12/10/2014 11:43 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

#WeCantBreathe: Peel's Principles of Policing Gone Wrong?

While there is no universal consensus on the best form of policing, one thing is certain: reform is needed. Protests condemning police brutality are spreading throughout the United States, and people are outraged, and not without good reason. Recent events in Ferguson and New York City, namely the killings of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the non-indictment of the police officers that shot them, have ignited a call for action, a call for change. People all over the country, especially those of color, are pleading for reform, expressing the indignation they feel towards the policing and legal system system with the same words Eric Garner last emitted before he died in a policeman's illegal choke-hold, "I can't breathe." #WeCantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter hashtags have taken over the internet and the streets. The question is, what reforms can be made to rebuild the trust between police and their communities to allow the people to breathe again? NYPD Commissioner William Bratton has stated his guiding source of inspiration is Sir Robert Peel's Nine Principles of Policing, a preventative philosophy used by members of the first police force in London in 1829. While these principles can be a great framework for this necessary police reform, Bratton's current interpretation of these principles do not do justice to Sir Robert Peel's philosophy, nor to the people of New York City.

Peel was a 19th-century British prime minister considered to be the father of the London police force, and has nine principles of policing attributed to him -- principles that Bratton has said he carries everywhere and considers "[his] bible." In his blog, Bratton says that Peel "had an innate grasp of the challenges police officers face and of the complex interplay between the police and the public that is at the very heart of policing in a free society." Peel's principles define police success in terms of the absence of crime, rather than in terms of police action. They advocate for the prevention of crime, rather than the repression of crime through militaristic and punitive measures, while simultaneously recognizing that the power of police is dependent on public approval and respect. These principles strike an important balance between the need for crime reduction efficacy and the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with the community by relying as little on force as possible, and using "physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient" (6th principle) This community-focused philosophy of policing based on respect and approval of the public embodies the central ideals of good and effective policing; so where did the NYPD go wrong?

The first of Peel's principles is to "prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment." Peel recognizes the police's mission to "to secure observance of law or to restore order" (6th principle); however, he creates a clear distinction between police power and the military force. He makes it clear that police should "use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on a particular occasion for achieving a police objective." Law enforcement agencies, like the NYPD, have gone reached far beyond their police-executive functions, accepting and acquiring free army tanks, drones, machine guns and other weapons from the Department of Defense's 1033 program. In June of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) concluded, in report titled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, that "American policing has become excessively militarized through the use of weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield" and that this militarization "unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion."

We can see the use of abuse of these military weapons in our streets today. The NYPD has been using military weapons against protesters during the Eric Garner protesters in New York (though they do have a history of using less of a militarized response than smaller cities). These weapons have been used in response to crowds throwing small objects at the police, but they have also affected protesters who have remained peaceful; they include pepper spray and long range acoustic devices (LRADS). LRADs are sonic-weapons that release sound waves as high as 162 decibels and cause acoustic trauma to those exposed. They were developed by the US military in 2000 after an insurgent attack on Yemen, and have been used during protests in Ferguson and during Occupy Wall Street. Peel made it clear that the prevention of crime should not be obtained by military and severe legal punishment, such as the arrest of over 300 protestors in two days by the NYPD. Prevention is meant to sojourn militarization and punitive measures, and this is what police should be doing. Police are meant to prevent crime and disorder, not use excessive physical force on protesters and marchers. Peel would want police to protect the constitutional rights of those protesting, and so should Bratton.

Peel's philosophy recognizes that in order to achieve complete efficiency of the police and prevent crime and disorder, police officers must secure and maintain public respect (2nd principle). He expresses that preserving public favor is not done by "pandering the public," but rather by offering "individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing" (6th principle). And while Bratton has focused on preventative policing as suggested by Peel, his racist tactics of stop-and-frisk and broken windows have blatantly disregarded his hero's philosophy, creating police distrust among low-income and colored communities. Not only have these police actions hurt and traumatized the very individuals the NYPD should be serving and protecting, but they have also damaged police efficiency by compromising the "willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of the laws" (3rd principle).

While Bratton has cited Peel to argue against the high use of stop-and-frisk in New York, he has also used his principles to defend his aggressive and racially prejudice police practices. When faced with criticisms about stop-and-frisk during de Blasio's mayoral campaign, Bratton told reporters that "Stop, question and frisk has been around since Sir Robert Peel," and in an attempt to take heat off of himself asserted "I guess you'd have to blame Sir Robert Peel." Should we also blame Sir Robert Peel for the inherently classist broken windows policing strategy that has lead to the arrest, deportation, and death of a disproportionate number of people of color in response to small quality-of-life law breaches? Garner, after all, was arrested by the police for selling untaxed cigarettes -- he was killed by the NYPD because of an incident arising from tax enforcement. I would venture to say that is not what Peel was referring to when he was advocating for the minimum degree of physical and punitive force necessary to complete police duties in the "interests of community welfare and existence" (7th principle).

According to Peel, "the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them" (9th principle); and as demonstrated by the current public outcry, the NYPD is failing the very same test the Commissioner has been inspired by. Bratton is right about one thing, though: "Peel's nine principles inform the vision of collaborative policing that... is essential to healing the divisions that exist between the police and the communities we serve." It is time to start truly following these principles. It is time the NYPD and American police force let their communities breathe.