After he led the Revolutionary Army to victory over the British, George Washington could have become the King of America. Though the colonists had made an argument about freedom, democracy, and liberty, the world at that time – including in the Americas – was dominated by monarchs, and people would have likely been quite understanding if Washington had ridden his military success directly into monarchical power.
Thankfully for us and the world, he didn’t. He instead set in place the American tradition of military under civilian control. The head of the American military is always its democratically elected commander-in-chief, and we have replicated that chain of command at the local level with the national guard and police departments.
It has been disturbing to hear some, particularly the police union, react to the tragic police killings in New York City with rhetoric that would call that very clear line into question. We elevate police into positions of power in order to prevent every day society from descending into lawless anarchy, but when push comes to shove the police answer to us and not the other way around.
The police on the beat answer to their chiefs and their chiefs answer to the commissioner and the commissioner answers to Mayor De Blasio. This isn’t up for debate. It doesn’t mean that police can or should break the law if the mayor asked them to, but what it does mean is that they work for him and by virtue of his position, the people of New York City who elected him into office.
This isn’t up for debate.
Police enjoy a well earned role of privilege in our society. When the worst is happening, they run towards the trouble. They are first in, and often the first to die. They are largely heroes, very brave, and the ones who keep our communities safe. They do all this, while being celebrated by us, while working for us. If you try to upend that idea you upend everything.
They answer to us.