Editor’s note: This story is part of our MC faculty and staff series in which professors and/or staff discuss relevant topics within their areas of expertise. Sonia Pruitt discusses how communities, elected officials, and police departments can reimagine policing and justice to move closer to an equitable and ethical society.
Sonia Pruitt is a retired captain of the Montgomery County Police Department. She is also a past chairperson of the National Black Police Association. She holds a B.S. in criminal justice and an M.A. in forensic psychology. She is an associate professor of criminal justice at the Rockville Campus. In her spare time, she oversees a clearinghouse of law enforcement information and education called the Black Police Experience and is on the board of directors of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, working toward criminal justice and police reform. She also sits on the programs committee of the National Law Enforcement Museum.
By Sonia Pruitt
We are living through challenging times in the United States. In addition to the difficulties of COVID-19, the upheaval in our lives has to do with issues of social justice, more particularly about the police and the Black community. While these issues may not be easy to address, this time is also perfect, because where there is conflict, there is opportunity.
I facilitate education within the criminal justice discipline at Montgomery College, but I am also a retired Montgomery County police captain, and I was most recently the chair of the National Black Police Association. Besides sharing my knowledge about the criminal justice system with students, I also work extensively with the community on police and criminal justice reform. The law enforcement professionals I work with like to call ourselves a “coalition of justice practitioners” as we focus less on the criminal aspect of justice and more on equity for all communities, particularly those communities that are underrepresented, and which are most vulnerable.
The study of the science of policing is essential to sustaining the nobility of the career. It has been identified that one of the leading causes of ethical issues is the police culture. While there are many things that can cause a breakdown in effective law enforcement, institutional structures within police culture makes those mechanisms difficult to unseat. You have likely had a conversation about racism and bias in policing. Those conversations are necessary and uncomfortable. The discomfort should be expected, as unresolved efforts in handling the negative aspects of policing have been occurring since the first formal police departments were established in the 1800s. As Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern-day policing, created the “Bobbies” in the United Kingdom in the 1800s. He also authored the Peelian principles, the philosophy that defines an ethical police force. The second principle states: “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public, and the public are the police.” In other words, ethical, honest, and productive policing efforts should be guided by the needs of the people.
Ethical, honest, and productive policing efforts should be guided by the needs of the people
The acknowledgement of humanity is in large part a driving factor in police accountability. Every police officer should see every person as a human being, deserving of dignity and respect, and each member of the public should recognize every officer as a human being, also loved by family and friends. Stressors are high in both the community and in policing, with the mental and physical well-being of both entities at risk.
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Community members often ask what they can do to bring about a just society and a police force that is truly designed to protect and serve all. My answer is that that the community must be fully engaged in reimagining what policing looks like. It is not just a conversation about “defunding” or “disbanding” police departments—it is more importantly a conversation about how the public wishes those police departments to perform, and that involves hiring, policy, training, oversight, transparency, and accountability. Thus, it is important that each citizen exercise the right to vote. If it is change that the public calls for, the change must be directed by those elected to Congress, as state and district attorneys, as judges, as sheriffs, and as mayors and county executives, who ultimately choose police chiefs and commissioners. After all, everyone who lives in this country wants the same thing—peace, protection, a long and comfortable life for their families, and justice equity. Everyone, then, must be involved in the creation of that vision.