It is difficult to imagine a society without police, but that was the case until the early 1800s. Sir Robert Peel first introduced policing in Great Britain in the 1820s. The officers were outfitted in uniforms, dressy helmets, and badges so that they were easily identified. The officers were called “Bobbies,” so named for the British Home Secretary who founded the first British police force. Police forces patterned after those in England were developed in the American colonies as cities and towns developed.
Police officers are the most visible criminal justice system authorities. We have about 18,000 police agencies in the United States which include college campus police, sheriff departments, local police, and federal agencies. There are about 900,000 sworn officers in those 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.
Police (along with firefighters) are the only public employees who are available “24-7” every day of the year to assist citizens in emergencies and life-threatening situations. Police are called to quell arguments, neighborhood disturbances, and respond to verbal and physical threats ranging from bar patrons to household disputes. An average law enforcement officer’s day also includes doing public assistance tasks like helping with vehicle problems, giving directions to visitors new in town. and even responding to cats up a tree!
What About Police Use of Force?
Policing has changed greatly since its origin in Great Britain with the “Bobbies.” Even today very few British police carry a weapon. America is different. The 2nd Amendment right to bear arms means that America has always had more weapons in the hands of citizens. Police are authorized to use lethal force in carrying out their duties, resulting in numerous deaths each year in the U.S.
Because police are the most visible justice officials, they are closely scrutinized. News stories alleging excessive use of force by police appear frequently. Police shooting incidents resulting in the death of unarmed citizens make national headlines. They are tragic and deserve news coverage. Nearly 1,000 people die each year from police use of deadly force: 963 in 2016 and 987 in 2017.
Those are tragic deaths but are only part of the whole story. Most of those deaths were of suspects who were armed and posed a threat to the police. The number of unarmed citizens fatally shot by police was 51 in 2016 and 68 in 2017. The causes vary but most of the shootings were precipitated when police thought they saw a weapon and that they were being threatened. The number of armed persons who died from police use of deadly force the past two years was 912 in 2016 and 919 in 2017. All cases of police shooting incidents are examined by law enforcement officials and by district attorneys for consideration of prosecution for unjustified use of deadly force.
The clearest explanation for the number of incidents of police use of deadly force is the number of officers who are killed in the line of duty. There were 58,627 assaults against law enforcement officers in 2016, resulting in 16,677 injuries.
The number of police officers who died in the line of duty totaled 135 police officers in 2016 and 129 police officers in 2017. The deaths of citizens (unarmed and armed) and police officers are unfortunate and tragic; but it is essential to remember that police use of deadly force is a part of police work to protect all citizens in a nation where deadly weapons are all too common and prevalent.
Police recognize they are part of the community and they depend on community cooperation to effectively do their job. Sir Robert Peel recognized this and developed Peel’s Principles of Policing which are part of police education and training today:
- Police depend on public approval in order to perform their duties.
- Police depend on the public’s cooperation, respect, and voluntary observance of the law.
- Police preserve public favor by constantly demonstrating impartial service to the law.
- Police use physical force to the extent necessary to restore order and only when persuasion, advice and warning are found to be insufficient.
- Police should maintain a relationship with the public that demonstrates the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.
Police recognize the importance of community relations and working cooperatively with citizens in carrying out their duties. They are reminded of that daily as they interact with members of the public in all places, at all times.
Most police officers view their role as a “calling” and willingly put their lives at risk as they serve the public, rendering aid and assistance to citizens in need. Surely they are a part of “God’s justice in action.”
Central to the biblical view of justice is the idea of “covenant” — that God’s justice depends on “community relationships.” This applies equally to policing and justice.