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Role of Police

June 15, 2020

Calls for the defunding of police have been in the news lately.  Apparently, this does not mean disbanding the police, but just reducing their funding.  It’s more like reform than anything else.

I must tell you that I’ve had almost no contact with police, other than the occasional traffic ticket.  When I did interact with them, they have always been polite and respectful.  Still, when we talk of police reform, we should first consider the proper role of police in society.

One view is that legislative bodies create laws and police enforce these laws.  That idea seems reasonable, but is not quite accurate.  It’s the court system that enforces laws.  In particular, police should never administer punishment; that’s clearly up to the judicial system.  Police only do pickup and delivery, meaning that they arrest people and then turn them over to the court system.  Courts of law may convict people and may punish them.

Police should never obtain their own funding, because doing that always gives rise to a conflict of interest.  This means that money from traffic tickets, or from confiscated property should never go directly to the police.

Another view is that the police force is a service to the public; they do things that the public wants, but which the public won’t do itself.  For example, the public may want to control anti-social behavior.  Police can’t do things like that on their own initiative; there has to be a law first.

Of course, governments often bypass the court system, by mandating the police to collect fines, for example.  Collecting fines is not a proper role for police, either.

I hope that calls to reform police is not seen as an opportunity to ban police unions.  Under existing labour legislation, unions are able to negotiate on behalf of their members.  This right is especially needed when the employer is the government.  Unions have a proper role to advocate for their members.  Of course, it’s not proper for them to conceal or fabricate information; they must be truthful.

Finally, beware of management by budget.  That’s too simplistic.  Governments must work together with police leaders to determine which services to change and which to leave as they are.


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