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Peelian Principles of Policing: Building public cooperation and reducing force

Sir Robert Peel knew that police officers needed to explain use of force to the general public

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We are not to blame for the choices others make, but we are responsible to make connections and build trust in our communities.


In my first article in this series, I laid out the foundations of Sir Robert Peel’s principles of policing. My second article reviewed the importance of building community relationships. The third article looked at how gaining public respect is the key to successful policing. The fourth of Peel’s nine principles focuses on how to build public cooperation and reduce force.

We are currently going through a tumultuous time in law enforcement and part of this relates to how technology enables the public to view police officer use of force.

My wife and I were discussing a recent video posted online of such an incident. She told me she winced as she observed the police officer trying to bring a suspect into compliance. Her reaction is important because she has watched many videos and we often discuss use-of-force incidents. I would certainly categorize her as a police supporter, but use of force is hard to watch even for a police officer or police supporter, so you can imagine how the general public views recordings of such incidents.

In his fourth principle, “The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force,” Sir Robert Peel understood that the public would react negatively to viewing these types of incidents.

We have three choices in dealing with the current problem:

1. We can do nothing.

With each use-of-force video that gets posted online, we are rocked with more protest and less cooperation from the people we serve. This started out as a big city problem, but now permeates small towns and rural locations. There is a bigger probability you will be recorded during a citizen encounter than helped by the public. Nothing sounds like a bad choice.

2. We can blame the media.

Although I think most of us would appreciate a fair perspective presented by the media or at least a full viewing of an incident, Peel was correct almost 200 years ago when he said that the public does not understand use of force and sees it as bullying. Think about any scene you have been on when the media arrives, what do we all do? We cover our faces and make ourselves scarce. The administration regularly circles the wagons and makes the usual “no comment” statement. The media is left to fill in the blanks with what little we offer.

3. We can accept responsibility and address issues.

Many police officers and administrators don’t understand use of force, so how can we expect the public to comprehend why it is deployed? Unless you have tried to arrest a 15-year-old, 90-pound girl who does not want to comply, and tried to get her arms behind her back without breaking them or using strikes to gain submission, you will never know how difficult it is to gain compliance from someone who does not want to go. There is no secret police technique. As stated before, all use of force looks bad.

The time to build relationships with the public and the media is before an incident happens. Police departments should use citizen police academies or public meetings to explain use of force and field questions from the public. The more we de-mystify what we do, the stronger our bonds with the public.

Using social media to relay information and interact with the public is another great tool.

We need to make ourselves available to the public and the media. Even the unintentional “us versus them” environment helps to create walls that need to come down.

Personally, I have made myself available to the media and regularly return phone calls. I take the time to explain things even when I don’t have time, in the hope of getting the “benefit of the doubt” should that day come.

We should encourage people to submit to arrest, even if they think it is unlawful, but make the complaint procedure as open and educational as possible so we can attempt to decrease these incendiary videos and stories.

We are not to blame for the choices others make, but we are responsible to make connections and build trust in our communities. This will enable us to be partners instead of adversaries, and help keep our communities safer.

Tim Barfield is the Chief of Police in a small midwestern Ohio town. He is in his for 37th year as an officer. Prior to his appointment as chief he spent 32 years in an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He is a husband, father and grandfather who has a love for police work and police officers with a goal of helping them succeed in a great profession. His responsibilities and desires have included patrol, traffic, DARE, SWAT, training and supervision. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and Chairman of the Board of the Law Enforcement Training Trust. He continues to learn and instruct on subjects with an emphasis on awareness, police survival mindset and ethics.

Contact Tim Barfield