On the Nature of Police

Photo by G20 Voice | CC BY 2.0

Photo by G20 Voice | CC BY 2.0


Years ago, in an attempt to ascertain the class’s general views of the “problem of law enforcement” (reflected in police brutality, racism, sexism, “Gestapo tactics,” et al), a philosophy professor posed a wildly hypothetical but provocative question.

She asked the class to consider what the result would be if the municipal police force of a major city were replaced en masse by (1) geniuses, or (2) rich people, or (3) citizens whose names were randomly chosen from a list of registered voters.

Taken in order, we considered each group.

First, the “geniuses.” Working off the premise that the majority of students, faculty and alumni of MIT and Cal Tech would score 140 (the standard “genius” level) on a Stanford-Binet IQ test, what would the result be if all of these cerebral people became uniformed police officers? Would this sudden infusion of brain power make any difference, and would that difference be an “improvement”?

Not only did most of the students believe there would be no improvement whatever, many suggested there would be an actual “decline” in performance, as these brainy men and women would be too afraid (or consider themselves too “superior”) to do things like enter an area where gunshots were heard, or answer a call reporting domestic violence, or investigate a burglar alarm. Too smart and too snobbish.

On the other hand, if these MIT and Cal Tech people were to become detectives instead of uniformed patrolmen, it would be a different story. The class generally agreed that they’d be more successful at solving crimes and interpreting evidence and clues than the detectives we presently have.

Granted, other than what we’d gleaned from watching TV cop shows, none of us knew the first thing about actual detective work—what it entailed, how it proceeded, what the parameters were. All we were basing our conclusions on was our respect and general admiration for “intellectuals.”

Next, “rich people.” Our class overwhelmingly rejected the premise that the more you pay, the higher caliber employee you attract. We saw nothing but flaws in this hypothesis. For one thing, all you would do by raising the pay is attract greedy, hyper-ambitious money-grubbers. Also, does anyone honestly believe that a parish priest or elementary school teacher would “try harder” if they were paid more?

Also, consider this: What if you doubled or tripled the pay of the cops you already had on the payroll? Would all of these public servants automatically become better police officers? (“Oh, my God. Now that I’m making $280,000 a year, I’ll finally to be able to show the world what a spectacular a job I can do.”)

And next, the “random” citizen. This was the trickiest hypothesis because it was the least “focused.” Imagine if you woke up one morning and found out that, after completing a few weeks training, you were going to be given a badge and a gun, and assigned to duty as a police officer—in much the same way a person is assigned to jury duty.

Surprisingly, most of the class believed that “firing” an existing police force, getting rid of all the cops and replacing them with “regular” citizens—men and women chosen at random—would be an improvement. The belief was that what was lost in experience and savvy would be offset by a gain in empathy (maybe even compassion), optimism, and open-mindedness.

In short, the class felt that having a group of reluctant citizens charged with the enormous responsibility that came with being a cop was preferable to having a police force composed of men who aggressively coveted that responsibility—men who wanted more than anything to be given a badge and a gun, and be placed in a position of authority.

Food for thought.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com