Armed gangs roam the streets, harassing people as they try to eat dinner or run their business. They indiscriminately corral large groups of people, beating, pepper-spraying and arresting passers-by, legal observers, medics and members of the press. After running off frightened civilians they chant “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”, asserting ownership over public spaces.
When criticized, they encourage people to harass businesses and individuals who dare to stand up to them, while deleting citizens’ critical comments from their social media pages. They brag that they “owned tonight,” forgetting that they serve not themselves, but the public.
Our police are out of control.
Police exist to serve the public good. They are granted, by the people, powers far beyond those of most other government agents, so that they might serve and protect us.
They can enter our homes, probe us with questions about our conduct, arrest us, pass out fines and penalties, charge us with crimes, even shoot us dead. The police have extraordinary powers, so it is essential that they exercise them with the utmost probity and concern for our rights.
Because they are so powerful, police must be held to exceptional standards of oversight. We must expect police to act always with dignity and respect for their civic duty as protectors of the rights of all people, and when that duty is not upheld there must be swift and severe consequences.
This goes to the heart of the moral legitimacy of policing.
The legitimacy of police power is based on their respect for the public good — if they repeatedly demonstrate they are not serving the public good, then their power loses its legitimacy, and they become highly trained, highly armed gangs. Once police begin to act like private street gangs, beating their chests on social media and spoiling for a fight, they forfeit their moral right to tell us what to do. Their use of force becomes assault, their arrests become kidnappings, their shootings become murder.
We are at that point now in St. Louis.
The abuses of police power we have seen over the past 10 days are so severe that they demonstrate a cultural problem at the heart of policing in our city. The police, with their self-congratulatory social media accounts and macho press-briefing posturing, are becoming increasingly self-serving, promoting their own agenda and image above the rights and dignity of the people.
This can only be solved through immediate and drastic action by our political leaders — but none is forthcoming. Mild rebukes about police chanting and taunting protesters are not enough: Mayor Krewson and other civic leaders must recognize that it is profoundly dangerous when a culture of policing develops which lauds violent, indiscriminate attacks on the people in the name of police strength.
When police are criticized, people often remark that police have a difficult and dangerous job. This is true. Policing is an extremely stressful profession with unusual dangers. People who choose to become police officers should be praised for their willingness to put themselves at personal risk in the name of public safety.
But it is exactly these officers — police officers with an appropriate understanding of the profound civic duty their profession represents — who are harmed most when police act against the public good. Abuses of power like those seen over the past weeks destroy trust between the public and the police, and make the good work of policing impossible.
When an individual police officer, or group of officers, oversteps their boundaries and demeans the rights of the public, all officers suffer from the breach in trust this creates. Police officers themselves deserve leaders who respect their commitment to public service, and who understand that policing is about making communities freer and more just for all people, not about looking “strong” for the cameras or posturing for political purposes.
It is not “pro-police” to support the police even when they abuse the public: that is pro-tyranny. The fact that policing is hard and dangerous work does not mean we should lower our standards for police officers: it means we should keep them scrupulously high.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police offers the following oath, which affirms the ethical basis on which policing depends:
On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.
Police in St. Louis should remember their oath. The police are supposed to be strong for us. They are supposed to take action for us. They are employed by us. They are supposed to serve us. They don’t own the streets, and they are not supposed to own the streets: they have no right to claim what is the people’s. The public has lost control of its police force. Our leaders need to take it back.
Croft is the outreach director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a Humanist community. He is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion