Don’t Burn Down the House

Don’t Burn Down the House

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

In struggling to find a template for understanding police reform movements, a recent renovation project reminded me of the complexity of a home. The strength of a house is based on the soil on which the foundation is laid, the integrity of the foundation itself, then every component that follows. Over time a house must be regularly inspected, maintained, and improved. The same is true for American policing.

External storms can damage the house. Age can cause plumbing to fail, and increased demand can cause the lights to dim and flicker. Heavy use can stress floors and wear out carpets. The décor begins to look shabby and outdated. We may be inspired to renovate, and we may find it necessary to repair. But no one burns the house down.

If, in our little parable here, American policing is the house, let’s talk about our renovation project. Its foundation is built on the soil of freedom and natural rights. The Constitution is the firm earth of the building, fertilized by patriot blood. Our Founders struggled with the ideal of the Minute Man citizen soldier over against a permanent, professional army. They desired that men would take arms for a season in defense of their own property and freedom, exercise their duties for a season, then return to their home and family. Although reality required a sustained military force in order to win the War of Independence, the ethos of citizens’ responsibility for the safety of their community was in the soil.

Community-minded guardianship is part of our English heritage. Villages grouped into ten families called a tithing. Ten tithings were a reeve. An official of the King was in charge of peace (and tax collecting). He was a shire of the reeve, from which we get the term Sheriff. The real peacekeepers were citizens who took turns standing watch by day and by night. And, just in our days of the wild west, a posse would be recruited for added manpower. If an intruder or troublemaker came into the village, the watchman would put up a hue and cry at which all able-bodied men were to rise up and help the watchman apprehend the violator. The laws of arrest and use of force arose from these situations where citizens put their safety at risk to make an apprehension.

Besides the little history lesson, the point is that as we grew as a nation, our roots were in the expectation of public service for all able-bodied citizens. Some citizens decided to do their part by hiring another to take their place on the watch. Eventually, some citizens decided to devote themselves to taking that those payments from several community members to make being a watchman their full-time jobs. This evolved into tax funded watchmen and, eventually, police agencies.

Early American law enforcement gave little thought to uniforms, still bitter about the Redcoats boldly tramping around their cities. After the Civil War, when uniforms became ubiquitous and meaningful, police officers began wearing uniforms in cities where formal police departments were being established. Modern transportation and communication moved those officers from foot patrol to vehicles, patrolling and moving from call to call with little time for the conversation and interactions of former times. Recovering those relationships is the essence of Community Policing we hear about.

The merit of locally controlled police agencies, rather than a national police force or policing as a branch of the military is embedded in our history. Citizens who engage in actions that maintain safety in their communities and partner with law enforcement are the most powerful influence in maintaining the strength, integrity, and accountability necessary to quality policing.

As with any house, to return to our parable, a burst pipe or leaky roof can create a lot of damage that needs to be repaired. Some recent high profile events have done a lot of damage to law enforcement. If there was shoddy construction along the way or some weak elements that need to be replaced, that is for a wise steward of the house to manage and correct. American law enforcement, imperfect as it is and sometimes built with tainted material, is fundamentally sound. Its foundation is firm. We all need to work to keep it in good condition.