Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Deep Thinking: The Moral Origin of Police Power

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – do these words from the Declaration of Independence haunt us when we are tackling a suspect? Perhaps they should.

Police power in the United States is derived, designed, and purposed differently from most other countries. We cannot imagine the absence of some mechanism in place to enforce protections for life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness envisioned by the Founders, but they could not have foreseen our powerful ubiquitous modern police departments. There are a variety of internal and external controls on human behaviors that worked with some success prior to the arrival of today’s organized police. Our 21st century culture suffers the weakening of some of those controls such as religion, extended family, and strong long-lasting local community ties. The sheer volume of human interaction, cultural influences, and unprecedented anonymity add to criminal opportunity against which our police forces are now embattled.

We must be honest in recognizing that police power is the power of force and coercion. A glance at your equipment belt will verify this fact. A societal value associated with the capacity to force compliance is that this power must be held in reserve and used only in the most extreme circumstances. Understand that our practical application of this philosophy is not so clear and certain, but the general public views force in this way and it is good that it is so viewed, lest the baser nature of those holding that power perpetrate the diabolical abuses seen today in the streets of China, Iran, and Korea.

A sad and common mistake in interpreting the Constitution is that this grand document gives us rights. It does not. It recognizes rights that naturally exist – “God given” as our deist forefather Jefferson recognized them – and that the only thing government can do is to repress those rights or protect them. Therefore, our power is derived from the people and granted to us for the purpose of ensuring the rights of all. That power is to be exercised only in the interests of a greater peace and equality. Every citizen has the power and responsibility to intervene and be a peacekeeper, but we often stand in their stead to protect the weak and unawares. Our power is the equalizer against the opposing forces of disorder. It is this rationale that provides the only moral basis for use of force in gaining compliance with the law.

Power exercised in violation of our national design necessarily diminishes the goals of freedom, peace, and equality. When a police officer uses his or her power to exact vengeance or when a politician uses police power to create favor of one over another, then our treasured values are betrayed.

Deep Thinking: The Moral Imperative of Loyalty

The dyed fabric from the famous mills of Coventry, England in the 17th century kept its blue color so well that it was known as true blue. The color you bought was the color that stayed, without fading or changing. Is that you? Do you honor your highest and original values by remaining true blue? Can you state your most basic values that guide your daily behavior?

Loyalty is often expressed as if it were purely an emotion; the misting of eyes at the national anthem or a breathless vow of love in a moment of passion. I believe we need to understand loyalty as an act of will and intellect. It is this firmness of thought that will sustain our behavior within a solid ethical framework through a law enforcement career.

Our real loyalties are exposed in the grist mill of life experiences. In their book Theory in Practice, Chris Argyris and Donald Schon state “When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use.” This perspective on the contrast between espoused theory (our stated life principles) and our theory-in-use (what we really look like as we behave in the world) is an enlightening one for self-examination. For example, if we say that we are loyal to Constitutional principles, to a high morality, to the espoused values of our department, and yet falsify a use of force report for ourselves or a co-worker then we have established that our highest loyalty is to convenience and self-interest. Our true colors show, and they are faded and not true blue.

Without a clear reminder of what you really believe and live for, the expediency of the moment may prevail and betray your higher aspirations. A loss of focus that allows us to drift from our highest ideals can contribute to burnout and misconduct. A visible cornerstone for your primary, ethics-defining loyalty can have refreshing preservative value to the soul. Your cornerstone might be a cross or wedding ring worn daily. For others that reminder might be a family photo on the visor in the patrol car. For some it might be a daily ritual or reading. I recommend a written personal mission motto.

A personal mission motto articulates your values so that you are compelled to define them. A motto or mission statement is the central measure for your life’s work and provides a standard against which to measure your decisions. My father was a WWII veteran who gave a lot of effort to the American Legion whose motto was “For God and Country”. All that he lived for, even the mundane tasks of work and family, was embodied by that phrase. Others might say “Family First” or “Remember Your Mission” or “Liberty and Justice”. Finding your cornerstone can help you through the day, and perhaps help you survive the worst days of all. What is your motto?