Rethinking Police Ethics

—Ben Jones and Eduardo Mendieta

Policing in the United States faces a legitimacy crisis. The Black Lives Matter protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis—which may have been the largest social movement in US history—made that point clear. Growing calls to defund or abolish the police over the past year signaled a marked shift in the public debate. Floyd’s murder was part of a long history of police brutality against Black Americans. Many activists drew attention to that past, noting policing’s connections to slave patrols and the enforcement of Jim Crow, to make the case that American policing from its inception has been a force of racial oppression.

The legitimacy crisis that police face is not new. Instead, the fact is that much of America has finally become aware of it. Public opinion polls for decades have shown that, though majorities of White Americans have confidence in the police, most Black Americans lack that same confidence. Gallup’s most recent poll found a 37-percentage-point gap between the views of Blacks and Whites, with less than 20% of Black Americans expressing confidence in the police. One also finds greater distrust for the police among Latinos and Native Americans.

Such distrust has deep roots in how law enforcement has policed communities of color. Writing in 1966, James Baldwin called police “hired enemies” of the Black population, whose function is “to keep the Negro in his place.” Social science research provides insight into why Baldwin’s critique continues to resonate today in communities most harmed by aggressive policing. From SWAT raids to traffic stops, Black Americans experience more frequent and intense forms of policing—interactions that can have deadly consequences.

Police ethics has not done enough to grapple with policing’s legitimacy crisis. Traditionally, it has looked at questions concerning corruption, officer discretion, and use of force within the confines of professional ethics and criminology. The problem with that approach is that understanding policing’s legitimacy crisis—both its sources and how it manifests itself today—requires drawing on a far wider range of resources, from history to Black studies to science and technology studies.

With that concern in mind, The Ethics of Policing takes a more expansive approach to examining the normative expectations for police in a democratic society. It features essays from an interdisciplinary group of leading scholars, including Sally Hadden, Joy James, Tracey Meares, Vesla Weaver, Michael Walzer, and Franklin Zimring. Some essays in the volume are on traditional topics in police ethics like use of force, while other essays push the boundaries of the field by examining policing’s links to slave patrols and the testimonies of Black and Brown Americans in communities subject to over-policing.

Just as events of the past year have put into sharp focus policing’s legitimacy crisis, they also have reminded us of the vital role that police can play. At the January 6 Capitol riot, in the face of White supremacist violence and in some cases racial slurs, a number of officers put their bodies on the line to protect democratic institutions under attack. Their actions illustrated that policing can serve antiracist ends, especially under nonideal conditions where racist violence persists.

The challenge for police and democratic institutions that oversee them is how to transform policing so that the advancement of antiracist goals is the norm rather than the exception. For police ethics to contribute to that task, we must rethink its boundaries.

Ben Jones is Assistant Director of the Rock Ethics Institute at the Pennsylvania State University. Eduardo Mendieta is Professor of Philosophy at the Pennsylvania State University. They are the editors of The Ethics of Policing: New Perspectives on Law Enforcement (NYU Press, 2021).

Feature Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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