Restoring Police Legitimacy is Everyone’s Responsibility

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Doug Parker

Doug Parker

A few weeks ago I examined the concept of “Guardianship Policing in a Warrior Culture” in a column for The Crime Report. The tragedies in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas offer compelling evidence that citizens believe, rightly or wrongly, they must protect themselves from the police.

The alienation of police from their communities has been starkly illuminated by gunfire and death.

Sir Robert Peel penned his Nine Principles of Policing 187 years ago. They have not faded with age; instead they call to us across the years. His Principles define with stark clarity the reality that in a democratic society, police are citizens bearing the burden of protecting their fellow citizens. They are citizen-police officers.

In order to sustain their legitimacy, police officers must recognize their membership in the community. As such, officers must place themselves at the center of community life. Failing to do so, isolating themselves physically and psychologically from the community, leads to separation, alienation and resentment. These emotions can quickly metamorphose into violence.

At the same time, citizens have a duty to engage with law enforcement.

They cannot shirk this responsibility because the police have been granted authority; they cannot leave policing to the police. Instead they share the responsibility for promoting public safety, and the blame for alienation. Whether through indifference, political marginalization or racial divide, the situation today places the responsibility for change in the hands of all citizens. Guardianship requires communal effort.

How to proceed?

Most communities have sturdy faith-based organizations, particularly in poor and ethnic neighborhoods. They serve as buffers against violence, discrimination and political isolation. All too often, their voices are heard only when tragedy strikes. Law enforcement leaders need to reach out to these folks.

By doing so the police can create a forum for exchange as opposed to the one-sided venue of the street protest.

Using faith-based entities as facilitators, police should seek ongoing dialogue with community activists. Not all who criticize police are enemies; often they have legitimate grievances. Unfortunately they believe they have little voice except through public protest. These actions serve to demonstrate their complaints but offer little in the way of viable solutions.

For example, activists complain that use-of-force investigations take too much time to complete, increasing  their suspicions that investigators pay too much attention to officers’ evidence and too little to civilian witnesses.

The need for measured and thorough investigative processes is well-known in police circles. Angry community members want action, not explanation. Forums for calm, rational discussion do not exist. Social media is a significant vehicle in this debate but hardly a place for conflict resolution.

Only by establishing ongoing dialogue with citizens can the divide between police and their fellow citizens be reduced.

As the guardians of public safety police are uniquely positioned to initiate such dialogue. Police work is a complicated profession. Only expansive engagement with the community can offer citizens a deeper understanding of the problems police face, the challenges of building and maintaining trust between officers and citizens, and how mutual understanding reduces danger for all citizens including their guardians.

At the same time, community members must accept their responsibilities for changing the environments in which they live. They cannot separate themselves from their police. They need to embrace the concept that police officers are no more than citizens charged with the extraordinary responsibility to serve and protect. If citizens are unhappy with their police, they must reach out to law enforcement.

They must come to view the police as fellow citizens with the best interests of the community at heart rather than dehumanize them as symbols of government authority. They must be willing to set aside all their differences with police for the sake of community health.

All this takes time, courage and discipline. Police and citizens can no longer glare at each other over open gunsights. They are not separate entities; they share the responsibilities of citizenship with each other. The stakes in this are too high.

If we fail to act, the evidence of our failure will be more tragedy and carnage.

Doug Parker served over 36 years with three Colorado police agencies: University of Colorado-Denver campus police; Littleton Police Department; and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office. He served as a street supervisor, administrative lieutenant, SWAT team leader, Watch Commander and Division Commander. A summa cum laude graduate of Regis University (Denver), he received an MS in Criminology this past April. He welcomes comments from readers.


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