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Philosophy and Policing

by Larry Barksdale

I once read that a Sheriff in a rural County in the United States advertised for a philosopher's position. The Sheriff explained that Philosophers do what good law enforcement officers should do. This made me start to wonder what it is that philosophers do, and if what they do has real world, day-to-day, application in an occupation like law enforcement.

One would surmise that the culture of a given society has identified and defined certain acceptable behaviors. At least the law and social conventions have established some parameters of acceptable behavior. With this assumption as a given, it follows that law enforcement personnel engage in behaviors that tend to reinforce acceptable behaviors. Philosophers define reality, establish meaning, clarify morals, clear up confusion, and seek what is true; tasks which relate to defining acceptable societal behavior. It is a short step to extend such actions to the creation of public policy.

My interest in the Sheriff's advertisement, however, went beyond the relevance of philosophy to social policy. Policy as such would seem to extend beyond the daily behavior of police officers. This is assuming that the law enforcement officers internalize the cultural values. My interest was in the practical application that might relate to daily tasks. Does philosophy have a practical application to the task performance of a worker such as a law enforcement officer?

A place to begin, it would seem, would be with what might apply to the gathering of information and the use of information. As an example, does philosophy have anything to say about the practical investigation of a store robbery? The concern is not if the robbery was immoral, calling for justice, and so forth, but if there are any applications to relate to investigative tasks.

The thought that arises is that the investigative task is akin to theory formation. The law enforcement officer gathers information of various sorts, and attempts to develop a theory, an explanation, of an event. Information might include witness statements, victim statements, suspect statements, physical evidence, and crime analysis information. The explanation, or theory, would hopefully include a description of the events entailing the legal culpability of a person.

Theory building in an investigation such as this does not particularly lend itself to empirical testing. One cannot shoot or assault people to test the validity of an injury pattern. Additionally, a theory must be formulated in a rather quick fashion to guide an investigation. Wherefrom does the philosopher enter into the picture?

I would suggest that the philosopher enters into the practicality of an investigation by formulating the methodology of theory testing. One approach is to apply the steps of the scientific method: identify a problem, propose a hypothesis, gather data, form a conclusion, accept or refute the hypothesis. Since one is not afforded the opportunity to recreate the event, there must be others means to test the data and form a conclusion from the data. The data can be physical evidence, witness information, and intelligence information. One can test the logical relationship between the physical evidence, witness information, and intelligence information to form the conclusion that such an event took place, and that such a person was illegally involved in the event. Can one be sure that all of the information is accurate, and that all possible information has been gathered, and that logical relationships are valid? Here is the point at which the philosopher steps in to drive the bus. It is the point of conceptualization of a method, and rests upon the concept of error.

Sir Karl Popper provides a fitting observation along these lines when he says:

According to this piecemeal view, there is no clearly marked division between the pre-scientific and the scientific experimental approaches, even though the more and more conscious application of scientific, that is to say, of critical methods, is of great importance. Both approaches may be described, fundamentally, as utilizing the method of trial and error. We try; that is, we do not merely register an observation, but make active attempts to solve some more or less practical and definite problems. And we make progress if, and only if, we are prepared to learn from our mistakes: to recognize our errors and to utilize them critically instead of persevering in them dogmatically.... All theories are trials; they are tentative hypotheses, tried out to see whether they work and all experimental corroboration is simply the result of tests undertaken in a critical spirit, in an attempt to find out where our theories err.

(Popper pp. 314-315)

What emerges is that the law enforcement investigator ought to look for errors in the investigative information and the investigative theory. The efforts that refute a theory seem often to be a contributory factor in the "chance discovery" of important information (Popper, p. 177). The looking for errors to refute is a philosophical teaching point. The concept that refutation proves the truth of a theory is a philosophical exercise in thought. It would be fair to say that most law enforcement officers want to be accurate. However, after information is gathered and an explanation tendered, the efforts to find error in the information or to 'poke holes' in an explanation are less likely, I suspect, than the efforts to adhere to an assertion or to gather further information to bolster an assertion.

The philosophy of language might provide an area to illustrate the effort to look for error. Let us assume that the store owner and a witness gave a physical description of the robber. Let us further assume that the height and weight descriptions were different by considerable amounts, and that there were differences in clothing descriptions. One might question the witnesses and make comparisons with known heights and colors, as an example, to get a more specific description. It would not be atypical for a law enforcement officer to combine the two descriptions into a general description, believe one witness more than another, or to leave a very broad description.

The philosopher might ask if the language of each witness was not a shared language (in the sense of Wittgenstein). Efforts to transform the 'private' language into a shared language might produce a more specific description. What one would be looking for is the basis of error in the language use of the witness or the law enforcement officer. It is a large step, but perhaps a possible step to look to the concept of deconstruction and interactivity proposed by Derrida (p. 127). That is, can one break down the meaning of an assertion to expose its errors, and thus accept that in the meaning is the growth of meaning? In essence, is a 'gun' a gun, or a 'tall man' a tall man, and how did each come about to be the case? Does the interaction to reach a shared language include a new meaning that approaches or digresses from reality?

From one of my previous experiences, a person described the vehicle of a bank robber as a certain make and model and probable year. The witness also described a specific color of the suspect vehicle. Tire prints that were very unique were discovered at the scene. A suspect vehicle was subsequently discovered that was similar in make, model, and year. The unique tire tracks were matched to the suspect vehicle. The owner of the suspect car matched the description of the robber. However, the color of the suspect vehicle was completely different than that described by the witness. It was learned that the witness was not color blind. The witness had ample light and position to clearly see the suspect vehicle. The witness was driven to numerous car lots and asked to identify colors of automobiles pointed out by an investigator. The investigator was satisfied that the witness accurately identified colors as perceived by the investigator. Later, however, it was discovered, quite by accident, that the brown suspect vehicle when parked at a certain distance from a mercury vapor streetlight clearly looked green. Reconstruction of the scene of the robbery with the suspect vehicle at the same time of day and location as the robbery with the witness in the same observation position confirmed that the vehicle in fact was 'green' to the witness and various police officers at that point in time and space.

Might one, with the training of a philosopher, not have been able to mentally consider alternative possibilities of explaining the difference in the color of the suspect vehicle? Might one not have thought to apply the concept of 'testing for error' and seen that a color difference could logically have been due to physical properties of light reflection? Thus equipped, the investigator could have recreated the scene earlier on in the investigation and taken advantage of a 'chance discovery' in Popper's sense rather than relying on sheer accident. Applying the philosopher's tools, considering meaning, structure of language, concepts of color, and so forth one might have arrived at a conclusion that the language of the witness constituted a valid, not an invalid assertion. From this, one might have reasoned that the error was not in language but was due to another phenomenon. Applying the tools of the philosopher would have produced a more timely resolution of the issue of suspect vehicle color, and reduced the risk of not resolving the issue.

I suggest that the philosopher has much to give to the day-to-day activities of the law enforcement officer. There are the techniques of methodology of truth verification. There are the concepts related to language and object relationships. Most practically, I offer, is that philosophy has the opportunity to provide the gift of exercise of thought.



Derrida, J. (2000). Limited Inc Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Miller, D. ed. (1985). Popper Selections Princeton, NJ: Princeton University press.

© Larry Barksdale 2002

Lincoln, Nebraska, USA
Police Department