Wil Wheaton’s Law of . . . Policing

By September 4, 2014Comms

I have been asked over and over again lately to comment on events evolving in Ferguson. That’s difficult for me to do, as I haven’t been there, and I know these kinds of situations are intensely fluid and wildly distorted by media outlets with competing agendas. I also try to think a bit before opening my mouth (something I fail to do constantly).

In the end, my thoughts are academic, which may be a way of ducking the question, but I think speaks to the issue question of what we want our police to look like in the coming years. To explain what I mean, let me talk for a second about Wil Wheaton.

Like many, I grew up with him as Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek (a nickname I was given when I was an Ensign myself, after my shipmates learned I was a science-fiction fan), and then lost him for a while until I went pro as a writer. At that time, I enthusiastically embraced social media, which Wheaton pretty much owns. He’s funny, he’s clever, he champions causes that resonate strongly with me. But that’s not why I’m bringing him up.

I can only assume it began as light humor, but “Wheaton’s Law” (Don’t be a dick) of Internet behavior has become a meme of such intense resonance that it has its own Urban Dictionary definition.

As I said, it’s generally understood to govern Internet behavior, where anonymity and physical distance tend to evoke the worst in us.

But it has relevance everywhere, including one of those fields dearest to me: law enforcement (LE).

First, let’s establish my credentials. By the standards of any hard-bitten patrol cop, I am a law-enforcement neophyte. I have a few years of experience at the federal level in mostly intel roles. I currently do specialized work for a large, metropolitan police department. I do participate in hands-on patrol law enforcement as a member of Coast Guard boarding teams. But I do want to say up front that I am not a lifelong street cop. Also, these are my personal views and in no way reflect any organization I am affiliated with.

To understand why cops should care about Wheaton’s Law, we need to look to Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British statesman who created the concept of the modern police force. Peel’s nine principles are de rigeur amongst LE types. Most folks don’t have them memorized, but we all know they exist. I *do* have them memorized, because I strongly feel that they form the bedrock of how LE *must* function if it is to be successful.

Now, I’m not going to delve into all nine principles here, but I will sum it up with Peel’s most famous quote: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” Peel’s notion is sometimes called “policing by consent” and it revolves around a basic idea: police officers are grossly outnumbered by members of the public. A population absolutely cannot be effectively policed unless it not only consents to, but actively cooperates with, said policing. The public *must* see themselves as active partners in their own LE. There are too many people in too many places capable of too much stuff for LE to see them all, protect them all. LE *must* rely on the public to report crimes and more importantly, to obey the law in the first place.

There are two alternatives to this: the first is a police state. The second is a failed government, a la Somalia or the Congo. Neither of those are pretty options, and neither of those (no matter what legitimate criticism you may level at our own nation) are the case in the US. But this is why it is called policing by *consent*. That consent is critical. Its withdrawal is disastrous.

I’ve talked before about “Cop’s Eyes,” a jaundiced world view that is a kind of PTSD, where a person immersed in crime begins to see everyone as a potential threat. LE pros risk their lives every time they go on patrol, and I cannot begin to express the kind of deep-seated terror that dwells in the pit of your stomach when you pull up alongside a vessel to do a boarding. You have absolutely no idea who these people are and what they might do. You are steeped in sea stories of non-compliance and violence. And that’s in the Coast Guard where use-of-force scenarios are relatively rare. So, it’s not surprising that many patrol cops wear their war-faces out on the street. They are permanently in Condition Orange, ready to face a threat that could potentially end their life. “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by eight,” is an axiom you hear a lot.

And that’s a problem.

Because every negative interaction between LE and the public, no matter how minor, erodes that critical consent. And when it erodes enough, you get the ’92 LA Riots, or the Watts uprising, or Detroit’s 12th St. Debacle. And yes, you get Ferguson.

Don’t be a dick, Wheaton tells us. LE professionals must think of themselves as *ambassadors* to the public. The job has much in common with customer service positions, providing a ready smile and a soft tone. Deescalating, active-listening. Many of my colleagues tell me that this approach will cause the public to mistake kindness for weakness, and cause more violence than it prevents. But I think that’s a rather Hobbesian view of the public. There will always be cases where force must be used, but most people don’t want confrontations with LE. They want to feel respected and protected. They want to like and be liked by their police.

Policy makers also shouldn’t be dicks. They are the hand that wields the LE club. Criminalizing behavior creates environments where LE pros and the public come into conflict. Every instance of that conflict raises the risk of the individual withdrawing their consent. In ones or twos, this is the price of doing business, but pebbles can add up to avalanches, as we see in Sudan or Syria, or Libya, or Afghanistan. Legislators and the voting public do well to consider the baseline standard that if an act doesn’t absolutely have to be deemed criminal for the safety of all, then maybe it shouldn’t be.

When I do my job, I always always always remember Peel. Policing by consent. Trust is the kernel of that, and every LE pro has a role in establishing it.

And an Internet meme is an important lesson in how microinteractions can impact that for the better. Ferguson is the wages of ignoring it. We do that at our peril.

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

More posts by Myke Cole

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Paul Weimer says:

    Thanks, Myke.

    I Saw a reference to Peel’s principles a few weeks ago, when Ferguson went down. Some of the responses were to the effect that American policing doesn’t subscribe to Peel’s principles and they don’t matter, here.

    As you say, though, without them, you wind up with two very unsavory sort of choices for your policing environment.

  • Realmwright says:

    I find it entirely too scary that we as the American public can so easy choose sides, usually against “the Man/pigs”, when bad stuff goes down. People need to understand that there is a lot of worse shit that doesn’t go down because men and women are willing to put on a badge every day to secure our safety.
    Have I had not-so-good dealings with police? Yes. Do I have a criminal record? No.
    I think police and the public need to stop and think “If I want to be treated like a decent person, maybe I should act like one first”. But obviously, as Myke says, cops have to keep a good level of defenses up all the time because when they let them down people die.

  • Chuck Davis says:

    Hey Lt, I agree with some of what you present, but do we live in a world as we want it to be or do we live in the real world. The real world is full of nasty people and yes, some want to do us harm. Being on both side, the boarding side and the LE road side, I can see a slightly more mean, aggressive, side when dealing with citizens on the street. Yes, we do operate in condition orange, have to. We don’t like that, but the other side could well mean our deaths. I have had brothers killed in the line of duty, one with his own weapon. Most LE folks I know do respect Bobbies principles and really try to help their communities. The facts/evidence have not come out in Ferguson, I suspect the officer probably saved his own life here, but might be mistaken. The suspect was a big guy, and wound ballistics being as they are, may not have had enough power to penetrate his girth with one or two shots. I try not to judge an officers actions when he is trying to save his own life. We will not know what happened until the officer comes forward?

  • Dave says:

    Realmwright’s comment on people acting decent is right. They
    should. Most of my life I have been more afraid of the police than any criminal
    ever. For most of my adult life if I was being robbed while my house was on
    fire the last thing I would do is call a cop. In this city he probably wouldn’t
    show up anyway. As a younger man I have been pulled over for no wrong doing and
    been subject to so much racial negativity most people would assume my life was
    a movie. But that’s common for St. Louis.

    I have lived in St. Louis my whole life (32 years) and have
    to say that there is a foundation of mistrust from the community and the police.
    There is a contrasting population of around 47% African American and 43%
    Caucasian and that number has gone back and forth for years and Missouri as a
    whole is 78% white. This is the state that was a battleground for some of the
    main causes of the Civil War. (ie, the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott
    Decision) It’s ranked high in government/police corruption, violence and
    unemployment. St. Louis was murder capital many times throughout the 90’s.

    What kind of ethos does that breed amongst the LE? What kinds
    of trust do the people in a city like this have for their law enforcement?

    I grew up afraid when I saw a black and white pull up behind
    me, insecure and afraid even with the knowledge that I committed no crime.

    I was well into adulthood before I met people in LE who
    renewed my faith. To me that is the biggest problem in the country and here in
    St. Louis. People fear the police and the police fear the people and no one
    knows how to reconcile.

    I fear for my son, because he lives in a world where
    depending on his fashion style, hair length and associations he could possibly
    put in harm’s way. I have to decide to council him on whether or not to give
    immediate deferential respect to people whether that respect is earned or
    reciprocated if he wants to avoid problems or in worst case scenario, wants to
    live. Is that a question we should have with our children? Is that one you will
    ever have with yours? How does that
    change?

    I dunno what happened between those two men, but both of
    their lives were irreparably changed and we should figure out why. There are
    hundreds of people in this country who had misspent youth; it’s a trope for a
    reason. Does someone who steals deserve to be considered filth for life? Deserve
    to die? Why is it so common to believe LE are out to harm or quick on the draw?
    Are our LE adequately trained to do anything in situations they deem unsafe
    besides shooting? Are there alternatives?

  • Jaded Consumer says:

    Dead on.
    Police teach people in every interaction how the police treat people, and provide the most most convincing evidence whether police seek to protect or to harm those they meet. It’s something that’s hard to believe is really considered in some places.

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