When the Los Angeles Police Department had a contest in Feb. 1955 to select a motto for the department, officer Joseph S. Dorobek submitted the winning slogan that has since been adopted by many police forces: “To Protect and to Serve.” 

Since President Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1971, the country has seen a constant increase in the amount of nonviolent acts criminalized and police forces militarized. The recent examples of police brutality should demonstrate the cognitive dissonance between the police’s motto and many of the laws they are required to enforce, resulting in a cultural crisis with implications far beyond law enforcement.

Culture is driven by purpose. Why do we exist? What is the mission of our organization?

If police feel that their mission is to stop violent acts (such as murder), they will have a very different culture than if they believe they are the enforcers of every random and capricious law that is passed.

Nearly everyone agrees that murder should be against the law — even murderers. There is a clear victim; the ultimate harm is being inflicted on someone else. With such widespread consensus, most everyday people would consider police using force to prevent murder an example of protecting and serving.

However, the act of cutting hair without a license or smoking marijuana does not inflict direct harm upon another person. Yet, they are both punishable by law, and law enforcement is well-equipped to prevent these actions from occurring if the person resists arrest.

Rather than simply consider the legality of the action in question, police officers should assess if they are protecting and serving anyone when they stop a consenting adult from partaking in a nonviolent act. Without a victim, there is no one to resist the activity, and no one to file a complaint. To threaten or use force against a nonviolent, consenting adult if they do not comply with arrest can only result in a miscarriage of justice.

Some departments have directly addressed the conflicts in the “why” of their department, such as the Texas Department of Public Safety, which ordered its officers to stop arresting suspects involved in low-level marijuana offenses last year. Just a few months later in Pinellas County, Florida, the sheriff and the state attorney raised standards for marijuana-related cases their department is willing to pursue, instructing deputies to refrain from making arrests unless the substance was in large quantities.

Every time a law is passed, police are empowered to enforce that law with the barrel of a gun. To change the culture of the police, law enforcement leaders must re-evaluate which laws they choose to enforce and what victims they are protecting and serving. Perhaps the first question officers should ask is, if they were not wearing a badge, would they still threaten to use a gun to prevent what they are seeing from happening?

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