The consent of the governed establishes authority in our constitutional republic. Our representatives enact laws with the intent that most citizens will comply, but with penalties attached if they don’t. The only way for those penalties to be meaningful and ensure the safety and equality of law-abiding citizens is to have a mechanism for activating those penalties provided under the law.
That mechanism is force. It is the legitimate police power of government.
Our history as a nation has included unjust and immoral laws. These laws have often been amended or eliminated by democratic action. Some have been changed through resistance and rebellion. Some remain to be aligned with the best of our natures. But the law requires obedience except in the most extraordinary circumstances.
When police officers refer to the thin blue line, they mean that element of government that is empowered to bring those who break the laws of the land into accountability to their fellow citizens. This accountability is through a carefully crafted system that, though not flawless, faces the accused with a judgement by his or her peers in a court of law. Without these armed government agents, the system collapses, and those who would happily and peaceably obey the laws would be forced to fend for themselves at the mercy of the violent.
As a nation whose history includes revolution and civil disobedience for a higher moral calling of greater freedom and justice, we hold a culturally sacred place for thoughtful resistance. Historians of the future, and astute contemporary observers, will find the current culture of resistance to law enforcement is based on a tragically misplaced, destructive, delusional belief.
In the study of human behavior, especially collective and “viral” behavior, it is observed that while criminal behavior often derives from the offender’s ability to disregard social norms by some internal justification. When that criminal behavior gets defined by others with social influence and leadership as acceptable or at least justifiable, and in some cases admirable, the stage is set for broader social permission, or license, for others to emulate the once unacceptable behavior.
The narrative of rampant, enculturated unlawful behavior by law enforcement has been expressly and tacitly endorsed by an increasing number of persons of influence. These influencers, from President Obama to other elected officials, sports and Hollywood personalities, and social activists, have embedded in a layer of national consciousness the pernicious idea that the police in the United States have no moral authority to enforce the law.
The results of this narrative is increased crime and violence against law enforcement officers by offenders, and injustice to officers lawfully engaged in their sworn duties who face punishment in the courts and in their agencies. At a time when study after study endorses the reality of the overwhelmingly appropriate and courageous actions of officers in the millions of daily transactions with the citizenry, the misguided endorsement of mistrust of the institution of policing in this country has veered from legitimate accountability into a national travesty.
The solution is for the voices of sanity to become louder than the increasingly irrational voices of encouraging lawlessness. The majority of Americans overwhelmingly respect and rely on their police. Those voices must be encouraged and heard. Facts must become the substance of the narrative about racism, use of force, and police accountability. Lawmakers, clergy, journalists, and even members of our own profession must become better informed both on the facts, and on the reality of coercion as a legitimate democratic function of government, and compliance as the duty of its citizens.
There are few people in a position to lead this education effort. If police officers, trainers, and leaders don’t take that responsibility, no one else will.