In My Own Words: Changing the police force by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I grew up with mixed feelings about the police. On the one hand, I was told that the police were the ones who would help me if I was lost or in danger. On the other hand, music from the Broadway show “Fiorello,” which tells the story of Fiorello La Guardia, regularly played in our household. The musical spoke of how the police supported big business in the fight against labor unions. In one song, a woman, who works in a sweat shop, bemoans the fact that she’s in love with a “cop.” She thinks about what would happen if she tried to introduce him to her friends: she knows they despise the police who arrested strikers protesting for a living wage.

I also remember a conversation I had in college. I worked part time at the university and was saying something nice about the police to one of my coworkers. She noted that how the police treated you depended on who you were. She was referring to police action against anti-war and civil rights protestors who were often treated badly. A recent reminder of this occurred when someone in my rabbinical association noted the 50th anniversary of the shooting at Kent State University, a shooting done by the National Guard, which is another type of police force. 

By now it’s clear that there is systemic racism in many – if not most – police forces. This is not to condemn all policemen, but, like the rest of us, they are often blinded by the privileges with which they were born. There has been talk about changing or dismantling police forces across the country. Some worry this will lead to anarchy and lawlessness. There does need to be some kind of social control, especially in large societies, but does it have to look like a police force or are there other possible ways for this to happen?

What most people don’t realize is that the professional police force is a fairly recent historical development. The first professional police force was founded in London in 1829 when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed by Parliament. During Colonial times in the United States, part-time night watchmen kept an eye out for illegal activities. Some of them were volunteers, while others worked for private corporations. It wasn’t until 1838 in Boston that the first publicly-funded police force was created. It was the first U.S. police force to have paid full-time workers. Sometimes the police were used by political bosses and/or big business to enforce a particular kind of social control – against political opponents or striking workers. Over time, the definition of what the police are responsible for changed and increased. 

(As an aside: In the American South before the Civil War, Slave Patrols served as a type of police force. As their name suggests, their purpose was to return escaped slaves to their masters, for which they were paid a reward. They also sometimes captured free Blacks and sold them in slavery.)

Where does this leave us today? That’s an excellent question and one that legislators are beginning to investigate. Do we reform current police departments, using education to teach them to better deal with minority communities? Do we demand that those who use excessive force on a regular basis be fired? Do we seek new ways to handle problems before they arise, for example, more help for those addicted to drug and employment programs that offer a living wage? Should we reconsider what is a criminal offense and what behavior deserves treatment and reform, rather than imprisonment? Perhaps we need a mix of all of the above.

Every society – from hunter-gatherer groups to advanced technological ones – needs some form of social control. What form that takes is open to debate. Everyone in a society needs to feel they are protected and safe. Yet the cynic in me notes that no society – and no police force or other structure we set up – will ever be perfect because imperfect humans will be doing the work. However, as the ancient rabbis noted, we must try to create a better world. That’s the task of every generation, even if we fear that perfect world will never exist.