Skip to main content

Gasper: Modern policing means principled understanding of enforcement

This article also appeared in the Detroit News on March 13.

Economic disruption and social unrest gripped London 200 years ago, as the city struggled to create a modern police force. The public was suspicious of a large, heavily armed law enforcement agency. Into that breach of trust stepped Sir Robert Peel whose principles for policing are more relevant today than ever.

Known as the father of modern policing, Peel regarded police officers as citizens in uniform who exercise their powers with the consent of fellow citizens. “The police are the public,” he said, “and the public are the police.” Peel is credited with nine principles including one stating that police should use “only the minimum degree of physical force” to do their jobs, which is to keep the peace and enforce laws.

Too often in America today, we have seen instances of police officers relying on excessive force to carry out their mission. When this occurs, they betray the public’s trust and undermine their sworn duties. As the director of the Michigan State Police, it pains me to acknowledge there are members of my own agency who have violated the law and department policy and have been charged with crimes. For these members, and any in the future, there are repercussions.

Our response to this challenge is to address it head-on, by focusing on what it means to be a modern police agency in the United States today. At the Michigan State Police, we are doing this through nine principles updated for a 21st century police force. They are:

-A modern police agency focuses on customer service at all times, recognizing the opportunity for each interaction to be transformational, not just transactional. This principle is at work when our troopers buy Christmas gifts for a family in need, collect and distribute food for the poor, and coach youth sports team.

-A modern police agency treats everyone with dignity and respect, exercising the human skills of empathy and compassion. It’s easy to find the right words for a crime victim. It can be harder to do so with a crime suspect, but there is no reason not to treat everybody with grace, even when physical force is needed.

-A modern police agency holds its members and each other accountable. Nobody is above the law, certainly not our troopers.

-A modern police agency promotes transparency. The MSP has exhibited this commitment through the deployment of in-car video and body-worn cameras, as well as the establishment of a Transparency and Accountability webpage where the public can find department policies and data on things like use of force and staffing.

-A modern police agency works with the communities it serves to develop authentic connections and to serve real needs within communities.

-A modern police agency is committed to providing its members with continuous learning and professional development. The MSP’s heightened programming includes training on resilience, problem solving, critical thinking and de-escalation, as well as easier access to mental health services.

-A modern police agency recognizes that police officers today perform a dual role — that of protector and warrior. There are times when MSP troopers need to decisively move from protector to warrior; they do this to keep themselves and the public they are serving safe. We will continue to equip our members with the training and skills to perform this role when needed, but we will also provide them with the skills to flip that switch back, as quickly as possible.

-A modern police agency is not afraid to tackle tough and sensitive topics, like exploring racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops. Through a research partnership with the MSU School of Criminal Justice, the MSP has been a leader on the forefront of research into better understanding the dynamics and systems that may contribute to disparities in traffic stops.

-A modern police agency strives to be reflective of the communities we serve. The MSP has set an aggressive target of increasing its racial minority trooper applicant pool to 25% and the female trooper applicant pool to 20%, and we are working to remove barriers to employment for people who want to join our department.

The dedicated men and women of the Michigan State Police believe in these principles, and we are working to help build a Michigan where everyone feels safe and secure. Whether we describe our profession of policing as being at a crossroads or in an identity crisis, it’s clear the opportunity for evolution and advancement is now. And know this: the Michigan State Police will help lead the way in the future of policing.

Col. Joe Gasper is the 19th director of the Michigan State Police. He's been a member of the Michigan State Police since 1998.