America’s Police Prepared for the Wrong Enemy

Militarized U.S. police forces need to go back to serving communities first.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's SWAT team
Los Angeles County Sheriff's SWAT team members standing on an armored car in Los Angeles on June 25, 2013. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Last weekend, the New York Police Department’s Transit Bureau Chief Edward Delatorre tweeted, “Some people may disagree – but transporting ziplock bags of marijuana & a digital scale in your backpack does not make you an essential traveler in the eyes of the Transit police. Hopping a turnstile while doing so didn’t help either. Nice grab by our District 1 team!” The text was accompanied by an image of four plainclothes officers, their identities clear despite their medical face masks, doing their best imitation of a 1980s rock album cover pose.

This lack of accountability and tone-deaf messaging from police departments is a serious problem for the public—but it’s also a disaster for cops themselves. I spent eight years in federal law enforcement with the U.S. Coast Guard and another five years as a cybersecurity intelligence analyst for the NYPD. In all that time, I watched police messaging paired with egregious conduct erode the public support we so desperately needed.

Delatorre’s tweet was par for the awful course I witnessed my entire career—an instant public relations disaster. The majority of New Yorkers, like the vast majority of Americans, favor legalizing marijuana, and they reacted with fury that the NYPD was harassing nonviolent offenders in the middle of the worst health crisis in the city’s history. It was yet another failure by a department that, thanks to such incidents as an officer punching a man in the face for violating social distancing and leadership letting problem cops off with a slap on the wrist, has come to symbolize some of the worst of U.S. policing. Amid a cataclysmic failure by the state to protect its citizens’ health during the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has doubled down on authoritarianism and a siege mentality, with cops demanding greater levels of impunity even as they fail to deliver on the basic promise of the social contract Americans make with police—that officers will keep them safe and do them no harm.

In a time where police-public rapport has sunk to unacceptable lows and when police face a new set of challenges as they attempt to negotiate the enforcement of legally uncertain and sometimes unpopular lockdowns, U.S. law enforcement can find both a warning and a way forward from a source that’s both foundational, and, in the context of today’s American policing, surprising: the nine Peelian principles of policing by consent, established by Robert Peel in 1829 when he founded the London Metropolitan Police, the world’s first modern police force.

Peel’s initial conception for the role of police was primarily a reaction to widespread public distrust of the establishment of a professional police force and was aimed largely at mollifying public concerns and ensuring that people would both accept and cooperate with the new professionals he was proposing to place among them. It is a concept that is intensely relevant today in a country where the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and many more have gone unpunished. Much of the public no longer accepts or cooperates with the American police—and for good reason.

Peel’s grounding principle was that policing was done “by consent,” by which he recognized how intensely outnumbered police forces were in any given community. New York City’s own police force bears stark witness to this—36,000 uniformed officers, no matter how well armed or trained, simply cannot police the city’s more than 8 million residents if they do not consent to being policed. Peel rightly recognized that in addition to being grossly outnumbered, police forces would need to rely on the cooperation of the communities where they work, leaning on citizens as their eyes and ears—not only maintaining community standards that help prevent crime but also acting as sources of intelligence to alert police when crimes occur. Mao Zedong’s 1937 argument, summarized as that “the guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea” applies to criminals, too. Fish cannot live in waters that do not accept them and that cry out to fishermen whenever they are seen.

Peelian principles form the heart of the American community policing movement, which began with the Johnson administration’s efforts in the 1960s and is still an important component of policing doctrine today. But in 2020, the idea appears increasingly theoretical. The fundamentals of community policing have their roots in 1960s efforts to restore fractured relations between police and minority communities. But they are directly at odds with the post-9/11 hyperpowered American police culture, which expects all the reverence, latitude, and equipment of its military counterparts with none of the fitness standards or accountability to civilian power.

The Johnson administration’s efforts to seat police firmly within their communities (and in minority populations especially) were radically unwound when an American public, mad with terror after watching the twin towers collapse, agreed to grant police unprecedented powers, culminating in the Patriot Act’s gutting of the Fourth Amendment and setting the stage for the transfer of military equipment into civilian police arsenals

In post-9/11 panic, Americans ordained a sweeping redefinition of police culture, inculcating an attitude best iconized by the symbol sported by police officers across the country: the “thin blue line,” a narrow strip of blue most often shown threading its way across a sea of—not coincidentally—black. While this mentality certainly predated 9/11, the terrorist attacks and the subsequent latitude afforded police made it predominant. It’s the mentality of a force that views itself as under siege—elite warriors, long-suffering under tough conditions and inadequate pay, selflessly risking their lives day in and day out to hold back the tide of crime that would otherwise engulf the country. St. Louis police officers, their reputation in tatters after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent lack of punishment for the officer who killed him, used the thin blue line symbolism as part of a campaign to push back on an investigation into racism and police conduct in the department.

This attitude, endemic in policing, is the complete and polar opposite of everything Peel envisioned. In my own years doing patrol law enforcement with the Coast Guard and defending against cybersecurity threats for the NYPD, I saw this culture firsthand. I heard it when patrols were told repeatedly that their first priority was to “make sure everyone comes home alive,” a benign enough sentiment until you consider that it prioritizes the safety of police officers over and above the people they are sworn to protect. The other common axiom is “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.” These sentiments are hard to swallow to begin with but become surreal when one considers that as of last year policing didn’t even make it into the top 10 most dangerous jobs in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even more troubling was that I heard both quotes repeated verbatim when I trained to deploy to Iraq in the early 2000s. It was abundantly clear that the mentality of counterterrorism operatives and warfighters deploying to a war zone had successfully made the leap to police forces on patrol in entirely peaceful civilian communities in the United States.

But in addition to Peel’s principles giving police a road map to restoring relationships with the public that will make their jobs easier and more successful, they also provide a stark warning: Consent, once given, may also be revoked. If Peel’s words are the carrot, then Mao’s statement is the stick: When the sea of the people despises the police enough, they become hospitable to the criminals they would otherwise turn in. Police officers do not want to be patrolling a public that does not accept their authority, that will not cooperate, that is inimically hostile.

When consent is withdrawn, the job becomes worse than impossible—it becomes dangerous. Even with the military hardware U.S. police have amassed, they are so grossly outnumbered by the public that real and systemic hostility to police will absolutely begin to jeopardize officer safety.

This is why we should all be concerned about Delatorre’s tweet. Not because it is so egregious in and of itself, but because of how it symbolizes the tone-deaf disconnect between police and the public they supposedly serve.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s was only fired five years after he killed Eric Garner. Despite being clearly too little and much, much too late, the firing triggered an explosion of petulant outcry from the NYPD’s rank and file, including a thinly veiled threat from Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch. Lynch later presided over a vote of no confidence in both the mayor and the NYPD’s police commissioner and demanded they resign, largely over what he called the “unjust” firing of Pantaleo. The following month brought a viral video that showed NYPD officers joking about the death throes of a suspect they’d just shot dead. “That’s one less asshole to sue us,” one of the officers said.

With each of these reports, the public’s consent to be policed is eroded, and Mao’s warning echoes a little louder.

In the grip of the new pandemic reality, the police suddenly find they are not the besieged warfighters they’ve portrayed themselves as, but public health professionals tasked with enforcing a range of new provisions—social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, and, most important of all, tackling a climate of fear and unease. More than ever, the police need public rapport to ensure critical measures are followed even when enforcement patrols aren’t there to oversee them.

If public outcry isn’t enough to make cops care, then perhaps self-interest might. Police officers, more than anyone, should be concerned about how their representatives mishandle their message—their ability to do their jobs not only effectively, but also safely, may depend on a public finally seeing the police who serve them as actually being on their side.

Myke Cole was a cyber threat intelligence analyst with the NYPD, and commanded the Reserve at US Coast Guard Station New York. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and the New Republic. His history book The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy will be out in February.