Do the Police need a Hippocratic Oath?

A federal judge has found that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program violated the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Last week, the Huffington Post reported that nearly 1 in 25 Americans were arrested in 2011. Stories about the militarization of police and the abuse of civil forfeiture laws have gained widespread attention. But despite national skepticism about the invasiveness of the federal government’s security measures, aggressive police tactics on the local level remain largely unchecked.

For those living in a free society, the experience of being stopped by a police officer is a uniquely stressful event. While many of us feel intimidated when dealing with a boss, a parent, or a judge, we can at least walk away from those situations without fearing physical intimidation or worse. Indeed, a person may even feel empowered telling a boss to ‘fuck off’ despite the known repercussions.

Not so with the police. The power imbalance, uncertainty in outcome, and lack of social norms associated with an unexpected police encounter can turn even the well-mannered, law-abiding citizen into a stammering, obsequious idiot.

police flashlightFor most people, the experience is the result of a traffic stop and ends with only a ticket and some extra sweat around the forehead and collar.  For others, the scars from a ‘stop and frisk’ are more pronounced. Uninvited police encounters can be necessary and useful. But they are rarely a positive experience for the citizen. These police practices should therefore be used sparingly and the good served by these encounters ought to clearly outweigh the harm caused by their intrusion.

The increased frequency of investigative detentions by police is particularly questionable given their inefficacy.  In New York City for example, the rise of ‘stop and frisk’ occurred despite decreasing crime rates. A 2009 study of related NYPD practices concluded that the percentage of stops that produced arrests declined over a decade as stops increased, and that the decline was greatest in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Furthermore, fewer violent crimes today are solved by traditional street police tactics. Increasingly, the ‘police work’ that results in key evidence is outsourced to technology (such as security cameras and citizen recordings) and forensic specialists. These developments reduce the need for prophylactic security tactics like police checkpoints and investigative detentions.

The most obvious means toward reducing police-citizen encounters would be to outlaw arrest and ticket quotas. Unfortunately, any legislative proposals to actually restrict police practices are immediately rejected by law enforcement advocates.  These policies are uniformly criticized as ‘endangering the community’ by restricting officers ability to do their job. Still, all agree that public trust and confidence in the police is an important goal.

The physician’s oath — ‘First Do No Harm’ — is well known.1 It is also well conceived. A human being is a complex organism.  A physical intervention can have unintended consequences.  In the worst cases, the results of the intervention can be irreparable and even deadly.

The Hippocratic Oath is said to encourage rigor, honesty, and integrity among physicians, and helps ensure the minimization and justification of any adverse effects their work may have on people. Perhaps the police should swear to a Hippocratic Oath of their own.

One thought on “Do the Police need a Hippocratic Oath?

  1. Pingback: Roundup: Reactions to Stop and Frisk Ruling | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

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