are they trying to do (aka “What Is Their Job?”). Finally, “Who are they responsible to?”.

Frequently, I hear interviews where police say, “This isn’t a matter of Black-and-White. This is a question of Blue”. Blue and who? Police seem to isolate themselves and draw ranks/circle the wagons when they are involved in a conflict. The fact that police whistle-blowers become pariahs and are attacked/killed says that there’s a code of “honor” and the police are responsible to … each other? their image? I’m not hearing the citizenry in any of that. If that is true, then “what are they trying to accomplish?” and “how are they compensated”?. Usually, people are responsible to their boss, and their boss is the person who pays them, but they don’t see that. Is their boss their union rep? Is their boss the commissioner? The mayor? I seldom (if ever) hear of police forces welcoming a citizen’s advisory board. What I hear frequently is “We don’t want people who aren’t us to tell us how to do our jobs”. I understand this impulse very well, and I believe that being a police officer is difficult.  At the same time, though, the people who give you your job and whom you’re sworn to protect ought to have some say in how you do your job. Further, if you can’t live with that, you shouldn’t have your job because you can’t serve someone without asking them how they want you to help.

This is a rant, yes, but it is not a rant against any individual officer. It’s about a dynamic I see and the tragic consequences of that dynamic. I am against the culture that police officers seem to have created. I think they need to have a different identity than “order keeper”. I think they need to think of themselves as civil servants that the community likes because we’re on the same side. I think “respect” is given way too much importance as a goal. If people like you, they’ll respect you.

A piece of steel on your chest gives you instant authority. It doesn’t give you instant respect. Respect is earned over time, through the judicious exercise of authority. In other words, if you use your authority well, you’ll get respect. If you use it poorly, you should be fired because you work for us — all of us. To blame the commissioner for not giving the police enough authority or training in authority makes no sense when you can’t handle the authority you’ve already been given. When the police prove that they can handle their authority, they should be given respect. Until then, I think it’s unrealistic to expect it.

This is how the individual police officer should be able to distinguish themselves — by not being violent, by not adhering to racism in their jobs, by not using their authority as a weapon against random parts of the citizenry. By the way, we as a society need to stop telling police that violence is heroic, that they should “shoot first, ask questions later”, and that we need protection from “those people”. Those people are us.

Anyway…

Peace,

John

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