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LEOs are Civilians

September 23, 2015

I’ve seen a number of online discussions calling for the establishment of “civilian oversight” of law enforcement. The idea is patently absurd. The reason? Except for military units tasked with enforcing military law, the USCG and those occasions when the Posse Comitatus Act does not apply, all law enforcement in the US is already civilian and is, by definition, already under civilian oversight. I understand what people are calling for, of course. They want greater oversight, often by an independent group of citizens, unaffiliated with law enforcement or political offices. Then call it such. LEOs are civilians, already.

I know there are people who will disagree. They’ll point to things like the definition from Merrian-Webster, that defines a civilian as one who isn’t a member of the military or of a police or firefighting source. “See,” they’ll say, “police are not civilians.” Yes, I see. I see, also, that LEOs are still civilians. In spite of the current trend among LEOs to distinguish themselves from civilians, the reality is, that is what they are. Consider the “Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act” of 1981. It makes a clear distinction between the military and civilian law enforcement. It wasn’t referring to the people working in law enforcement who aren’t sworn officers! Rather, it recognizes the fact that “civilian” refers to everyone who is not currently serving in the military. I’m a retired Navy officer. Before that, I was enlisted in the USCG, where I routinely functioned as an LEO. Regardless, since I no longer do either one, I am a civilian. Had I left the military and entered law enforcement outside the military, I would still have been a civilian. If you are an LEO, outside of the military, you too are a civilian.

I like the site policeone.com. I go there frequently because there’s often good information to be had. Still, I find the confusion regarding the difference between civilian and non-civilian is prevalent there. A search with the single term “civilian” returned 9730 results. While I didn’t read every one of the them, the vast majority made a distinction between civilians and LEOs. This, I submit, is unfortunate and contributes to the increasing “us vs them” attitude far too often encountered among law enforcement. We already see that in the military. Military life, and the military experience, tends to be dramatically different from that of civilian life. A life in law enforcement, and the experience of being an LEO, is likewise far outside the experience of most non-LEOs. Here’s the difference: Aside from training, the military most often does the things it is constantly training to do outside US borders. The US military is amazingly professional, both in terms of training and the actions of its members in war. When incidents that should not occur do happen, and sadly they sometimes do, though rarely, they tend to happen elsewhere. When a military member makes the decision to bring harm to another citizen, he or she is hard-pressed to disguise it as something done and consistent with the performance of his or her duties. Thus, the distinction between civilian and military, at least within the borders of this country, typically doesn’t lead to feelings of oppression on the part of civilians.

Civilian law enforcement, I submit, is different. There have been enough factual cases of LEOs abusing their power to suggest the “us vs them” attitude is pretty common in some areas. This is not made better, in fact I suggest it’s worsened, by law enforcement organizations viewing themselves as something other than civilians. It places another wall, another layer of difference if you will, between them and other citizens. Once I’m sufficiently removed from others, abusing the power I have becomes pretty easy. This distinction, this “us vs them” that is reinforced by pretending LEOs aren’t civilians, is detrimental to the principles necessary to an ethical police force associated with Sir Robert Peel. Those principles are (italics are mine)

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

I don’t see any of these being well served by suggesting LEOs are not civilians, do you?

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