In the 1997 film Cube, a group of strangers wake up to find themselves in a bizarre sort of prison. One character, Quentin, takes charge of the group, reasoning that he is a police officer and thus a natural leader.
My question today is: are police officers to be community leaders? If you end up in a situation where you need to choose a leader, should you necessarily appoint the police officer who is present in your group?
My answer to this question is a qualified “no”. Though some police officers possess strong leadership material, police should not be automatically thought of as leaders. To think of all police as being natural leaders of others is to make a huge sort of category error.
Unfortunately, too many people today are making that sort of error, because police officers, when viewed myopically, look like community leaders. In this article, I will explain the relationship between leaders and police officers, and I will examine the fallacy of cop as leader.
The relationship of police to leaders is this: leaders make rules, police enforce rules. In your local government, leaders may include (but not be limited to) your mayor, your city council, your county commissioners, and other elected officials. These people make the laws and regs, and cops must follow their directions and enforce these laws.
Thus, the relationship of police to leaders is the same as the relationship of bouncers to nightclub owners. A bouncer is more visible than a nightclub owner, and is more publicly seen when he exercises his authority, but he is only an instrument of the nightclub owner, enforcing the owner’s rules.
Does this mean that no police are leaders? Hardly! Most glaringly, some police have jobs where they lead other police. Consider a police chief, or a sergeant, or a sheriff. These are police who lead other police. But police chiefs, importantly, are not executives. They never make the laws, they only manage their departments.
By dint of this, you should consider a police chief to be a leader, but you should not give him any special status over other leaders of a similar nature. All else equal, a police chief who controls 40 officers is no more and no less a leader than a mid-manager who controls 40 employees.
It is the case that some police employees, even those who do not rank in their organizations, have leadership skills, and thus may be good leaders. Indeed, I would be willing to accept the premise that you will find more leader-types among a randomly-selected group of rookie police officers than a random group of everymen. Why? Because the demanding, high-risk nature of policing will attract leaders to that career.
But correlation does not imply causation. Even if your police department is stocked with an above-average number of leaders, this does not mean that any cop who comes walking down the street should be immediately thought of as a leader. Indeed, I would argue that to do so is dangerous.
Why is it dangerous? To answer that, let’s take a look at how police should, on paper, fit into society.
In relation to laws, police are law enforcers. It is their task to understand laws and ensure that the public adheres to them.
In relation to the public, police are public servants. The reason that laws are enforced is because this serves the public’s interest. Under ideal conditions, police should not exercise authority over anyone who has not done wrong. But, if you have done wrong, if you are suspected of criminal activity, then the police indeed can exercise authority over you.
In relation to criminals, police are authorities. Police may exercise authority over criminals, and are often involved in capturing, processing, and ensuring justice is served to criminals.
In our modern life, it is the unfortunate case that many police believe that they have the right to exercise authority over non-criminals. This false authority, often achieved through intimidation, takes many forms: from suspicionless checkpoints to stop-and-frisk detentions to warrantless wiretapping.
To blindly accept police “authority” over average citizens is to give in to this intimidation without stopping to think about the legal philosophy backgrounding the situation at hand. Indeed, if an average person allows that police are his leaders, then he is accepting the ontological value system of a criminal. Herein is the danger of accepting this premise.
But, to assume that all cops are non-authorities is also something of a fallacy. The correct solution, as I understand it, is to assume at first blush that a policeman is no more of a leader than an everyman, but to be open-minded to the possibility that he might prove to be one.