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The Golden Rule for Policing

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

I solved (well, mostly solved) the problem of police officer’s excessive use of force and power after rewatching an episode of Law and Order, specifically, the episode where Detective Green leaves the series to make Rent (the movie). After finding out that Detective Green had shot someone, Lieutenant Van Buren lays down the law to the Internal Affairs detectives, telling them point blank, “Detective Green isn’t talking to you until he has had a chance to consult his union lawyer.”

Wait, what?

See, Detective Green, in dozens of episodes, gets (tricks?) suspects into talking to him without a lawyer, or dissuades those few who do know their rights, saying things like, “You really want to get them involved?” “We can help you out if you don’t have a lawyer.” Lieutenant Van Buren often helped him, or begrudgingly relents when the suspect lawyers up in the interrogation room.

So what gives? Well, the police know that consulting with a lawyer makes it less likely that suspects will confess to something they did (or, in many cases, didn’t do). What struck me about the scene was that Lieutenant Van Buren treats the citizens of New York differently than she treats her own police officers.

It led me to a simple theory that I think would solve police shootings:

Police officers need to follow the Golden Rule.

That’s it. A huge amount of law enforcement wrongs violate this central tenet that runs through Christianity, Buddhism and countless other religions and philosophies. But the golden rule could still lend itself to interpretation. So let’s be clear on what the “Golden Rule for Policing” would mean:

Police officers must treat citizens as they would want themselves and fellow police officers to be treated.

This would have two major effects:

First, police would treat citizens better.

Think of the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago. From the first moment of the shooting, the police officers did everything they could to keep their fellow officers from going to jail and keep the shooting a secret. Compare that to how quickly police release mug shots for suspects for any other type of shooting or leak the suspect’s name to the media.

Instead we could craft policies and recraft our criminal justice system to take advantage of the Golden Rule. In short, the way police officers handle a police shooting is how every criminal prosecution should happen in America. A careful analysis of facts, caution in drawing conclusions, the overriding concern for the rights of the accused, the kid gloves treatment of suspects including ensuring they have legal representation and the chance to consult an attorney before they make a statement; these are the way police officers want to be treated in a criminal investigation.

In a way this is saying, “Hey, police officers, if you give your own brethren every benefit of the doubt, then you need to do the same for the citizens you serve.”

So police departments would ensure that every citizen gets the same treatment that any police officer suspected of a crime gets. That means lawyers would have to be present at every interview. No coerced interrogations. An impartial presentation of evidence to grand juries. Every suspect would get bail. The risk is fewer criminal prosecutions, but that is a risk that police officers willingly accept with their brethren on the force, so it is a risk all society should take with civilians.

Second, police would treat themselves harsher.

Ever been in a car with a police officer who gets pulled over for speeding? You know what they do? They pull out their badge. Most of the time, the cop who pulled them over will give them a pass. If they don’t, they think the cop who gave a speeding ticket to a fellow officer is a jerk. Compare that with the higher rate at which African-Americans get pulled over, stopped, searched, frisked and, in general, treated as a piggy bank by far too many communities.

Under a “Golden Rule for Policing”, officers would take much tougher stands against police misconduct. And there are much more serious issues than speeding.

Like domestic violence, which is much higher in police families than the civilian population. If the woman being abused isn’t related to a police officer, the abuser will most certainly spending the night in jail. And will probably face charges. If the suspected abuser is a police officer? Then likely nothing will happen. Police officers tend to give fellow officers the complete benefit of the doubt and don’t investigate allegations. It allows the issue to fester.

But it goes further than just domestic violence. Police officers have lied on witness statements in police shootings to protect fellow officers or themselves. Or when the official narrative is immediately overturned by camera footage, as Eric C wrote about recently. Under the “Golden Rule of Policing”, those actions are the worst betrayals of the badge.

My solution is, on its face, unrealistic. Or just very, very difficult to implement. Or too vague. But often when organizations have lost their way, focusing on their core values can be the solution. If police officers made this tenet their touchstone--as opposed to fierce loyalty to the badge--they could drastically improve the lives of all citizens in America.

A final note: this post should be a warning to every Christian police officer in America. Most police officers I would wager are conservative and religious. The Golden Rule absolutely applies to every action they take as police officers. The fact that some police officers treat citizens differently than their fellow citizens flies in the face of Jesus’ overriding maxim. Especially in a religious tradition that is based on the Golden Rule. It is literally one of two rules that Jesus said would replace all others. I hope more police officers take this to heart, especially when it comes to their fellow officers and citizens of this country.