On April 18, the Los Angeles Police Department adopted new rules that require police officers to try to defuse situations before firing a weapon. Regardless of how disturbing it is that police departments were previously not operating under these guidelines, one would expect this to mitigate police brutality. With this new rule and growing backlash toward law enforcement agencies, police are surely on their way toward reformation and improvement, right? While this is a step in the right direction, it does not address what is inherently incorrect about police: its principles.

In every institution, especially government institutions, principles and values are areas of fierce debate. In fact, the core principle of the size of government is a contributing factor toward the divide in contemporary U.S. politics. Some argue that with bigger government, one sacrifices freedom. Alternatively, others cite that with smaller government, one compromises safety. This continuum that measures security and freedom is often debated among those discussing surveillance, national security and other partisan issues. However, the continuum that is more pressing to the morality of U.S. law enforcement is that of safety and justice. That is to suggest that many times, justice is sacrificed in the name of safety. Specifically, modern law enforcement prioritizes safety over justice, and this prioritization punishes lower-income African Americans for the unsafe conditions in which they often live. Alternatively, a focus on justice could spur reformations resulting in equity among races.

Safety and justice are principles that collide with each other, but cannot exist without the other. To put it in concrete terms, justice refers to the equal and fair treatment of an individual under the law. Alternatively, safety is the law’s protection of an individual from any danger or threat to their life. There is often a sacrifice made to prioritize one over the other. Obviously, safety could not truly exist without a level of justice, and vice versa. For instance, a country fully prioritizing justice of all people would allow every Muslim immigrant into its country despite potential terrorist threats. Here, the Muslim immigrant’s justice is valued higher than the complete safety of residents. Alternatively, a country fully prioritizing safety would not permit any Muslim immigrants into the country despite the millions of innocent Muslims who are not terrorists. Here, the immigrant’s justice is sacrificed for the safety of the resident.

The trend of police generally prioritizing safety over justice is an unsurprising one. The United States has a retributive justice system — meaning it punishes crime — and is naturally focused on safety. Many will argue safety is always of paramount concern, and if all people’s safety is valued equally, the system is flawless. This is problematic because a prioritization of safety is inherently a punitive focus. That is to say a police force that looks to safety as its guiding principle will always punish those that exist in unsafe conditions. Social conditions such as poverty, low employment rates and lower educational attainment produce unsafe communities, and these conditions are frequently found in African-American-dominated and lower-income communities. This is to suggest that safety guides police to disproportionately target Blacks and the poor. Alternatively, a priority on justice is reformative. By focusing on justice, the social conditions that put safety at risk can become more salient and addressable. Instead of punishing Blackness, justice looks to improve the environment of Blacks in America.

This is exemplified through modern developments in predictive policing. The Marshall Project examined HunchLab, a crime-predicting program that “surveys past crimes, but also digs into dozens of other factors like population density; census data; the locations of bars, churches, schools, and transportation hubs; schedules for home games — even moon phases.” HunchLab predicts where crime is likely to be, then sends police to patrol that area more heavily. Craig Atkinson’s documentary “Do Not Resist” also examines a predictive policing program, LACER. LACER goes as far as to predict whether or not a person will be a criminal based off of historical actions, age, sex, race and other characteristics. This is exemplary of law enforcement’s emphasis on safety as a principle. Police departments send more officers to confront areas and individuals more likely to be unsafe. Alternatively, a philosophy of justice may lead police departments to send more beneficial resources toward the areas and individuals. Safety will punish those in these high-risk situations; whereas justice will address the conditions that make it high risk. That is to reinforce that justice can be more reformative, and ultimately generate larger change than safety can.

This being said, the responsibility does not all lie on law enforcement. It is imperative that citizens start to bear the responsibility as well. In his book, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “I called politicians and questioned them. I was told that the citizens were more likely to ask for police support than to complain about brutality… According to this theory ‘safety’ was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.” Here, it’s made clear that even citizens value safety over justice, that “the destruction of the black body is incidental to the preservation of order.” If any changes are going to be made in law enforcement, it is essential that there be a reformation within ourselves and at the University of Michigan. Our values must change. If justice is to be upheld by the police, we must start to prioritize it as well.

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