Police Misconduct and Collective Responsibility

A natural response among police officers to the apparent murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin is defensiveness and to distance themselves from Chauvin’s actions. A friend shared this Facebook post from Yolanda Lewis, a police officer in Opelousas, LA:

Yes I am a Police Officer. But i need you all to stop putting me in the same boat as those other Police Officers. We are not all the same so stop comparing us all to those monsters. Trust and beleive there are Officers who lay down their life for others. I stand behind my badge and other great officers..I DO NOT STAND BEHIND THE MONSTERS!! I chose this career to protect others who cant protect them selves, I will go out my way to help who I can. I will give my last to someone because they may need it more than I do. No I will never stand by and allow another officer to do wrong… I WILL CHECK YOU ON SPOT IN FRONT OF WHOEVER..ALLOW ME TO SPEAK FOR MYSELF AND DONT JUDGE ME

Let us make three assumptions. First, most police officers, such as Officer Lewis, are respectful and competent professionals. Let’s also assume that there is a deviant minority of incompetent and disrespectful officers. Finally, let’s assume that the behavior of this deviant minority is the basis of a false public perception of police officers as a profession.

What interests me is the question, what are the responsibilities of non-deviant officers toward this deviant minority? Lewis asserts she should not be compared and put “in the same boat” as “those monsters” in the deviant minority. She wants us, as members of the public, to judge her based on her own actions and conduct as an officer. She emphasizes that she, as an officer with integrity, is not responsible for the conduct of officers who use excessive force and disrespect the public.

Obviously Officer Lewis is not causally responsible for the death of George Floyd, and she should not be held legally responsible either. Our beliefs about police as members of the public should also reflect the fact that most officers are (by assumption) respectful and competent professionals.

However, officers like Lewis also bear special responsibility for the failings of the deviant minority among their colleagues. They cannot wash their hands of people like Derek Chauvin so easily by pointing out that most officers are not like him and ask citizens to judge them only on the basis of their own actions.

There are two reasons for this. First, it is inconsistent with the point of a professional identity like “police officer” for members of the public to judge officers on their own merits. The point of a professional identity is that you’re in the same boat as your colleagues. We want people to know what to expect when they interact with the police regardless of who the particular individual is wearing the uniform. Professional identities work on the basis of collective responsibility for the behavior of all those identify among those in the profession.

Second, it is unfair to take advantage of the benefits of professional identity without shouldering the burdens as well. Most of the time, collective responsibility works out to the benefit of officers like Lewis. Lewis no doubt feels pride at the good work and sacrifices of police officers she’s never met. She also benefits from the public goodwill that esteem for these other officers creates. It is unfair, however, to align yourself with your colleagues when it benefits you but distance yourself from them when it does not. It is unfair to share responsibility for accomplishments but individualize responsibility for failure.

Imagine the following post in response to news that some officer had heroically sacrificed his life in the line of duty:

Yes I am a police officer. But you need to stop putting me in the same boat as these officers. We are not all the same, so don’t celebrate me as some kind of hero. Trust and believe that there are plenty of incompetent and cowardly officers who wouldn’t have died for those people. I’M NOT THE HERO WHO DIED!! And if you thank me for the sacrifices I’ve made, I will check you on the spot in front of whoever — I will speak only for what I’ve done, and don’t judge me by the heroism of others who wear this uniform.

Obviously no one would ever write this, and we wouldn’t want them to either. It would weaken trust in police and create uncertainty among readers. Rather than defensively separating themselves from their deviant colleagues, officers like Yolanda Lewis should take ownership for their colleagues’ bad behavior and do what they can to transform their organizations. This is not to say only police have this responsibility — voters and their elected representatives are also responsible for demanding reform and holding police departments accountable. But professionals have a special responsibility for policing the behavior of their colleagues.

Martin Gurri points to the importance of the decline of a conception of elite status as a responsibility in explaining the current wave of populist unrest in politics. The death of noblesse oblige and the relations of power and deference it represented was salutary. But it is worth reviving, in a less aristocratic register, a conception of elite status that emphasizes its social restrictions.

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.

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