- Historic Sites
The Policeman’s Lot
Benevolent father figure? Bloody-handed Cossack? Slow-witted flatfoot? Irish grafter? Brave but underpaid public servant? Check your prejudice against this inquiry into police history
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
One thing is obvious from a historical look at the police and their problems: there are no panaceas. The 1967 presidential task force report makes that clear. On the encouraging side, however, the report did point out the progress that Americans have made since the first uniformless policemen emerged from the city watch a hundred and twenty-five years ago. Most police departments have been taken out of the control of party machines, and police brutality has significantly declined. The development of confidential squads, which make constant internal investigations of police departments; the more recent growth of tactical squads, composed of police with special training in riot control; the use of computers to identify high-crime areas —these are further examples of unsensational but steady progress toward the professionalization of our police. Contrary to extremist reports in some magazines and newspapers, most Americans (67 per cent) think the police are doing a good-to-excellent job of enforcing the laws, and 77 per cent think they are at least giving “pretty good” protection to people in their neighborhood. This is a far higher rating than the citizens of New York and other cities would have given their police forces in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
When we look back at the problems with which the police have had to cope in our turbulent history, perhaps it is better to marvel at what they have accomplished, rather than to deplore their failures. Certainly now is not the time to despair, much less to yield to brainless formulas that promise instant results.
More and more men who are leading today’s police are ready and eager to grasp the new insights as well as the new techniques needed to produce truly professional policemen—men who are neither club-swinging shock troops nor disorganized, undisciplined civilians but genuine guardians of the basic values of a democratic society. Few policemen have enunciated the ideal better than Daniel S. C. Liu, who recently retired as chief of police in racially mixed Honolulu: The primary objective of law enforcement is to give substance to those guarantees which promise every person his right to pursue his lawful business and pleasure in an orderly and tranquil society. The lawful exercise of the police power accomplishes this by respecting the dignity of the individual and embracing the concept of human equality under law.