Let’s examine claims regarding institutional police oppression against black Americans. Many conservative commentators seem to think that, after civil rights legislation in the 1960s, racism suddenly vanished in America. However, this logic flies in the face of conservatives’ emphasis on the importance of tradition and history when considering policy in other areas. Why is it that conservatives invoke history and tradition when attacking gay marriage yet it suddenly slips their mind when considering race in America? We attack profligate federal spending for its effects on future generations yet we fail to see the effects of segregated schools and Bull Connor’s hoses on our own perceptions of police action. Western Civilization courses are rightly praised within conservative circles because of Europe’s impact on contemporary society yet we too often neglect to acknowledge the impact of the darker side of our story. Conservatives must recognize the influence of traditions of systematic racial problems in America’s policing tactics and a failure to do so is a rejection of the intergenerational guidance we employ in other areas.
Like most conservatives, I share a thirst for law and order in society. The rule of law is essential for protecting individual liberties and unleashing the power of free markets and American innovation. However, our unwavering commitment to law and order should not get in the way of reassessing how we get there. There are multiple policy options for obtaining law and order and recent events in Ferguson make it clear that excessive police force hampers our pursuit of the rule of law. Stability will be unattainable as long as entire communities of citizens ostensibly protected by the rule of law view this protection as a farce due to the belief that police engage in profiling, brutality, and a blatant disregard for history.
There can be neither law nor order in the absence of universally accepted justice.
Conservatives often cite a false dichotomy between police reforms designed to work with minority communities and policies that appear to be tough on crime. In reality, these two goals overlap. Communities that feel respected by law enforcement officers are more likely to follow the law, not work against it. Human nature places a premium on feelings of value and self-worth. Jurisdictions that recognize this are likely to reduce police-citizen hostility and potentially diminish crime. Unfortunately, the Ferguson police department has failed to recognize this fundamental truth about human nature.
There are concrete steps conservatives should support that will force police to engage with the communities they police. Wear body cameras. Stop purchasing and using military equipment (which is provided by the federal government). Require transparent reporting of police shooting. Interact with community leaders to learn social norms. Increase racial and gender diversity within law enforcement agencies. Legislate more restrictive deadly force laws. These reforms limit government power and we should embrace them for the same reasons we mistrust government power in general: governments abuse their power and demolish individual liberty when unchecked.
These reforms satisfy other conservative principles as well. For example, federalism, as conservatives understand it, is essential in part because of the belief that local governments have more knowledge of local norms and can govern more effectively because of this greater insight. A belief that “What works in Georgia may not work in California” is predicated on an assumption that different states have diverse needs that can be better met with tailored local policies. How is policing designed to reflect community needs while upholding the law much different? Both rely on the fact that there are advantages to be gained from policies that work with local cultures. Police should embrace their local communities to customize their tactics. As described earlier, conservatives believe community norms and history offer key insights that cannot be easily discounted. Let’s apply this insight to policing.
Each instance of police deadly force should be analyzed on its merits. Nevertheless, it is time for conservatives to pay attention to the past and demand policing reform to combat serious issues within America’s police. Not in spite of conservative principles, but because of them.