It is said that St. Peter was fleeing the City of Rome to escape persecution by the government when he met the resurrected Jesus walking the other way, toward the City. “Quo Vadis Domine?”—Where are you going, Lord? asked Peter. In reply, Jesus explained he was returning to Rome to be crucified again. His work was not yet done. Jesus’ selfless commitment gave Peter the courage to continue his ministry—his service to humanity. He too ultimately sacrificed himself in the name of service to others.
American policing, Quo Vadis—where are you going?
I understand. You, the police, have become subject of criticism boarding on persecution. Daily, you engage in tens of thousands of acts of service, courage and kindness with little recognition. But, let one of your 900,000 members engage in misconduct, in any one of the tens of thousands of police contacts that occur nationwide and your entire profession is once again subjected to virulent criticism.
I understand. You rush toward danger when others flee. Operating under levels of stress as to make critical thinking impossible, you are expected to make split second decisions like a legal scholar. Yet, anytime someone feels you erred, those same decisions will be scrutinized at the leisure of lawyer and critics for months on end.
I understand. The social problems that have been laid at your feet are not problems of your creation. Poverty, racial injustice, blight, and the lack of opportunities so often the precursors of crime, are legacy problems. Yet, it is your job to deal with the resulting chaos. Our society’s problems of addiction to drugs and alcohol fuel the crime and disorder that keep you busy.
I understand. Public policy decisions meant to address these social problems are too often of little help. Someone else decided to reduce funding support for social services, mental health, alcohol and drug treatment programs that might solve these social problems. Instead, you were left to be the default responders in situations poorly suited to the tools of your trade.
You have no tools to address disease or addiction, yet we count on you to protect us from ourselves when our afflictions result in disorder.
I understand. Politicians created the public policies that defined your role. You did not declare the war on drugs, yet you were its foot soldiers. You did not create the laws and sentencing guidelines that created disparate impact on certain communities, yet you bear the brunt of the resultant anger.
I understand that to be declared in need of “reform” is never a compliment. You, the individual officer, are not in need of reform. You are not broken. You have performed as you were trained, to the best of your ability, executing the missions given to you by your leaders.
I understand that it is the political and criminal justice systems, of which police are but a part, that need reform. Far too often, the very systems meant to provide justice instead create inequities. The resultant anger is left for you to address.
Most fundamentally, our society and government have failed you. We have failed to precisely define your very role in our democracy.
Are we simply enforcers of the law or is your role far greater? Are police soldiers in a war on drugs? …in a war against terrorism? If police are fighting a war, then who are our enemies?
Your role has drifted far from that prescribed by Sir Robert Peel as guardians of public order – policing with consent. Far too many police leaders seem to have forgotten that “the police are the community, and the community are the police.”
It is the role of leaders to clearly define the mission. We, your police leaders have let you down. We have not always provided you with the leadership, support, education and training you need to meet the expectations of policing in the 21st Century.
We have failed to sufficiently fund social service, mental health, addiction and other service providers who might otherwise be there—24/7—as you are, to provide members of the public the kinds of support they really need to address the root cause of their problems. In doing so, we have failed you.
We gave you extensive training in the enforcement of the laws and the application of physical force to allow you to address the dangers that at times present, but are then surprised when it is these tools you use to address problems presented to you to solve.
When demonstrators engage in protests seemingly directed at you, the true source of the frustrations are often with decisions made by prosecutors, the courts or others in the criminal justice or political systems. There is anger when the systems lack transparency or accountability, but these are not systems of your design.
Yet you bear the burden of public blame. As society’s force agents, you are just the most visible artifact of those broken systems.
And yet, you continue to sacrifice in the name of service.
Every person, in every community in this nation, deserves ethically grounded, highly professional police services.
When Plato spoke of the Guardians: “Those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy,” he was speaking of you. You are our guardians, and we need your protection and leadership—now, more than ever.
Remember, not everyone who criticizes you is your enemy. Those calling for criminal justice reform are exercising the very constitutional rights you sworn to uphold—they are participating in our democracy and look to you to protect those very rights.
There is far more we, as a society, should be doing to create political, criminal justice and police leadership systems that create just outcomes—to create systems worthy of guardians like you.
Similarly, those calling themselves “pro-police”, arguing against meaningful reforms, are working contrary to your best interest. Many of the prescribed reforms would elevate policing to higher professional status; something you, and our communities both want and deserve.
Since the mid-20th Century, multiple presidential commissions on criminal justice reform have called for specific reforms, and many of those reforms are yet to be enacted. Previous generations of leaders chose not to act. As a society, we failed your profession.
American policing, Quo Vadis? Like St. Peter, you have a choice to make.
The politics of this nation have become dangerously polarized. You may be tempted to push away from those calling for reforms. It is tempting to seek sanctuary in the support of those who contend you can do no wrong.
Walking away from confrontation—walking away from your duty to protect—is tempting; it was for Peter.
But, for the sake of our society, be drawn neither left nor right. Be steadfast in service to the downtrodden as well as those with power. You are the Guardians of our democracy. Your mission requires you take up a sentinel presence in the middle, protecting us from ourselves, and from each other.
The middle of conflict is a lonely place to be. But in your courageous act of selfless service to others, by remaining steadfast in your commitment to justice, you are role models—leading us all back to our common ground.
This nation will one day be grateful for your leadership.
Retired Chief Cameron S. McLay, formerly chief of police for the city of Pittsburgh (PA) Bureau of Police, is principle of TPL Public Safety Consulting and serves as senior adviser for PricewaterhouseCoopers Safe Cities Initiative — an initiative to enable police use of enhanced data analytics and monitoring of social risk and sentiment to improve their performance outcomes and to build public trust and confidence.
The opinions expressed are the authors’ own and may not represent the official position of the National Police Foundation.