Some Thoughts About Policing


When constabulary duty’s to be done, to be done,

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.


Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

When I was a young manager in the 1970’s, I lived in a small regional community and I knew the sergeant of police quite well. He was a very decent fellow and quite community minded. We and a couple of others were having a beer together in the local pub one day and he seemed quite distracted. I eventually screwed up the courage to ask him what ailed him. He quietly explained that he had been given a target of revenue to be raised from traffic infringements. Then he explained, “If I fine people for minor infringements, I can’t expect to get community support when we are investigating something more serious. I am happy to give them a chat explaining why they shouldn’t commit such misdemeanours and nine times out of ten they don’t reoffend. But I don’t want to alienate the local community to the extent they won’t cooperate when I have to pursue something more important.”

His superiors didn’t buy his argument and soon after he resigned.

As I related in my previous essay On Coronavirus and Black Activism in these troubled times the role of the police is coming under close scrutiny. In recent times we have seen police use inordinate amounts of force to deal with reasonably trifling matters.

As usual the effect is exaggerated in the United States. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer was supposedly over the possibility that the victim passed a counterfeit twenty dollar bill! It seems a trifling thing to lose your life over, no matter that Floyd had a sordid criminal history. (Notwithstanding that the Black Lives Matter movement seem now to have conferred him with sainthood!)

The latest American atrocity in Atlanta seems to have occurred because a black man was asleep in his car at a takeaway food outlet. He was discovered by police and breath-tested. He failed the breath test and in trying to escape from the officers stole one of their tasers. He was subsequently fatally shot as he tried to flee. This again seemed a disproportionate outcome for the offence.

In Australia we have recently had incidences of undue force applied to indigenous offenders as well but fortunately without the fatal outcomes. For example in Adelaide recently an indigenous male was assaulted by police after purportedly being pulled up because he was riding a bicycle without a helmet at night and with no lights.

On the other hand our police force took no action against those protesting recently in our capital cities for the Black Lives Matter cause or our own related protest about the deaths of indigenous people in incarceration. As I explained in my previous essay the accusations that the protestors make about police brutality are not borne out by statistics. There does not seem to be a systemic effort by police to unduly target black people. Much of the energy behind these protests is derived from a learned sense of victimhood which in itself is a barrier to the improvement of the welfare of coloured people.

But occasionally I think it would be wise to pause and just consider the difficult role that police have. They have to confront aggressive people, whether they be psychotic criminals, people on drugs, violent youth gangs, instigators of domestic violence or whatever.

These dangerous undertakings that police undertake in the course of their duty should give us cause to pause and re-examine the role of the police and what they do to render taking such risks worthwhile. The prime responsibility of police should be to defend life and property.

The need to defend life is seemingly obvious, but it is not as straightforward as one might think. We will come back to that shortly.

Property rights are a basic underpinning of a capitalist democracy. The law supports our property rights and in a functioning democracy police act to safeguard property supported by such laws. (It was tragic to see in the recent USA demonstrations activists burning shops and other buildings in poor neighbourhoods when many of the victims of this wanton arson were poor themselves and often people of colour.)

But let us return to the notion that perhaps the most important duty of the police is to preserve human life and protect the citizenry from injury. Yet this, of course, should not be at any cost because the lives of the police and their welfare are important as well and should be carefully weighed in the equation as to what action is appropriate. We would not want to risk the lives of our police, for example, in having them pursue minor misdemeanours that might have likely disastrous consequences for them.

Unfortunately (referring to the anecdote I began my essay with) the police rely on community trust if they are to do their jobs well. Some police have abused that trust making it difficult for their police colleagues to do their jobs well.

But some elements of our community have an institutional hatred of police, and not coincidentally, no respect for the law. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States some are calling for the defunding of police departments. This is astonishing because those who gain most benefit from policing are the poor, who often are black as well. The schism between the radical black activists and the police is typified in this quote from Hawk Newsome, the chairman of BLM in New York:

When black people become police officers, they are no longer black. They are blue!

So in order to get the maximum advantage from policing, there needs to be both trust in the police by the public and respect from the police for the average citizen.

Although it is a little out of context I would like to relate to you a story the good Dr Phil told me many years ago. (Forgive me Phil if my fading memory has gotten the detail wrong but I am sure the lesson is largely correct.) As I recall Phil had been engaged by the Queensland Police Department to teach police strategies with which to engage the public. Following this, Phil had an assignment as a consultant in Gladstone. ( I think this was in the 1980’s.) When he finished he got in his car to drive back to his home at the bottom of Mount Tambourine, west of Beenleigh. Now Phil, after a couple of days away was keen to get home. Consequently once he got onto the highway he put his foot down (as he was sometimes likely to do). Unfortunately after travelling a hundred kilometres or so, he was pulled up by a traffic cop for speeding.

As I recall it his interaction with the policeman went something like this:

Policeman: Do you realise sir that you were doing twenty kilometres an hour over the speed limit? Do you have any reason for travelling at such speed?

Phil: Well none that I suspect that you would accept.

Policeman: Well unfortunately I am going to have to issue you with a ticket. Driving at twenty kilometres an hour over the speed limit results in a fine of $100.

Phil: That’s a bit steep!

Policeman: Yes, unfortunately speeding offences now attract significant fines. Where are you off to?

Phil: I am travelling south to Mount Tambourine.

The policeman then proceeded to give him some helpful directions.

As the policeman left he said: Well have a good day sir and travel safely.

Phil told me the policeman had exhibited the traits he had been trying to inculcate in his sessions with the police. The policeman had not acted aggressively in any way and was not judgmental.

Consequently when he resumed his journey he did not speed. He contrasted his experience with those who had encountered police who were both aggressive and judgemental. After such an encounter it was likely that the offenders would have went off angry and much more likely to speed.

So if policing is to be effective it is evident that there should be mutual trust and respect between the citizenry at large and the police.

Unfortunately the Black Lives Matter demonstrators are doing their best to demonise the police which is to the detriment of all law-abiding citizens.

Just this weekend I watched some news clips of demonstrating crowds both in the USA and in England abusing and hounding down police who were isolated and almost defenceless.

Of course policing in the USA must be doubly difficult because of their crazy gun laws such that any officer confronting a perceived offender is potentially dealing with an armed person who might easily take their life.

Now Kermit might have philosophised that is “not easy being green” But let me tell you it is a lot harder “being blue”. Studies have shown that police have shorter life expectancy, higher divorce rates and elevated suicide rates compared with the general population.

I asked the question at the beginning of this essay about what is the appropriate role of police? And I suggested that the prime responsibilities were preserving life and property. And we can see that in many places (particularly in the face of anarchistic demonstrations) police resources are stretched.

So let me ask, in a modern democracy what role should police play in protecting citizens from potential self-harm? Should we, for example, burden police with the task of arresting people for the possession of recreational drugs? We then need to ask why are some recreational drugs (like alcohol) deemed acceptable, while others (like marijuana) deemed unacceptable. Smoking cigarettes has probably more deleterious health outcomes than smoking marijuana, yet nobody is arrested for being in possession of cigarettes (unless they are made from tobacco that hasn’t been levied with the appropriate excise duties).

In the United States, for example, the possession of drugs is the top reason why people are arrested and the possession of marijuana is the dominant cause of those arrests. Now I have never tried marijuana and I am not trying to advocate on behalf of marijuana consumption. My recreational drug of choice is alcohol. But I have never been challenged by police for having a bottle of Scotch or a couple of bottles of wine in my possession. I know full well that excessive consumption of alcohol is bad for my health, but I don’t want a nanny state imposing restrictions on my alcohol consumption. Yet if marijuana was my recreational drug of choice I am not allowed by the state to make such personal decisions. And can you imagine the undue amount of police resources dedicated to enforcing the restrictions on recreational drugs and how our society might benefit more if they were allocated to pursuing the real threats to life and property?

There is of course a deeper philosophical question to be addressed here. It would seem useful in protecting the citizens of the state if police, for example, waged war on the ingestion of “ice” which from all accounts predisposes users to anger and aggression which often results in the harm of other citizens. But the ingestion of marijuana seems (like alcohol) mainly to harm the user. Some who imbibe alcohol can be disposed to violence (particularly domestic violence) and those so disposed should be rightly constrained by the state from overindulging in alcohol because of their propensity to harm others. But in a liberal democracy we expect people to make personal choices and the state should not intervene where those choices only result in self-harm.

The controversial American Psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, always maintained that drug addiction was not a disease but a social habit. He criticised the war on drugs arguing that using drugs is a victimless crime. I believe we should be a little more circumspect than that because some drugs and some drug users impact adversely on other innocent victims. But we devote inordinate amounts of police efforts pursuing recreational drug users that have little propensity to harm others.

So what are we to make of all this? In a civil society we voluntarily yield to the state powers to curtail our individual freedoms for the greater good of our citizens. We need to be continually vigilant that the cost to our freedom is not greater than the benefit we receive to our safety. There have been instances during the coronavirus crisis when I think our freedoms have been unduly curtailed for little benefit. And there have been also instances (e.g. the BLM demonstrations) where some have been allowed to exercise freedoms to the detriment of society at large.

Secondly, effective policing to preserve life and property requires that not only should the public respect the police in performing their difficult duties but also the police need to reciprocate by treating the members of the public respectfully unless they are obviously a serious threat to the police or others.

Finally, policing is difficult enough without charging police to needlessly harass citizens who pose no threat to others or their property.


6 Replies to “Some Thoughts About Policing”

  1. Hi Ted,
    Later than your initial story, I had a similar situation at Tarong and was next door neighbour to the local police sergeant, who I still see occasionally in Brisbane. The police hierarchy must have learned something by then and periodically sent squads from afar to do traffic blitzes.
    I have a Senior police officer in my family, and he said it takes three fit police to subdue and arrest somebody on “ice”. Life is hard on our police with those statistics on their personal lives.
    The other current issue is statues. My initial reaction was doubtless similar to most people and saw it as an attack on history. However, there is some validity in the stance of the perpetrators, especially in the USA.
    My own knowledge of most of the statues in Brisbane is near zero even though I have seen them over many years. I think I can see a case to have a national statue collection in one museum location, arranged in historical order with explanatory displays.

  2. Yes, well, the story is true and became a personal illustration in my lectures to psychology students over the years on how the human psyche naturally reacts to the positive or negative nature of the nonverbal framework within which disciplinary consequence are administered.

    I have long held the view that most people will accept appropriate and fair consequences administered by the police in the service of maintaining interpersonal harmony in the societies they serve, so long as those consequences are administered in a way that does not infer it is a personal attack by the administrator of the law upon the law breaker. However, it has also become clear to me that, with respect to those who have reached an age where they are at least capable of self-evaluation [around age twelve when the sexual development hormones begin to hit in], that laws designed to prevent self-harm, in contrast with laws designed to prevent harm to others, will be strongly resisted. Such laws will not only be resented and resisted, but they will also be viewed, at least at the subconscious level of mind, as projecting a subliminal message that say’s “we [the lawmakers and law enforcers] don’t believe that you have enough intelligence or maturity to make sensible decisions relating to your own health and wellbeing, so we need to continue to play the role of protective parents.” Needless to say, perhaps, this message becomes self-fulfilling prophesy and hence we should not be at all surprised that so many young adults never seem to be able to grow up making sensible lifestyle decisions for themselves. Adults rarely learn from natural consequences of their dysfunctional personal behaviour if the ‘punishment’ involved from making such decisions is viewed as being administered by ‘another’ and not something one is doing to oneself. Human beings are much less prone to accept responsibility for their own self-harming behaviours when acting in resistant defiance of ‘others’ who attempt to stop them. Ownership of responsibility for preventing one’s self-harming behaviours [and if such behaviour is not self-harming, why attempt to prevent it] is always diminished when others view themselves, or are so viewed by the self-harmer, as being even more responsible for preventing self-harming behaviours.

    I was involved with Commissioner Ray Whitrod in setting up the psychology program for the Police Arts and Sciences College back in the 1970’s and spent considerable time in discussion with many of the senior police during that time. It became clear to me that, although willing to be faithful to the tasks required of them, they also saw the dangers of policing laws designed, not so much to prevent one citizen harming another citizen, but rather to prevent citizens acting immaturely through the use of recreational drugs—particularly marijuana. They were quite aware that this ‘parental’ role had few positive outcomes and a lot of negative consequences, not just for the image of the policing role, but also for the growth of criminal systems that would become increasingly powerful to defeat their efforts at parental control.

    It would seem that the lessons that should have been learnt as a consequence of the prohibition era in the US and the consequent rise of criminal gangs that grew up during that time, have never been fully learnt. The ‘war on drugs’ has been lost, and the consequences of that war has produced far more broken lives, ill-health and death, than an open and visible system that regulated and taxed the use of drugs [such as is done with alcohol and tobacco] could have ever done. People are not stupid, but the adult human will contains a natural aberrant tendency to resist laws aimed at treating them as if they are incapable of common sense. If only a fraction of the billions of dollars spent on enforcement of parental-type laws were to be spent on educate, educate, educate, and an expectation that most people are capable of self-regulation, if viewed as such and have adequate knowledge of the facts, the role of the police in maintaining laws aimed at ensuring interpersonal safety, rather than personal health, would be so much easier and far more respected.

  3. Thank you Ted, and lovely to hear your voices again Ron and Phil, hope you are well, I’m in Jindabyne at the minute!

    It’s too simplistic Ted to suggest that police (alone) have the job of protecting people and property – there are three levels, deliberately kept separate, that society uses to protect society’s people and property: these 3 are the parliament which makes the law, the judiciary which applies the law, and the police who apprehend (or “arrest” from the French “arrêt” meaning to stop, the circumflex indicating the elision of the consonant “s”). So the policeman’s job is to stop people who appear to be breaking the law, which explains why they don’t and can’t arrest you for being in possession of alcohol, and then the lawyers decide whether or not the alleged offender is in fact breaking the law that parliament has enacted, and if so what penalty should be applied. The law is made by the parliament to the wishes of the society it represents via the process of policy and democratic election. This is called the Westminster system. I thought everyone knew this Ted, we were taught this at school, yes?

    Love your work, great to hear from Ron and Phil too! Happy days together!

    Yours….. Jack

    1. Well Jack I am not sure that you are just being mischievous here. Of course the police are the to enforce the law. I am just not sure that the law is appropriate!

  4. You ought to take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the internet. I most certainly will recommend this blog! Violante Robinson Cristiona

Comments are closed.