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University of Pittsburgh Law Review

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Scholarship on policing has exploded in recent years as bystanders increasingly record and circulate videos of police brutality, much of it directed at civilians of color. These incidents have invited significant attention on the culture of police departments and police unions, generating widespread calls for the reform or even the abolition of police forces. The traditional considerations at the center of these debates include the practical challenges to enacting reforms, the expected efficacy of proposed changes for curtailing abuses, and the possible costs of these changes (whether measured in dollars or crime rates). The moral premises that are inherently embedded in reform arguments typically remain unstated and undefended, obscuring entire categories of harm imposed by police, as well as the proper aims and urgency of reform.

Quite separately from disputes about policing, many legal scholars have come to accept that the proper aim of the law is to facilitate the moral flourishing of the public, or, relatedly, that the human virtues provide a helpful model for understanding the law and the obligations of its agents. Scholars have applied this theoretical framework, known as “virtue jurisprudence,” to dozens of substantive areas of law as well as to the professional duties of legal officers, such as judges and lawyers. Yet, much as moral considerations have largely been left aside by policing scholars, policing has been effectively overlooked by virtue scholars. This latter omission is especially peculiar. Whether one accepts that the law is instrumental in guiding the moral development of the populace, or that the virtues serve as helpful models for the professional duties of judges and lawyers, policing is plainly ripe for virtue-centered analysis. After all, the police represent the most prominent point of contact between the public and the legal system and, more than any other state officials, police personify the government’s near-monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

This Article analyzes American policing through the lens supplied by virtue jurisprudence, arguing that uncontroversial assumptions about the moral role of the law provide both a compelling basis for sweeping police reform and valuable parameters for the nature of such reform. The virtues reveal an entire class of harms caused by police that are widely overlooked: the propensity of policing to make us morally worse people. Police inflict these harms by demanding fawning deference from the civilians they serve and by widely expressing and modeling vice, especially through their unapologetic demonstrations of bias and brutality. The virtues simultaneously offer a cohesive theoretical justification for condemning the more obvious harms linked to racism and excessive use of force by police, harms that monopolize scholarly attention. Virtue jurisprudence thus grounds a more comprehensive tally of the merits and demerits of American law enforcement, and it reframes a solution to the problem of policing: whether through reform or abolition, we must humble the police.



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