Policing Principles: How Connecting with the Past Can Help You Today

There is a story about a martial arts master and a less-experienced instructor. The master was grading a promotional exam, and he watched as a group of candidates performed techniques. Partway through the performance, the master yelled, “Stop! Everyone, stay as you are!” He then spoke to different students and asked for their instructor’s name. One instructor became nervous when everyone asked replied with his name. The master approached the instructor and said, “Please come with me.”

In private, the master asked the instructor to demonstrate the techniques his students were performing. Partway through the instructor’s demonstration, the master said, “Stop! Why is your head so high during this movement? Your students’ heads were also too high. Your knees should be bent more so your head is lower.” The instructor responded, “Well, Sir, I have bad knees. And lowering my stance that far hurts, so I stay a little higher in my stance to save my knees.”

“I’m afraid you’re missing something,” replied the master. “This movement can be countered by a spinning backfist. The technique calls for you to lower your stance so your head will be lower, which reduces the chance of you being hit in the head by the counterstrike.”

You are not the first to face the challenges involved with the job, and you do not have to face them alone.

The master continued, “When you think about deviating from a principle, you should understand why it exists before making a change. Many principles were developed in response to challenging situations over time. If we make changes that violate principles without understanding the importance of those principles, we make ourselves and those we teach vulnerable to harm.”

The master then said, “A benefit of being part of a discipline with a long history is that you are a link in a chain that stretches back through time, and one that will grow into the future as new practitioners join the chain. So, you are not alone in your struggles with the discipline. And other peers and mentors can help you with your struggles, just as you help your students with theirs. Now, let me show you a method of positioning your feet that relieves the stress on your knees during the technique but still follows the principle of protecting your head by lowering it. My master taught me this method when he learned how weak my knees were.”

This story expresses that today’s martial artists benefit from understanding the art’s historical principles and that each artist contributes to the art’s current and future practice. What does this have to do with policing? Similarly, current law enforcement officers can benefit by understanding how history has shaped policing principles and by remembering that each officer can impact other officers and the future of the profession.

Understand How History Has Shaped Policing Principles

The master in the story explained that the martial art’s principles had been developed based on what worked best in hard times. Policing principles have been developed and refined throughout history in much the same way.

The relationship between police and the public they serve is a delicate one. Beginning with the first loosely assembled policing groups and continuing to today’s established law enforcement agencies, communities throughout history have understood the need for an organized and dedicated group of professionals to protect them and enforce the law. But they also worried that those appointed to police them might abuse their powers or give in to corruption. The people who sought to take on policing responsibilities understood the citizens’ concerns and worked with them to develop acceptable positive policing principles.

Such principles are embodied in different works throughout history, such as in Sir Robert Peel’s Policing Principles (1829), the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics (1957), sworn oaths of office, and current agency policies. These are the foundational part of an agreement between law enforcement and the public, an arrangement made long ago and extending to today: that police professionals will adhere to ethical law enforcement principles, and the public will empower them to enforce the law. Note: Law enforcement’s role in enforcing slavery is sometimes used to argue the profession is rooted racism. This is a part of the profession’s history we must confront and must not discount in our current interactions with the public. But a glance at these foundational documents proves the principles of policing aimed to hold officers to a high ethical and moral standard; it is these principles that continue to guide us today.

One of the best ways for law enforcement to be safe, work effectively, and maintain the public trust is to hold true to the principles we have agreed to obey. This is not to say the guidance should never change; policing principles should be continuously evaluated to ensure they are still the best models for the times.

Remember That What You Do Can Affect Generations to Come

In the story, the instructor changed a time-tested technique, taught it to his students, and unknowingly exposed himself and them to a dangerous counterattack. He did not intend to place the students in harm’s way; he was just adjusting a technique to reduce stress on his knee joints. But the instructor did not understand the main reason behind the movement or that his modification would cause a ripple effect that compromised safety for generations to come.

The same thing happens in law enforcement. Experienced officers say or do something that less experienced officers see. The less experienced officers then incorporate what they hear or see into the type of officer they become. This works for both good and bad.

One of the best ways for law enforcement to be safe, work effectively, and maintain the public trust is to hold true to the principles we have agreed to obey.

Consider a veteran officer who does not wear a seat belt. They justify their choice by saying it is too much trouble to take the belt off and put it on as they get in and out of their patrol car numerous times a day. They might even say, “Nothing bad has ever happened because I wasn’t wearing a seat belt.” Now a less experienced officer who has been trained to wear a seatbelt sees the veteran officer not wearing a seat belt, and the reason they give for not wearing it sounds pretty good to him or her, so they stop wearing a seat belt and increase the chance of major injury or death if they get into a traffic accident.

It is difficult for officers to know who is looking at them as an example. One bad habit can spread to numerous other officers and increase the likelihood that someone will get hurt, killed, or ruin their career because they followed bad examples set by other officers. The same is true for good habits. A veteran officer who wears their seat belt consistently and holds other officers accountable for the same helps decrease the chance they and other officers will be seriously hurt or killed in a traffic accident.

Officers should also think about how their actions impact the public’s support of the profession. An officer being rude to someone or using questionable force to make an arrest, especially in front of ever-present mobile phone cameras, has the potential to negatively impact every officer in their agency and throughout the country.

See Yourself as Part of a Long Line of Professionals Who Have Overcome Challenges

The master told the instructor he was one link in a chain of martial artists that stretched back through history and continued forward in time. The same can be said for law enforcement. Today’s law enforcer is connected with peacekeepers throughout history, with those currently serving throughout the world, and those yet to join the profession.

The lesson here: You are not the first to face the challenges involved with the job, and you do not have to face them alone. Others in the profession have likely worked through struggles like those you are experiencing. Look to these folks for guidance and support. And as you overcome career and personal challenges, think about sharing your experiences with those going through similar difficulties. It can be life-changing to believe you are all alone in a troubling situation and then have someone tell you, “Hey. I’ve been there. Here is how I got through it. And I can help you get through it, too.”


Recent times have been chaotic for law enforcement. The pandemic, calls for police reform, and a turbulent election year have overstressed limited law enforcement resources throughout the country. It is easy for officers to become tired and frustrated under these circumstances. But the lessons in the story provide wisdom and encouragement. Officers should look to the profession’s long-standing principles and their colleagues’ good examples for proven guidance to help them make the right decisions to keep them safe and protect the public’s trust in the profession. Officers should remember to hold themselves up as excellent examples to others and look to peers and mentors for guidance, support, and inspiration when struggling to find the right answer or even make it through the day.

Famous football coach Vince Lombardi noted, “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” And officers who support each other and follow sound principles and good examples of those who have gone before them will help build a better future for the profession.

Kerry Gallegos

KERRY GALLEGOS serves as a content developer at Lexipol. He is a retired chief investigator of the Utah Attorney General’s Office and has over 20 years of law enforcement experience. He is a Certified Public Manager and has a master’s degree in accounting, a bachelor’s degree in business management, and is a graduate of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Leadership in Police Organizations (West Point Leadership) program.

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