Why Civil Rights Matter in Policing

Written by Dr. Deborah Louis

Police officers should care about civil rights for both pragmatic and ethical reasons. As practical matters, a violation of a suspected perpetrator's civil rights can invalidate the arrest and/or cause the case to be dismissed when it gets to court, regardless of other merit. Routine disrespect of the civil rights of community residents—arbitrary stop-and-frisks, profiling, use of excessive force, false arrest, abusive language, dispersal of peaceful group activities, confiscation of property without due process—engenders distrust, resentment, and fear that in the long run makes law enforcement more difficult as residents are reluctant to cooperate with investigations, report crimes, or come forward as witnesses. Such behavior on the part of police can also prompt litigation that is costly to the jurisdiction in both dollars and embarrassment.

The purpose of the Bill of Rights and positivist evolution of U.S. civil rights law is to protect the individual from abuse at the hands of government, and it is the police, specifically, who are charged with enforcing that protection. Therefore, ethically, the violation of any individual's civil rights by a police officer is not only unprofessional and unbecoming, it is abdication of the core responsibility and commitment that officer has pledged to carry out in service to the public. There are, then, both ethical and legal imperatives, as well as practical ones, to support the proposition that police should not only take civil rights very seriously and be concerned that their behavior is mindful and respectful of those rights, but should consider the fulfillment, preservation, and protection of those rights--for all citizens regardless of age, color, gender, language, country of origin, sexual preference, or any other distinguishing feature--the primary mission of their profession and their conduct at all times.


Dr. Louis is an adjunct professor at Eastern Kentucky University's College of Justice and Safety, teaching Gender and Terrorism, Diversity and Criminal Justice, Diversity in Corrections, and Prostitution and Criminal Justice. Her professional work is community focused and devoted to insuring that every member of society has equal status and equal opportunity under the law.

Published on March 05, 2013

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