Changing the Frame

Image from Guardian UK

The frame we create to address a social issue can only hold some specific things, and the shape of the frame forms its contents. So let’s talk about one frame we’ve constructed, the one we call law enforcement. There’s two words there, and they both matter.

First, law. Laws are the boundaries we place around unacceptable behavior, the fence we put up and say, “no further than this.” By their very design, they have nothing whatsoever to say about a good life; they define the bad, the offense, the criminal, the fraudulent. The focus on law is a capitulation to a particular moment in history: the Calvinist doctrine of utter depravity or the inherent, ruinous sinfulness that lies within all of us, conjoined with Enlightenment beliefs in reason and the perfectibility of human structures. In short, the lawmakers will get it right, which is a good thing since the rest of us are fated to get it wrong wrong wrong.

Second, enforcement, which of course means “to apply force.” If you step beyond the fence of law, you will be met with aggressive response.

That combination, law enforcement, is a bitter recipe that has always allowed the powerful to set their forces against those who will not, or cannot, or sometimes should not, stay within the fence. And the fence always moves, and the position of the fence is set by people with power and money, and so laws tend to exclude the reasonable interests of those who are less able to establish them.

Law enforcement is, in both terms, a deeply masculinist construction: the faith in reason to achieve the correct law, and the faith in aggression to enforce it.

So let’s imagine an entirely different frame with which to hold a similar function. Let’s call it civic protection. Like law enforcement, civic protection has two words, and again, both words matter.

First, civic. Rather than focusing on an external tool—the law—attention to the civic means diagnosing and resolving problems to the civitas, or community. The community is made up of everyone around us, of every age and every race and every history and every gender. It’s made up of consumers and businesses, made up of workers and employers, made up of streets and houses and shops and skyscrapers. The fundamental question is the health of the community, which is a matter of collective judgment about which disagreement might reasonably be expected. So a core skill of civic protection would clearly be mediation, in which a disagreement is aired, tested, and (temporarily) resolved.

Second, protection. The basic work of civic protection would be to protect the members of the community from harm. Rather than law enforcement, which focuses on the violator, civic protection would focus on the violated. In domestic violence, for instance, civic protection would start by removing the woman and kids and pets from danger rather than beginning with a confrontation with the man. Police engaged in civic protection would fundamentally be observant for things being harmed, rather than for those engaged in harmful behavior.

Similar work might get done under each frame. Police might pull over someone who’s driving erratically, for instance, but their response would be entirely different. Right now, the law enforcement protocol would be to do a field test for intoxication, with a hard threshold of 0.08% blood alcohol that would trigger an arrest or a release. A civic protection protocol would be to say, “You’re driving erratically, and we’d like to get you home safely. We’ll send someone tomorrow to follow up and see what’s going on.” The goal would be public safety in the shorter and longer term, not arrest and prosecution.

There’s a long tradition of restorative justice, in which the harmed and the one who caused harm are brought together to build a reconciliation. The idea is to restore a healthy community, which is considered to be the normal, baseline state rather than the presumption of criminality we begin with now. Restorative justice is slow, and it can be expensive, though you can pay for a lot of mediators for the price of an armored personnel carrier. But the current system of publicly sanctioned revenge leaves everyone wounded, and works against rather than on behalf of civic protection.

Officer Patrick Skinner of the Savannah GA police department describes better than I ever could what civic protection can look like, and what it can accomplish.

More tomorrow.