Police, Protests, Police Protests, and Legitimacy

January 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Steve Anderson, the police chief of Nashville deserves some kind of an award.

The city of Nashville had protests about the shootings in Ferguson and elsewhere. The police department respected the rights of the demonstrators. The department even blocked of part of the Interstate for them and provided them with hot chocolate. No violence or destruction of property resulted.

Not everyone in Nashville was happy with the policy. You really have to read the letter he wrote explaining his policy to a disgruntled citizen.  Actually, he explains a lot more. The Nashville.gov page (here) starts with Chief Anderson’s message to his police officers (nice, but not required reading), followed by the citizen’s letter (very civil in tone). (MNDP is probably Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, THP Tennessee Highway Patrol).

The Chief’s answer is a gem. Matching the civility of the citizen, he nevertheless points out the empirical and logical flaws. He writes in plain English, slightly formal but with no academic terms. Still, I would guess that he has some background in political theory, cognitive psychology, and sociology.

I did not find much that seemed directly relevant to the recent police actions and inactions here in New York. But there is this: Anderson starts by quoting the citizen.

“I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks "Why are the police allowing this?" I wouldn't have a good answer.”
[The Chief responds:]
It is somewhat perplexing when children are injected into the conversation as an attempt to bolster a position or as an attempt to thwart the position of another.  While this is not the type of conversation I ordinarily engage in, here are some thoughts you may find useful as you talk with your son.

First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures.  However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected.  The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people.  Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

You have to admire the Chief for nailing the citizen’s rhetorical strategy (“I have a son . . .”).  More important is the chief’s understanding of the relation between the police and the government.  Adding in the NYC conflict,I would go further. The police have a unique power – the general right to use force and violence. But that power is legitimate only if the police serve the government – a duly and democratically elected government. If the police use that power to oppose the government, to engage in partisan politics, to give vent to their petulance, or to further their self-interest (the police union is still in negotiations with the city over their contract), they risk losing their legitimacy. 

It would also be interesting to see how the opinioneers on the right and the left are framing these issues. As Peter Moskos* (here) and perhaps others have pointed out, it’s complicated. The tangle of ideology includes strands labeled Government, Police, Race, Unions, and now Crime and Broken Windows. But perhaps the underlying or ultimate issue, one not explicitly spoken of, is legitimacy.

HT: Peter is also my source for the Nashville letters.

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