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Guardians of Public Safety Include Civil and Civic Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Don Mason and Tracy Rickman 
January 12, 2022

Entering 2022 with new hopes, the nation is still struggling to transition from past law enforcement practices to newly envisioned practices that focus on the need to reform policing, as criminal activity and violent crime continue to rise. A new approach to creating secure communities will require a resolution of safety on a national level.

Reformative laws in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the conviction of Derek Chauvin, have stopped many practices on the use of force that led to the injury or deaths of civilians in police custody. New laws prohibit law enforcement agencies from authorizing chokeholds or carotid restraints in California. In a survey by the Washington Post, at least 32 of the nation’s 65 largest police departments have banned or strengthened restrictions on the use of neck restraints since George Floyd’s death. These agencies serve approximately 64 million people, nearly 20 percent of the country’s population. Many of the laws across the nation also resulted in law enforcement officers curbing their patrol routines to stay out of the harsh public scrutiny of armchair legalists and constitutionalists. In our Federalism style of government, the need to confront illegal activities—at the local, state and federal levels—must be examined and laws amended.

Some district attorneys led reformative justice efforts declaring that low-level crimes would not be prosecuted. Lauded as progressive, the inevitable outcome of a rise in crime came to fruition, as law enforcement leaders reported abuse of the no prosecution policy. As expected, criminals boldly transitioned into new activities like the “smash and grab” thefts taking place in stores, where people blatantly committed acts of thievery while being recorded on the smartphones of onlookers.

Such acts, considered just below the threshold of what’s deemed “criminal”, were either committed under enlightened visions of equity in justice, or were working under an umbrella of perceived populist protection. The practice of no cash bail, designed to reduce mass incarceration and disproportionately imposed bonds on the poor and people of color, may have incentivized crime. While law enforcement was criticized for not being tough enough on crime, they were also being condemned for being too harsh when enforcing the law. It is easier to criticize law enforcement; however, it takes more effort to solve social issues that include law enforcement.

The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be endemic as continued surveillance practices start to fall under the watchful eyes of privacy groups around the world. Like income tax, government surveillance on a scale not seen before COVID-19 is as endemic as the virus. The data collected concerning COVID-19 reveals a disturbing practice of social media platforms surpassing their intended social utility to becoming an engineered fait accompli in removing the autonomy of decision-making across the world. The “keyboard” doctors, lawyers, and political strategists on social media increase their credibility with every “like” and “follow”.

In and outside of government, public leaders need to address these issues from the larger perspective of public safety. Law enforcement is changing from a warrior mindset to that of a guardian. Missed in this conversation is who else should be a guardian. Focusing too much on law enforcement as the scapegoat allows other players in society to exploit an uninformed populace. Lawmakers need to consider what is happening locally to support the individual storeowner or business where thefts are allowed to flourish with little to no consequence.

Public safety is not solely a law enforcement responsibility. Neither should the criticism of safety be laid at the feet of law enforcement. Public safety is an effort that requires guardianship by all leaders in the community. Developing an effective, coordinated effort requires sustained actions by leaders with foresight and a resolve to work beyond the immediate future and partisan politics.

Applied to the contemporary construct of democracy, Plato’s vision of guardianship must include those responsible for nurturing a safe community. This begins with those responsible for caring for the young in highchairs, to educators and business leaders. Elected officials and prominent civilian leaders in the community, faith and business ensure safety. Responsibility for public safety cannot fall uniquely on a profession that few people want to join or praise.

When hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes ravage our communities, we work together to support a community’s basic needs. This premise should flourish throughout public safety. Destroying law enforcement as an institution can only result in a vacuum filled by people with little regard for the safety of a community. The words of Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, continue to resonate, “The police are the public; the public are the police.” Although law enforcement remains the paid professionals, every stakeholder is an active participant in every facet of public safety.

Collaboration and communication across the community are needed for the public to be kept safe. Working synchronously across the spectrum of society as guardians, is a step forward in reforming law enforcement and, more importantly, the community. Until a community—from each household, to its elected officials and civilian leaders—realizes they have an essential role and responsibility in safety, the community will continue to be myopic in perceiving their safety.

Authors: Dr. Ygnacio “Nash” Flores and Don Mason are faculty at Rio Hondo College. Dr. Tracy Rickman is faculty at Tarleton State University.

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