Organized police are only a recent development in human society. In addition, unlike the military, they are an armed force that is authorized to operate within the country.

Before the police were established, if someone committed an offense against you – or your family – you had to seek justice on your own. In other words, natural law prevailed. If your family was strong, you could obtain justice (and also cause injury to others with impunity). If not, it was denied.

Many traditional societies have tried to rectify this problem, without resorting to the use of police. For example, tribal societies have complex rules describing penalties for causing injury, and often councils of elders that serve as arbitrators. Such punishments tend to be harsh, though, following the principle of an eye for an eye. Also, even with a governing council punishment in many cases is not fair, as strong families are able to press for lenient treatment. The result is that tribal justice is at best a flawed system, and at worst it degenerates into a never-ending legacy of blood feuds.

The democratic system was designed to create a new approach to justice. It is based on the development of rational laws, which are then enforced by impartial police and courts.

This is how the system is meant to work, but as with tribal justice its application is often problematic. For instance, in many newly established democracies if a crime is perpetrated against you (or even if you just become aware of a crime), you cannot go to the police. The police will not arrest and imprison the criminal. Instead, they will find the perpetrator, and then extract a bribe and also quite possibly inform on you. This means there is a high probability that the criminal will come after you, and try to kill you. In this system you have no legal recourse, and there is no justice.

The basic reason the police fail is linked to the question of whom they serve. We assume that the police serve everyone, but this is regularly not the case.

When democracy was first established (in the modern age), the only people entitled to vote were the owners of property. The consequence of this is that laws were written and enforced primarily for their benefit. The police, in effect, were a security mechanism for this class.

The police in many societies are security guards for the wealthy, and also for the society’s institutions. They do not enforce the laws; rather, they enforce the social order. Further, in the most restrictive societies – police states – such institutions are completely above criticism. Anyone who dissents is subject to arrest, imprisonment, and even execution.

Police are granted the greatest power of all: the license to kill members of their own society. This is arguably the most profound relationship of trust that a society creates, and it exists for good reason. Police officers must enforce the law against the most unethical of people. They test their intelligence and exhibit great courage – to the point of risking their lives – to do so. One of our most fundamental ethics is: if you can do something to help, you should. Good police officers do help, and to the greatest extent possible.

In many societies, though, this granting of trust has been subverted. There is a very thin line between the police in democratic nations and those in such places as China and Burma. Because of this, and as with the military, the police must be carefully controlled. In addition, their common patterns of behavior reflect a number of specific problem areas.

Also as with the military, the police attempt to justify their role. Said another way, they need criminals. If there are not enough around, they have a tendency to create them.

Police regularly treat the public with intimidation. They act as if they are just waiting for an excuse to make an arrest, and that everyone is guilty, not innocent (thereby perverting this basic principle of justice). In addition, the police use intimidation as a means to provoke a response, which they can then label criminal. Furthermore, they are instruments of social discrimination, by focusing their intimidation on minority groups.

Through this behavior, the police are one of the most important cases of the risk of abuse of power. Many officers love their power, and believe the only way to prove that they have it is to use it. They engage in different types of abuse, including intimidation, physical abuse of suspects, selective application of the law, and false arrest.

It is because of these problems that the legal rights of defendants are so clearly defined and vigorously protected.

In addition to minorities, the other main targets of police abuse are nonconformists and dissidents. This reinforces the idea that they view their role as protecting the social order. Anyone who fails to conform, or who speaks out against society, is the enemy.

Police have no right to restrict non-violent dissent, and this includes surveillance of – spying on – political groups and social and environmental activists. When the police repress dissent, they are actually functioning as an anti-check.

Because of their proximity to criminals and the proceeds of criminal enterprises, the police have a strong temptation to corruption. Many individuals do in fact cross the line and become criminals themselves. An additional problem is that in police forces everywhere there is an unspoken rule that you do not inform on bad cops. Many officers become aware of such individuals, but they do not bring them to justice. The code of silence is stronger than their oath to uphold the law.

Another principle of the legal system is that family members cannot be forced to incriminate their close relatives. A mother, for example, cannot be required to testify against her son. When the police impose a code of silence to shield criminal officers, they are effectively trying to use the “family defense.” This is unacceptable. It applies only to natural families. Neither the police, nor the military, have the right to cover up rather than correct criminal activities within their own ranks.

For police abuse, it is essential to grasp that this is completely unacceptable. Such officers are breaking a bond of trust, a public trust that has granted them great power. When power freely granted is abused, when it is directed back at us by the police (or any other institutional officials), this is unequivocally reprehensible.

The first step is to take away the power of the police to intimidate. We must reject their unethical means to a supposedly ethical end.

© Roland O. Watson 2008