Policing and Democracy

Hope you didn’t try to call me on Friday.  I was out of the office.

Since I am a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, I was invited to be a panelist responding to the research work of  the faculty.  All this year the school has been celebrating its 75th anniversary. It is the oldest degree granting program in the country.   Friday was the Spring Symposium.  It was a day of very interesting information and a chance to exchange information with a large number of faculty and students.   It might even be a chance to influence the course of research and policy in the future.  We heard from past MSU faculty about the future of policing from Dr. Jack Greene of Northeastern University and Dr. Joanne Belknapp of the University of Colorado on the topic of women and crime.

The current  faculty was working on projects like gathering data to prove or disprove whether conducted electric devices (Tasers) are safe for both police and subjects.  (I thought he didn’t yet have enough data to draw conclusions); organizational influences on police integrity; staffing and community policing and the relationships between private security and public policing.  Fascinating stuff.

In the evening we had a really excellent speaker in Dr. Christopher Smith.  He is a specialist in the US Supreme Court.  He talked about what the legacy of the school is and he drew a relationship to his recent work on a biography of recently retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.  I never really gave a great deal of thought to how the life experiences of the justices lead them to reach the decisions that they do on the court and how that is impacted by what might lie under the surface of their lives. He, like Justice Stevens is from Chicago.  He talked about how his great grandfather was a working class Chicago cop and how Justice Stevens was born into a very privileged family. To the surprise of some, Stevens turned out to be a justice very concerned with the rights of the accused–as a result of the trial and conviction of his father for an embezzlement he didn’t commit.

As police officers we are concerned about the actions of the Supreme Court and how their decisions affect the way we do our job.  But Dr. Smith made the point that only a fraction of the cases submitted to the Court are ever heard.  In fact is the police on the streets and the judges in the local courts that make the Constitution and the Bill of Rights come alive in the discretion we use to interpret and enforce the law.

It is a great point — Herman Goldstein, a noted scholar in our field, once said that democracy depends on the ability of the police to do their job.  MSU has been a provider of criminal leadership for 75 years.  

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I'm the Chief of Police for the Auburn Hills Police Department.