To be a police officer is to hold an important office of public trust, as the powers bestowed on the police are second to none. No other person or office is entrusted with the legal authority to use force and to suspend a person’s freedom in the pursuit of justice. As is presently being seen in the United States, if that trust is broken, then the mission is lost and chaos reigns.
Policing is a relatively young profession. It was born in London in the early 19th century as a response to the increase in crime associated with the population explosion of the Industrial Revolution. The previous law-enforcement system of the hue and cry, which was entirely dependent on untrained citizen volunteers, was no longer sufficient so legislators sought to devise a new one.
It is useful to remember that despite the pressing need for professional policing, it was born in controversy nonetheless. When the idea was first presented a few decades earlier, it was deeply unpopular and was eventually abandoned. After everything British subjects had achieved in terms of individual rights and limits to state power, the last thing they wanted was an armed military presence in their cities, which is how it was perceived by many.
In the end, these legitimate concerns helped shape professional policing. Sir Robert Peel, as Secretary of State for the Home Department, created the Metropolitan Police in London, and it was to be governed by what is known as Peel’s Principles, which were designed to garner public approval.
Four of these principles are as follows:
- The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
- The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
- Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties that are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
- Police should always direct their action strictly toward their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
It is quite clear here that while the mandate of police officers is to apprehend criminals, it is also to maintain the peace by building and maintaining the trust and cooperation of the public. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that throughout Canadian law, police officers are referred to as peace officers, and that in Quebec’s Police Act as well as in Ontario’s Police Services Act, the first duty of officers is described as preserving the peace.
It takes only a brief analysis of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer to conclude that the officer horribly violated these principles. It should also be noted that there is a remarkable level of unanimity regarding his actions. A defence of his actions has yet to be offered, even from his union. He was duly arrested and charged, and his prosecution awaits.
Unfortunately, the unanimous condemnation of the officer’s actions and the swift steps toward justice have done little to keep cities from burning. The victims of these riots are many, and the violence, destruction, and loss of life are truly devasting. And as police precincts are set ablaze, the list of victims who will never see justice only gets longer, as their cases go up in smoke and as their aggressors are more likely to go free due to insufficient evidence.
Contrary to what some may believe, the police duty to build and maintain public trust does not solely lie with communication and prevention officers; it lies with every single officer. The evidence is right before our eyes; one officer committed an egregious act, and it ignited the already simmering anger that resulted in the burning of a nation, and it set police-public relations in that country back by possibly a generation.
In a free society, the trust bestowed on police is both precious and delicate, and it is imperative that every officer, and that every aspiring officer, properly understands this, because the manner in which this trust is handled can serve to either build or destroy peaceful society itself.
Kevin Richard is a freelance writer with a professional and educational background in policing and criminal justice. His articles have appeared in various publications, including The Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Sherbrooke Record, La Presse Plus, and HuffPost Québec.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.