Thursday, May 28, 2015

On Whether to Memorialize Burlington Policy Against Militarization of Police.

[May 27, 2015]

Ms. Kenney, Burlington Police Commissioner:

There is in our community a fear of the police, and many stories of police acting extra-legally, unaccountable because the victims of these acts are homeless or drunk, thought to be a threat to public safety, or simply too powerless to demand respect. Even if members of the police commission or members of the community want to challenge these stories, the fact remains that there is embedded distrust, where trust is the natural outcome of the proper fulfillment of the duties of policing.

If you want me to  detail these stories, I can. I am witness to some, and have heard others of them first hand. For now I would like to assert principles and indicate what I believe the implications are.

In the evolution of civilization, the state has gradually asserted a monopoly over the use of force. With the institution of democracy, this authority has been segregated into the use of force to protect the territory of the state, and the use of force to protect domestic tranquility. Today we are discussing the latter.

Because the state exists to protect the well-being of the citizens, and the state maintains a monopoly over the use of force, the agents of that use of force, the police, are duty bound to minimize harm to the citizenry, their ultimate employers and ostensible benificiaries, including the suspects of crime, and carry a heavy burden to use force only when absolutely necessary. Their duty, where they exist as the deputies of the citizenry, is not to control the populace, it is to protect the populace, which may mean refraining from the use of force even when control may be lost, if with the loss of control no harm to the wider public will be done.

In short, the police could go very far toward pacifist tactics, reducing their over-use of force and increasing the sense in the community that the police are acting to protect, not acting to control, by implementing a "least harm" policy. As a brief example, if someone on Main street at 2 AM is drunk, and causing some people to feel unsafe, the police do not need to aggress against this individual by wrestling them to the ground, sometimes striking them. They need engage in sufficient control: Stand between the dangerous person and the public that is at risk, surround the individual and deflect the danger. Meet danger with no weapon that is greater than the weapon displayed. The police don't need heavier equipment, they need better training, aimed at "least harm" protection of both the innocent and the guilty.

I must say, it seems some times that the police view themselves as the agents of justice. To assess the danger perhaps created by some actor, to judge whether there is guilt, and to administer punishment. This is neither the right nor the duty of the police: they must deliver the person suspected of criminal  behavior to the court with the least harm possible. If that person does not resist, the police can show respect, and do nothing that hurts the suspect. Because it is the necessary duty of the police to protect, and to not impart to the community they serve any more harm than is necessary for the protection of the innocent. The suspect who resists or is threatening can be handled professionally. There is no place in the interaction between the suspect and the officer for harm imparted out of anger. Anger has no role in the administration of public safety.

Certainly, to extend this principle, the segregation of military and police must be enforced and institutionalized. Rather than leave open a back door to militarization by having no policy one way or the other, I would insist that we have policies designed to reduce the need for the tools of force and to reduce the need for training in the use of force. The police must be made to understand that their unique authority imparts on them a grave responsibility, and they must exercise the use of force with a reticence equal to that responsibility.

Stephen Marshall

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