Teach po­lice the Con­sti­tu­tion

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Christo­pher Dreis­bach Christo­pher Dreis­bach (dreis­bach@jhu.edu) is an Epis­co­pal priest and direc­tor of Ap­plied Ethics and Hu­man­i­ties in The Divi­sion of Pub­lic Safety Lead­er­ship in Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity’s School of Ed­u­ca­tion. His book, “Con­sti­tu­tiona

Po­lice of­fi­cers en­ter their pro­fes­sion by tak­ing an oath to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. They are the hu­man face of the Con­sti­tu­tion in their com­mu­nity. Cur­rent news re­ports about ten­sions be­tween po­lice and the com­mu­nity em­pha­size claims about con­sti­tu­tional rights. So why is there no con­certed ef­fort to make po­lice con­sti­tu­tion­ally lit­er­ate? How much bet­ter might po­licecom­mu­nity re­la­tions be if po­lice were con­sti­tu­tion­ally lit­er­ate and led the com­mu­nity in de­vel­op­ing such lit­er­acy?

Con­sti­tu­tional lit­er­acy en­tails know­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion suf­fi­ciently well to in­voke it prop­erly. Such lit­er­acy is a mat­ter of de­gree, de­pend­ing on knowl­edge re­quired in a given cir­cum­stance. A non-sworn cit­i­zen need not know the Con­sti­tu­tion as well as judges or po­lice of­fi­cers should know it. But those who take an oath to the Con­sti­tu­tion have the re­spon­si­bil­ity to know its con­tents and in­ter­pre­ta­tions of it— such as court de­ci­sions — that are pro­fes­sion­ally rel­e­vant. Greater lit­er­acy would in­clude un­der­stand­ing the his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal back­ground of the Con­sti­tu­tion, as well as dis­cus­sions and ap­pli­ca­tions of it since its rat­i­fi­ca­tion. Even the most ba­si­cally lit­er­ate per­son is able to dis­tin­guish the Con­sti­tu­tion from the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, rec­og­niz­ing that the two doc­u­ments dif­fer con­cern­ing law, rights, and jus­tice.

Hav­ing taught cour­ses on ethics and on the Con­sti­tu­tion to law en­force­ment pro­fes­sion­als for two decades, I have amassed schol­arly, anec­do­tal and em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence of con­sti­tu­tional il­lit­er­acy. The stu­dents I en­counter are ex­cel­lent at their craft, but their knowl­edge of the Con­sti­tu­tion, judg­ing from their scores on an exam I give them, could be bet­ter: Scores av­er­age around 50 per­cent. Po­lice ba­sic train­ing varies widely from state to state, with the du­ra­tion of train­ing rang­ing from 360 hours (in Louisiana) to 2,700 hours (in North Dakota), the mean be­ing ap­prox­i­mately 800 hours. On av­er­age, ap­prox­i­mately 6 per­cent of the train­ing fo­cuses di­rectly on con­sti­tu­tional mat­ters, usu­ally fo­cus­ing on rel­e­vant amend­ments and court de­ci­sions. Hav­ing grad­u­ated from the academy, the po­lice of­fi­cer rarely re­ceives fur­ther train­ing on the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Po­lice of­fi­cers may have suc­cess­ful ca­reers with­out read­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion. But how sin­cere is one’s oath to the Con­sti­tu­tion if one hasn’t read it or doesn’t un­der­stand it? How much more en­gaged in de­fend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion could po­lice be if they un­der­stood the im­por­tance of be­ing its pub­lic face?

As an Epis­co­pal priest, I’m en­cour­aged to pon­der the 2,000 years of his­tory, tra­di­tion, wis­dom and val­ues that Chris­tian clergy rep­re­sent. Peo­ple seeking a priest look to ben­e­fit from all the priest rep­re­sents. Of course, all I can of­fer is one per­son’s take on it, but the more I study and un­der­stand the tenets of the faith, the bet­ter pre­pared I am to rep­re­sent it.

Sim­i­larly, po­lice academy grad­u­ates tak­ing the oath to the Con­sti­tu­tion are com­mit­ting to rep­re­sent the his­tory, tra­di­tion, wis­dom and val­ues that un­der­score the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment, its back­ground, and its sub­se­quent ap­pli­ca­tions. These grad­u­ates have, in ef­fect, been or­dained into the min­istry of the Con­sti­tu­tion. This obliges them to know what they are tak­ing an oath to, to en­gage in on­go­ing study, and to help the com­mu­nity de­velop its con­sti­tu­tional lit­er­acy. As with re­li­gion, the con­ver­sa­tion about the Con­sti­tu­tion needn’t suf­fer be­cause of dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions and em­phases, so long as ev­ery­one in the con­ver­sa­tion has made a good faith ef­fort to read the core doc­u­ment, come to un­der­stand it as best as one can, and com­mit to open and re­spect­ful di­a­logue about it.

To this end, one can imag­ine cer­tain changes in po­lice acad­e­mies. Sup­pose, for ex­am­ple, re­cruits took the oath at the be­gin­ning of their train­ing, just as the mil­i­tary does. And if not the for­mal oath, why not have the re­cruits re­cite the oath on their first day and then en­cour­age them through­out the train­ing to chal­lenge their in­struc­tors on the con­sti­tu­tional rel­e­vance of their train­ing. At grad­u­a­tion such train­ing is apt to give the newly minted pro­fes­sional a depth of com­mit­ment not seen at present. Once po­lice have en­tered the pro­fes­sion, their agen­cies might con­tin­u­ously en­cour­age them to sharpen their con­sti­tu­tional skills. These agen­cies might also spon­sor gath­er­ings of po­lice and com­mu­nity to study the Con­sti­tu­tion to­gether.

Whether such ef­forts at pro­mot­ing con­sti­tu­tional lit­er­acy will help po­lice-com­mu­nity re­la­tions, only time will tell. But in the mean­time, such ef­forts couldn’t hurt.

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