The creation of a police force as an institution is of course a recent thing (relatively speaking) which only arose from the 19th century. As societies become much more complex bureaucratisation becomes inevitable. This lead to the creation of the civil service and then the police force as a distinct institution and sole arm of the state’s coercive force.
Naturally before that the English already had an extensive body of law to do with the conditions under which the state can deprive someone of their liberties and goods. The creation of the police would naturally raise all kinds of questions as to the extent and scope of their ability to use their force given the English delimited and specific conditions under which the state can act coercively upon the individual.
The problem however is that the police force was created precisely because society has become complex and it was necessary to streamline and systematise the process whereby the state can exercise its coercive force. This purpose would be defeated if the police’s abilities and powers were tied down by highly complex rules and conditions.
So basically different places have reconciled the need for the police to function efficiently with the tradition of restraining them in different ways.
In Singapore our police legally possesses extensive powers and abilities. The police force as an institution is generally feared in Singapore and if they question us our first instinct is that we must have done something wrong otherwise we wouldn’t be approached by them. However in practice the police rarely does anything to us. Cases of police abuse in Singapore are virtually negligible despite their possession of wide extensive legal powers. The police force therefore is restrained by convention, rather than laws, while the law gives them extensive scope to perform efficiently. Of course this can only come about in a society with a very high level of trust in the police to use their powers reasonably. This is also why we treat abuse of authority by particular policemen with greater severity precisely because they are objects of fear. We fear the police force because they are public officials and representatives of the law but the moment the individual police betrays our trust in their office they become mere terrorists and so must be purged.
In America on the other hand the police force are restrained by highly technical and specific laws and rules. This will naturally lead to their diminished efficiency and ability to curb crime, etc. What has in fact happened therefore is the media glamourisation of the police who becomes “heroes” by pushing the limits of these legal restrains in order to “catch the bad guy”. The portrayal is often how “the bad guys” hide behind the protection of the law while the heroic police have to work their way around the system to get them. The paradoxical effect of this is that the police, at the same time, become valorised as heroes going after the bad guys despite the law, and a fear of police abusing their powers by gaming the legal system. In Singapore we fear the police as public officials, not as individuals. If the individual office holder betray the office we lynch that person. In America people valorise the police as an individual heroes but have no respect for the institution itself. Thus the right will generally promote the police as “the good guys” who transcends the law in catching “the bad guys” while the left will say that their transcending the law leads to all kinds of abuses. For both sides the institution itself has more or less collapsed.
Without the level of trust and entrenchment of conventions which Singapore has, the American police force is caught in a bind. They have these technical specific laws which impedes their efficiency, which they occasionally need to game and circumvent in order to gets things done. But this has on the other hand lead to a corrosion of trust in the police force as an institution, the left suspects that they are gaming the system to protect themselves, the right becomes terrified that the police will no longer be able to do their jobs if political forces attempts to bind their hands more and more.
Sadly, I think the American problem stems from its highly legalistic culture, where they attempt to govern the totality of their civic life based on laws rather than entrenched conventions. Today we see however that a commonwealth based only on laws cannot coherently hold together.
One thought on “High Trust versus Legally Bound Police Forces”
This is one hundred percent accurate, and I often wonder what would happen if America was ran more like Singapore, especially in healthcare and policing.