Why Are the Police Important in a Democratic Society?

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The police are important in a democratic society because they provide for the rule of law, which enhances civic trust and helps maintain social order. Equality under the law is a basic principle of a democratic society.

Democracies require high levels of civic trust because democratic governments receive legitimacy only from the consent of the governed. Social studies scholar and MIT Professor Emeritus Gary Marx notes, “It is ironic that police are both a major support and a major threat to a democratic society.” On one hand, police enhance democracy by exemplifying one of its central tenets, the rule of law, while also suppressing crime. On the other hand, police are granted by government the exclusive power to use force, which can be abused to undermine democracy. In either case, they play a prominent role in the success or failure of a democratic society.

Another key principle of democratic society is equality before the law. In his studies of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville found particularly healthy the perception of equal status among Americans. He also marveled at the extent to which Americans participated in policing and the enforcement of law, as opposed to merely waiting on authorities to act on their behalf. A neutral police force devoid of discriminatory or selective enforcement practices helps preserve faith in equal protections for all.