Thanks in large part to a free and open internet, a plethora of evidence showing violent aggression by police officers on Occupy participants has made its way around the globe. In each instance, the protesters were unarmed and nonviolent. The repeated pepper-spraying of seated University of California Davis students is just one in a series of images uncommon for a nation of people used to the free exercise of their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly. Whether the aggression is ordered or committed by an officer of his or her own accord, the use of force remains an ethical issue for every police department in the country. The issue is a longstanding one, especially in poorer, politically under-represented communities.
The Police Chiefs Desk Reference explicitly states:
“A police officer will never employ unnecessary force or violence and will use only such force in the discharge of duty as is reasonable in all circumstances.
The use of force should be used only with the greatest restraint and only after discussion, negotiation and persuasion have been found to be inappropriate or ineffective. While the use of force is occasionally unavoidable, every police officer will refrain from unnecessary infliction of pain or suffering and will never engage in cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment of any person.”
In addition to the above, and perhaps just as important, the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, provided by the International Association of Chiefs to police chiefs across the country and taken by thousands of officers, clearly states: “On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others responsible for our actions. I will always uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency that I serve.”
As with every community, the law enforcement community is imperfect. Oaths taken are not adhered to just as marriages end in divorce. But the Oath of Honor is taken not privately, between two people, but publicly, as a pledge to the community which the police officer has chosen to serve. That officers in both California and New York, for example, have seemingly violated this oath begs the next issue: accountability. If one officer betrays the oath, another officer who has witnessed the betrayal is sworn by the very same oath to hold him or her accountable. This accountability by fellow officers is something we have failed to see verifiable evidence of, except in the notable case of retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis.
Though no longer actively on the force, Lewis never forgot this oath. In full uniform, he took to the streets of New York, actively engaged his fellow officers, and was subsequently arrested for doing so. As widely reported before his arrest, and echoing the directives on the use of force, Lewis stated:
“You should, by law, only use force to protect someone’s life or to protect them from being bodily injured. If you’re not protecting somebody’s life or protecting them from bodily injury, there’s no need to use force. And the number one thing that they always have in their favor that they seldom use is negotiation – continue to talk, and talk and talk to people. You have nothing to lose by that.”
Only time will tell if the Oath of Honor is more than a simple recitation of words, or whether it is a creed in which the public can trust. The Occupy movement is relying on more officers like Captain Lewis to not only keep their Oath of Honor, but actively abide by it, by taking and demanding responsibility for the actions of those in their departments and precincts contrary to its stated principles and the accepted ethical standards for the use of force.