Policing in the U.S.: Learning from the past

When it comes to policing in America, we must first be able to comprehend the past in order to understand the present and work toward a better future.

That was the message of Thomas Blomberg, dean of FSU’s College of Criminology, at Thursday’s kick-off of the “Policing in the U.S.” brown-bag series hosted by the Center for Leadership & Social Change. Blomberg led the first installment of the series, “The Crucible: The Difficulty of Getting it Right,” alongside Quincy Police Chief Glenn Sapp Sr. and FSU student Josh Baerwald.

Blomberg gave the audience a historical overview of policing in America. He described a system of “self-policing” from 1600-1790 in which members of a smaller, close-knit community would volunteer to help keep the peace. In colonial times, people would use the Bible as guidance to deal with wrongdoings.

Between 1790 and 1840, however, the country was going rapid changes. Determinism was replaced with Enlightenment thinking and notions of free will. Sir Robert Peel was responsible for the creation of the Metropolitan Police in London, and America borrowed his new idea of a full-time police department, but not without a few key changes.

First of all, London officers were required to live in the communities they are charged with policing. Second, they were not permitted to carry guns. Peel made this choice because he did not want civilians viewing the police as an “army of occupation.”

These requirements do not exist in America, although there are other regulations police must follow when enforcing the law.

“The police have a more complicated job today than at any other period in their history,” Blomberg told the group.

Maintaining order under the rule of law, he said, is much harder than maintaining order without it. Some instances of police violence and brutality have, in fact, begun as attempts to maintain order.

Blomberg went on to say that demonstrations of mass civil disobedience have seen violence and brutality by some police, making it clear that some officers and institutions have greatly strayed from their original goals of keeping the peace.

As he concluded his speech, Blomberg left the audience with a quote from Philip Selznick: “We need to weigh consequences and be guided by principles of responsibility to both the dignity of the individual and the wellbeing of the community in a sea of often contradictory principles and unfortunately imperfect evidence.”

During the discussion segment of the session, one audience member wanted to know how we might be able to alter police training to get past any sort of implicit bias.

“Education is key,” Chief Sapp offered, recognizing the importance of training reforms. “I think there are going to be some trailblazers in this room.”

Blomberg added that the composition of police should represent the composition of the community being policed.

“You might hate what [the police] represent, but remember: we’re human,” Sapp told the room. “We earn these badges everyday.”

The goal of the series is to take in views from all sides in order to create effective change. Thursday’s session provided context for the series as a whole, setting up an environment of balanced thinking and productive discussion.

The next two installments of series will further delve into these ideas, with focus on police training and activity on March 2 and interactions between police and civilians on March 23.

– Charlie Andelman