Police, Protests, and Civilization

We need our police forces. Without the police, we could not have a civilized society. We depend on the police to protect our property, to protect our loved ones, and to protect our lives. The police are on the front line enforcing our laws. Whether the laws are designed to protect us from crimes against our persons or property, or whether the laws are designed to provide an orderly flow for society’s activities, civilization itself would not be possible without laws – and without our police to enforce these laws. Police provide a vital role in our infrastructure. Not everybody has the ability and the desire necessary to succeed as a police officer. It is the very nature of police work that these officers put their own lives on the line for us every day. People who choose to become police officers because they want to serve the public and public interests deserve our highest respect.

At the same time, we need the police to be held accountable for their actions. We give them powers that civilians do not possess; powers over civilians. The police are part of our infrastructure. They are there to serve us – they have no other purpose – and their service is vital to our society. But in order for them to serve us, they have to be held accountable. This comes with the territory whenever “we the people” give one group of people certain powers over us. It has been well known throughout the entire history of civilization that when individuals are given power over other individuals, some in power will succumb to the lure of power. When power, instead of service, becomes a motivator for police actions, then the system breaks down. This is true in any system of government, but it specifically runs counter to the basic structure of a system built on the principle that the people hold the ultimate power. We need to give certain powers to the police; at the same time, we need to have a system of checks and balances on that power. And the people need to have trust in that system of checks and balances.

The only side worth taking in this issue is supporting the side of a civilized society. This means supporting the police as an institution AND supporting an open and fair system of checks and balances. Civilization requires both parts of the equation. Thinking of the police as the enemy of the people is not a civilized approach. Making public comments as if the police are the enemy is not a civilized approach. At the same time, making public comments in opposition to holding individual police officers accountable for their actions is not a civilized approach. Public support for police officers who have abused their power is not a civilized approach. Public condemnation of those who wish to hold police officers accountable for their actions is not a civilized approach.

The system of checks and balances also needs accountability. Laws need to be fair and designed for the benefit of the people. When people believe that the system is not working for them, they have a constitutional right to protest. Their complaints need to be taken seriously instead of routinely ignored or condemned. When complaints about the failings of the system of checks and balances go unheeded, the system cannot be improved. The system will only work when injustice is taken seriously. Historical injustices which time after time victimize a group of people will inevitably erupt into an ugly public scene. Ignoring these injustices will not defuse the situation. Changing the focus away from historical injustice in order to focus on placing blame on the reactions of the victims of historical injustice will not defuse the situation. At the same time, laws against violent protests must be upheld, lest civilization breaks down. Peaceful protests must never be restricted. Violence in the name of protest must be dealt with according to the law.

Civilization depends on it.

This essay originally published at on January 4, 2015

Jerry Wyant