Montesqieu

Society and the Police

Recently I read a quote about systems. It stated the obvious in that it stated that a system cannot function unless it remains a whole and is not divided. As systems are the sum of their parts some parts you pay more attention to. Recent news and trends have often involved the police, positively and negatively. Instead of simply looking at the police I think it makes more sense to look at the police in society.

First things first, how do I perceive this topic? I start with myself as I am a citizen of the state of the Netherlands. This state consists of the government and its (often public) bodies, organisations or agencies. Next there is society, the citizens who by their constitution or similar document have their rights, liberties and obligations. Between the government and the citizens there is the agency called the police.

The police serve and protect the citizens, maintain law and order and usually have a complete or partial monopoly on violence and weapons. In some governments the trias politica by Montesquieu is applied which separates the power of legislation (lawmaking), judiciary (formulating verdicts in court) and execution (manually maintaining law and order). In some countries that separation of powers is not used. I wrote about this aspect before.

When you interpret the whole state as all the citizens who represent their country then everybody is a citizen first and second of a certain profession. Apply this logic to politicians, judges and police employees and you look at a second level of being something. Add the aspect of complete or partial monopoly on violence and weapons and you look at the police officer in the street as a fellow citizen and a police officer with certain mandates. Usually that should not be confusing in any way, at all.

So assume that in society everybody is a citizen first and of a profession second. When a person steals from, intently or dangerously hurts or kills someone else that is damaging to the victim and society. When that person gets away with it people generally accept it in discomfort or seek a form of justice or revenge. An offence, a criminal act has taken place and something has to be done to avoid it from happening again.

In most cases citizens turn to the police, the judge (with our without lawyer) or to the politicians (who represent them) for some sort of help. Usually the police officers are the first to take care of the situation. A situation has been reported and the police has to deal with the situation in the best way possible. Best way possible includes formalities and procedures to rule out misunderstandings and miscommunication that might affect the solution for a given situation.

Here comes the part I cannot avoid. “What if the police does something wrong? How to deal with that situation? Who to turn to and why?” This part where the police fails society presents everybody with dilemma’s, from victims to perpetrators to bystanders. My personal experience with the police in the Netherlands is mixed. In general the police here is polite and helpful but in a few instances they could not help out even when evidence and witnesses were present to add to the report. The response from the police was a combination of “because procedures” and “sorry, too much work.”

Then there are the media and scandals. I am not going to link to the scandals through the years, you can find them with ease. In society the media entertain and inform and sometimes a certain agenda or trend is very present. The police are generally well-regarded until things go wrong and victims of police violence and abuse of power are not taken seriously. To name some examples the Eric Garner case in New York is disgusting and in The Hague the Mitch Henriquez case led to public outrage in the Netherlands. The video footage spoke for itself yet the police tried to pull a streisand.

Recently in a Dutch newspaper I read that because police officers are “tried and corrected” in “private police courts” the victims and public are sometimes left out. I understand that the person who is a police officer needs a safe environment to tell his or her side but the police owes the citizens an explanation when things go wrong. When the police treat the citizens as irrelevant because “it is a police matter” the police creates a sphere of public distrust. Without trust in the police the police cannot do its work. Various times the Dutch police has been caught trying to cover up scandals. Trust is fragile.

That brings me to the end of this essay. In a society of citizens the police are often those citizens who keep the streets safe and protect the vulnerable among their fellow citizens. In a society of people who want to be able to trust their government and the police it is assumed that as a citizen you can live pleasantly and safely. That trust is fragile. The factors “because procedures” and “sorry, too much work” do some damage. Then the scandals and cover ups follow. The trust in the government and police becomes more fragile.

To stay calm and not panic I assume most people are peaceful and kind and this applies to the police. I hope my trust remains this way for the coming decades…