Contrary to Max Weber's famous assertion, the government does not have a monopoly on the use of force. Everyone possesses the prerogative to use force to protect and rescue someone else in physical danger. It is a natural, prepolitical right that exists prior to the formation of a state, and people have it by virtue of their personhood. But, if the assailant is armed, or is as dangerous as the Rock or Bruce Lee, we can decide to hold back. Our right to defend other people if we choose isn’t a suicide pact. What distinguishes the police is that they are the role actors who embody the government’s commitment to treat this prerogative as a duty. This duty, to impartially protect and rescue people from physical hazards, is what demarcates the state from nature. No government can lay claim to legitimacy if it doesn’t effectively and impartially discharge it, and no association can call itself a state unless it recognizes this obligation. The fact that the police in Uvalde, Texas sparked such outrage shows how strong our intuitions are about this duty of government. With this duty comes the responsibility of police to use an economy of force that respects the value of every citizen’s life. It also creates a reciprocal duty in citizens to retreat from physical confrontations whenever they can safely do so, but that is much different than ceding a monopoly on using force to the government, which only exists in the administration of more routine civic affairs.
The idea of “order maintenance” presumes an objective sense of order the police can impose. In reality, different times, places, customs, cultures, and circumstances each come with their own ideas of order. The order of Bourbon Street and Times Square is the disorder Central Park or a subway car. The order of Saturday night is the disorder of Sunday morning. So it’s more accurate to say we care about the fair and cooperative use of public space in each context. We therefore rely on police to use their judgment and discretion to broker and enforce the fair terms of social cooperation in public spaces, accounting for circumstance. The alternatives are likely to produce unfair, illiberal outcomes. If we let people sort it out for themselves, the most aggressive and intimidating will dominate, especially if they get there first and represent a majority interest, while the wealthy will invariably carve out private spaces for their own purposes. That reasonable people can disagree about what is fair in terms of cooperation means police should emphasize brokerage over enforcement. Meanwhile, people who come together to coercively regulate other people’s cooperative behavior—think of police abolitionists directing traffic on their own so they can safely conduct a protest march—are acting as police, without laying out the limits of their powers, a plan for accountability and appeal, or a commitment to pluralism.
If we accept that the police create and distribute a form of practical, substantive justice, then we need to clarify what it consists of. To say it means they should lower the crime rate, or make arrests and seize contraband, is too narrow a view to capture what is most important and valuable about police work. We want police to do things that make communities less dangerous, violent, and injurious. We expect them to promote norms of cooperation, tolerance, and fairness that allow people with a wide range of needs, goals and interests to thrive. In other words, police should explicitly protect and cultivate a community’s health and safety in pursuit of justice. This places police at the center of not only a community’s public safety strategy, but its public health efforts as well, and they should start by concentrating on the neighborhoods and people who are the least well off in each regard.
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