As the Black Lives Matter organization prepares to receive an international peace prize this fall, the issue of how police treat some people differently than others seems as unsolvable as ever, so that can lead to history’s foundation for policing.
A classic approach emerged almost two centuries ago. Sir Robert Peel became Great Britain’s Home Secretary in 1822, advocating for professional policing, and over the next few years worked on what became the nine principles of policing for Greater London’s Metropolitan Police (created in 1829).
Today, some may dismiss the principles as a quaint ideal from Victorian England, but some have rediscovered the principles as fundamental common sense, almost as acceptable as the Golden Rule or basic tenets of arithmetic or agriculture.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) for years has been viewed with mixed emotions, supported by some who think African Americans are subject to unjust treatment by a few police officers, and characterized by others as violent or anti-police. However, the group this November will be awarded the 2017 Sydney Peace Prize in Australia.
Australian Sen. Pat Dodson, who won the honor in 2008, praised the decision, describing BLM as a movement working against “ignorance, hostility, discrimination or racism.”
Conservative U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., an African American, has said he’s been pulled over seven times in a year, a common story.
“I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell,” Scott said, “no matter the profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life.
“There is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul,” he continued, “than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you are not.”
There are statistics beyond anecdotes and cell-phone videos. The investigative journalism service ProPublica found that young black males are more than 20 times as likely to be shot by police than young white males.
“The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police,” ProPublica reported.
Also, the head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Terrence Cunningham, has conceded that mistreatment of minorities has led to pervasive mistrust.
Police must “acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color,” said Cunningham, Police Chief in Wellesley, Mass. Although “today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past, [police became] the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens.”
Melvin Carter Jr., a retired Minnesota police officer who’s African American, this summer told Yes! Magazine, “Without trust and the confidence of the community served, it’s not policing. It’s law enforcement, [which] flip-flops policing from prevention to suppression.
“The good stuff never applies to people of color. Ever,” added the 27-year veteran patrolman and detective.
Peel’s principles of policing, drafted by him and London police commissioners, were a way to reassure a skeptical population of the need for police. Nevertheless, they offer profound food for thought in 21st century America. The nine principles are:
1. The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.
2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.
3. Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain public respect.
4. The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion.
5. The police seek and preserve public favor by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to the 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 society without regard to their race or social standing; by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
6. Police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient … and police should use only the minimum degree of physical force necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
7. The police at all times should maintain 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 are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of the community welfare.
8. The police should always direct their actions toward their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary by avenging individuals or the state, or authoritatively judging guilt or punishing the guilty.
9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
“One thing is certain,” commented C.J. Oakes in Criminal Justice Law. “The principles of Sir Robert Peel formed the foundation for modern policing.”
In 2012, the UK’s Home Office revisited the principles and said the approach provided that “the power of the police coming from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state.”
True, one year ago this month, the U.S. Department of Justice in the report “Deadly Calls and Fatal Encounters” noted that “no call is routine.” However, police concern can lead to overreaction and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Handling a group of people as criminal can foster behavior in those subjected to that expectation.
Further, according to the Pew Research Center, attitudes about the situation vary dramatically depending on race. About 50 percent of whites think that African Americans are treated unfairly by police, compared to more than 80 percent of African Americans. Likewise, 25 percent of whites say police use of force is excessive, while 67 percent of blacks say police use excessive force.
Hopefully, a conscious return to cultivating community support as exemplified in Peel’s principles could start to restore the fractured relationship.