As an African American man who served the city of St. Paul as a police officer (patrol, foot beat, SWAT, detective), I was one of very few officers who policed the city I grew up in and in which I raised my own children.
Based on my 28 years of experience, I would estimate that 95% of preserving public tranquillity is about peacekeeping. Probably less than 5% is about enforcing.
The term “law enforcement” has hijacked the peacekeeping mission over the past century. It emphasizes force and implies suppression and oppression, which I consider a betrayal. I cringe at its every utterance, especially when hearing police officials use the term in opposition to “community policing.”
America went to community policing in 1836, based on Sir Robert Peel’s nine principles of policing established in London in 1829. Listed below is my oversimplification of Peel’s principles. The goals of community policing are:
1) To prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to suppression by military force.
2) To depend on public approval and to maintain public respect.
3) To achieve police objectives by means of public cooperation.
4) To earn public trust and cooperation, which declines proportionately with the use of force.
5) To nurture public favor by means of fairness and good-faith services.
6) To always use the minimum degree of force, and only after persuasion, advice and warnings fail.
7) To recognize that police are the public and that the public are the police.
8) To refrain from corruption.
9) To evaluate police effectiveness as the presence of peace, not on the visible use of aggressive enforcement.
I propose these principles as irrefutable, a foundation upon which to rebuild a principled model of peacekeeping. If it ain’t community policing, it ain’t policing at all.
Compare these principles to today’s professional law enforcement. How many, if any, of these nine principles do you see locally or nationally?
I took my oath of office as a “peace officer” in 1976. Nowhere in the oath was the term “law enforcement” mentioned.
The foundational principles of our democracy are sound, but they were written during the time of American chattel slavery, when the Constitution counted African descendants as three-fifths of a human, so none of the good stuff ever applied to Blacks in America.
The community-policing principles are sound, but were spawned in a corruption that was never reconciled. The bloodstained bathwater must be thrown out, but the baby is worth keeping.
Imagine inheriting a century-old mansion. The once-beautiful floor is made of fine hardwood, but the surface is ruined. You wouldn’t throw away the entire floor. You’d scrub away layers of stains, gunk and crud, and sand it down until it was no longer polluted and disfigured. Once the surface was ready, it would be time to apply the smooth glossy coating.
Here’s the point. Policing is meant to be a delicate, intimate, ongoing trust-building, caregiving affair. Everyone wants and deserves good police service. We should have policing that we want to be successful.
The current “win-lose” proposition is a loss for both sides. When we hire employees, it would be ridiculous to set them up for failure. You wouldn’t hire a pilot to crash the plane, or a doctor to lose patients. The solution lies in designing a “win-win” model of policing. We want policing to work for all of us.
What would a model consist of if police were set up for success?
When traveling by air, I want 21st-century aviation. When going to a doctor, I want 21st-century medical technology. When calling the police, am I wrong to demand 21st-century policing?
My fervent suggestion is to “remodel” 19th-century policing and bring “peacekeeping” into the 21st century.
In the wake of the tragedies of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and multitudes of other police killings — we see where “enforcement” is taking us. This is why “21st-century policing” is an essential conversation.
Melvin W. Carter Jr. is a retired St. Paul Police sergeant, the author of “Diesel Heart” and the father of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III.