Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Public Trust

The calls to “defund the police” are growing.  At first blush, it sounds like something radical: how can a civilized society exist without some form of law enforcement?  We have had some form of policing going back to ancient times.  But what occurs to me is that what we are seeing is a demand to reform the police and change the culture that has gotten us to where we are now with growing mistrust between the police and a large segment of the population they are sworn to protect.

What has happened is that we as a society have used the police as the dumping ground for all of the unpleasant and scary elements of our daily life.  They are called not only to enforce the law, but also in many cases to enforce social norms and reinforce prejudices.  The police force has responded by becoming hardened to deal with things they have no training or business handling: medical emergencies, building code enforcement, mental health care, domestic violence, and racial tension.  But that’s not what they signed up for, and that’s not what we should expect of them.  There are other services that we have as a part of our community services that can deal with those emergencies.

On another level, we’ve done the same thing with the public education system.  We have relegated many parental duties to teachers, forcing them to deal with more than just educating our children.  All too often they have become in loco parentis beyond the classroom.  The mindset for many is that out of sight, out of mind, and becoming involved in their child’s education is, either by lack of time or lack of caring, something they cannot pay attention to more than just lip service.

Neither the police force nor the school system is designed or intended to go beyond their stated duty, and dumping our problems on them has only added strains to those who are both untrained to handle things they’re asked to do and underpaid for them as well.  Something has to give, and in both cases, they have broken in many respects.

We can no more defund the police than we can defund the public schools.  Both are in need of reform at every level, and in a lot of places it is already taking hold.  But the most important reform that has to take place is getting the public to understand the role that they have in our society and what they expect from us.  We often refer to it as holding the public trust.  But it is something that has to go both ways, and if we expect them to go above and beyond, we have to give them both the resources, the training, and the trust to do the job.