The 9 Principles of Good Policing

The foundations of a civilized law-enforcement agency—and a veteran LAPD officer whose attitudes are at odds with them
Tony Webster/Flickr

The Washington Post op-ed, "I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me," captures an attitude toward policing that is common among U.S. law enforcement. Author Sunil Dutta, a 17-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, alludes to the many occasions he deescalated dangerous situations without using force, and granted that there are misbehaving police officers out there. He also wrote, "If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?" (He doesn't seem to realize that some innocent civilians are stopped by police regularly.)

He adds, "Feel free to sue the police! Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop," as if the typical American wrongly harassed by police officers can simply go home afterward, contact the attorney they have on retainer, and win vindication in court. The other bit of ostensibly practical advice that he gives: "If you believe (or know) that the cop stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment. Worse, initiating a physical confrontation is a sure recipe for getting hurt. Police are legally permitted to use deadly force when they assess a serious threat to their or someone else’s life. Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you." While it's true that escalating a confrontation with an abusive police officer can get one killed, there are times when submitting—whether to a Kelly Thomas-style beating or a choke hold cutting off one's breathing—results in the death of an arrestee. 

What Dutta's op-ed illustrates most clearly is how far some American police officers have drifted from a seminal document in policing theory that has been cited by numerous observers of militarized law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri. These 9 principles of policing were formulated in 1829 by leaders of London's Metropolitan Police Department. How many, would you say, are adhered to in your community?

The 9 principles of policing are:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely 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 humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation 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.

  7. 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.

  8. To recognise 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.

  9. To recognise 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.

Interestingly, William J. Bratton, who was police chief in Los Angeles for at least part of Dutta's tenure, espoused these same principles. To read a lawman's reaction to Ferguson, Missouri, that better accords with them, see Max Geron's observations. "Their strategy for policing protest, if they had a formal one, seems to indicate a lack of understanding of the effect that a strong show of militarized force can have on a community that believes they have been disenfranchised by their police department," he writes. "For American police, retention of the 'servant' mindset is more critical than that of the 'warrior' mindset." There are police officers who agree and others who disagree. The relative influence of those factions will have tremendous consequences for American society in years to come.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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