Georgia recently repealed its citizen’s arrest statute in response to the death of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. Arbery was reportedly jogging in his neighborhood when confronted by two armed men who are said to have suspected Arbery had been involved in break-ins in the area. The two men shot Arbery during a confrontation and later claimed that they were using self-defense while making a citizen’s arrest. Gregory McMichael and his son Travis are charged with Arbery’s murder as well as federal charges. McMichael is a retired police officer.
In the political fallout from the George Floyd death, the Arbery killing was bundled up in the racism debate. Distressed by the civil war era misuse of citizen’s arrest which alleges that Blacks were targeted for harassment and prosecution, Georgia removed the law preserving only the right of self-defense and of merchants to detain suspected shoplifters.
It is ironic that this effort to remove the ability of the citizenry to have a mutual civic-minded sense of responsibility for law and order comes at a time when the formal establishment of local police forces is also being challenged. The irony is that when citizens are told that only official government agents have law and order responsibilities, it increases the separation of the ordinary citizen and its police officers.
A foundational influence on modern American policing is the set of principles articulated by Sir Robert Peel. Peel was Home Secretary and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the 1800s. One of his most notable achievements was responding to an increasing crime problem on the streets of London by establishing a uniform police force. The London Metropolitan Police, known around the world as “Bobbies” became a model for the fledgling municipal police forces being established in the U.S., especially after the Civil War.
Peel undergirded his police force with a set of ideals known as the Peelian Principles, still taught in virtually every police academy and college criminal justice program. These nine principles listed here are still a vital part of law enforcement philosophy in America today:
- To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
- To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions, and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
- To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
- To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
- To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
- To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
- To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
- To recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
- To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
Most relevant to this discussion is the statement within principle #7: ” the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” When society abandons its responsibility to be an integral preserver of peace and order, then government bears the responsibility alone. When this vital mutual interest yields to only professional government agents, something very vital is lost to the culture and the ideals of freedom and civic duty.
It is right to fear vigilantism that can lead to injustice, but it is dangerous to tell our neighbors they have no rights and responsibilities for our mutual safety.