Any defendable normative political philosophy—at any rate, any classical-liberal one—holds that policemen are the citizens’ servants, not their masters. A policeman owes respect to a peaceful citizen and, to a certain point, even to a violent one. The policeman is paid by the citizen, not the other way around. While protecting some citizens, policemen have no right to attack innocent bystanders or protesters.

I use the European term “policeman” (which of course includes policewomen) instead of the American “police officer” for a purpose. It seems to better avoid the implication of extraordinary power and emphasizes that policemen are civilians among other civilians.

Trying to explain police violence in America (which is only endemic in parts of the country), The Economist (“Order above the Law: How to fix American Policing,” June 4, 2010) mentions that “American police patrol a heavily armed country,” referring to private guns, a topic on which the venerable magazine always sees red (not all is rosy in Europe). In this article, don’t miss the photo of a gang of marching police thugs violently pushing down a woman out of their way. And note how rare it is that demonstrators fire guns in America.

Defending a policeman who violently hit a protester on the head with a baton in Philadelphia, the Fraternal Order of Police says its member “only had milliseconds to make a decision” (as paraphrased by the Wall Street Journal: Viral Videos From Protests Fuel Broader Debate Over Policing,” June 5, 2020). The policeman is now facing aggravated assault and other charges, which is encouraging news.

In the current troubles,  many cases of police violence have led to investigations and brought many criminal charges against policemen. As if to put the final nail in the propagandist idea that it is “the rabble” who have been attacked by the police, Ghian Foreman, president of Chicago’s Police Board, the body which receives citizens’ complaints, said he was struck five times by a police baton, even if he was not actually participating in the protest. “I have a perspective now that I didn’t have,” he said (“Thousand of Protesters in D.C., Nationwide Decry Police Abuse,” Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020).

As of June 5, more than 300 policemen had been injured in the current demonstrations and mob looting. Being a policeman is clearly not a job without risk.

However, it is far from being the riskiest job in America, as shown by data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics excerpted on the chart below. Of the few hundred occupations surveyed by the BLS (or at least the ones selected in their summary table online), 15 are more at risk of lethal injuries than a policeman’s job. The risk is 13.7 per 100,000 policemen, which is for times higher than the risk for all occupations, which stands at 3.5. But, to take a few examples, the proportion is 97.6 for loggers, 77.4 for fishers and fishing workers, 18.0 for miscellaneous agricultural workers, and 15.8 for construction helpers.

Moreover, nobody is forced to earn his living as a policeman. If it is important that the ones hired be courageous men and women, it is even more important that they know they are the servants, not the masters, if that’s the only element of political philosophy they have. Let’s hope that the current troubles will help promote this idea. As I have argued before on EconLog, there is a dire need for humble government, starting at the highest level.

Among the compulsory readings of police trainees, I might recommend Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992). Browning explains why middle-aged German police conscripts murdered, usually with a bullet at the back of the head, tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. The reason: esprit de corps, not to look like pussies to their comrades. As you will discover in the book, they were not really forced to participate in these execution squads.