Given my role, I have to write this very carefully. I am writing for myself.
This week brought news of police shootings of two more black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Both were captured on video. In the video of the immediate aftermath of Castile’s shooting, a four-year old girl in the back seat can be heard trying to soothe her Mom. She pleads “it’s okay, Mommy...I’m here with you.”
As a parent, if that doesn’t get to you, I just don’t know what to say to you.
When I taught poli sci, I used to refer sometimes to Weber’s definition of “the state” (by which he meant the government as a whole, rather than American states) as the agency in society with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. It is entrusted by the public with the use of force, including deadly force. In return, it is accountable to the public, and is supposed to be in service of the public as a whole.
(I used to define “legitimate” as “rules you obey when nobody is looking.” Most students would admit, when asked, that they had broken speed limits routinely. But most never committed murder, even when nobody was looking. That suggested that they saw the prohibition against murder as basically legitimate, and speed limits as basically illegitimate. Nitpickers could argue that I was conflating the “malum in se/malum prohibitum” dichotomy with political legitimacy, but I consider them intertwined for all practical purposes.)
Now that more people are looking, thanks to smartphones, we’re getting a clearer sense of when, and against whom, the legitimate use of violence oversteps its bounds. It’s no longer possible to deny a racist pattern, to the extent that it ever was.
The state delegates the actual use of violence to the military and the police.
That’s where community colleges come in.
Criminal Justice is one of the most popular majors at most community colleges, including my own. Although the field covers criminology and law, most of the students who enroll intend to go into law enforcement. And they do, often serving with distinction.
This is where future police officers get the big picture.
This is where they reflect, or not, on the larger purpose their intended career entails.
This is where my colleagues can make a difference, if we’re willing.
Too much of the political dialogue comes down to a variation on team sports: anything good for one side is assumed to be bad for the other. For folks who think of the world that way, calling attention to legitimate grievances against unrestrained law enforcement is indistinguishable from a wholesale assault on police. But that’s not it at all. It’s an attempt to restore legitimacy to law enforcement by calling it back to its purpose.
For democracy to work, it needs enforcement. But it needs enforcers who understand that they report to a democracy, and who have a real sense of what that means.
If police start to think of themselves as a self-contained class under siege, as they seemed to do in Ferguson, nothing good will come of that. They are a crucial element of society, not an alien force. They are due respect, and they need to understand why.
To the extent that community colleges are the feeders for future police, this should be when those of us with criminal justice programs have some serious discussions about what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it. We need to make sure that students who are bound for careers in law enforcement have wrestled with questions of larger purpose in a serious way.
I’m no Platonist; I don’t believe that knowing the good and doing the good are the same thing. But if I didn’t believe that knowledge and reflection matter, I wouldn’t have become an educator. Yes, we should teach the “how,” but we should also spend time on the “why” of law enforcement. When I hear that terrified cop in the Castile video, not knowing what to do after he shot and killed an innocent man, I hear someone who’s in way over his head. “Clueless” and “armed” is not a good combination.
The only people in society entrusted with the legitimate use of violence should have a sense of what a legitimate use of violence actually is. They should get that before they’re ever issued a badge. We have a venue in which to help them develop that sense.
Sterling and Castile should not have been killed. That is not, in any way, an attack on law enforcement. Until the second sentence is as obvious as the first, we have work to do.