Law enforcement officers are some of the most visible constitutional protectors in the world. We ask them to pledge to defend and uphold the Constitution, but like most of us, it’s unlikely they have read the Constitution recently, if at all. Add to that the fact that much of their police academy training regards the Constitution as an impediment to efficient police work and suddenly officers find themselves in direct opposition to their oath instead of focusing on their utmost responsibility.
“Law enforcement officers take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” says Teresa Gooch, the Law Enforcement Division Director for Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), the agency in charge of providing training to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s officers. “The best way an officer can uphold, support, and defend the Constitution is to have a thorough understanding of what is required of them.”
Montpelier is leading the charge in targeted constitutional education for law enforcement officers. Instead of focusing on how the Constitution limits law enforcement, Montpelier teaches law enforcement agents to embrace the Constitution as a steadfast and reliable guide for securing communities.
Tim Longo talks about why it's important for law enforcement officials to understand the Constitution
As with any government job, it’s imperative that law enforcement officials are deeply in tune with the rules and regulations that govern their work. In a field that’s heavily scrutinized and often dangerous, having a strong constitutional foundation is important when making split-second decisions. When emotions take over in intense situations it can lead to misjudgement, which can be the difference between the life and death of another person, or themselves. A poor decision, influenced by heightened emotion in the heat of the moment, can also be the difference between constitutional policing and an abuse of power.
Right now there is a crisis of trust between law enforcement and the public, and in some communities this is not a new phenomenon. Constitutional policing (or the lack thereof), is at the heart of this distrust. Every news cycle widens the chasm between police and the public, where citizens feel like their rights are being violated by the very people tasked with defending them. As sworn guardians of the Constitution, it’s vital that law enforcement officers have a deep and detailed understanding of how the Constitution informs their goal of protecting and serving the public. We don’t think it’s enough for cops to read the Constitution; we want them to understand it and most of all, believe it.
Stewart Harris explains how police officers are representatives of the people
"This is what we do every day of our careers. It should be mandatory for all LEOs. In almost 22 years of law enforcement, this is the first class I have attended that gave me a better understanding of the basis for the Constitution."
Constitutional Law Enforcement Participant
The immersive nature of studying the Constitution at Montpelier sets our programs apart from other training opportunities. Instead of sitting in large lecture halls or hotel conference rooms, participants are tasked with engaging each other and faculty on core American ideals at the very home of the architect of the Bill of Rights. Participants are housed on the property overnight, affording continued opportunities for discourse after the sessions have dismissed.
Michael Meyerson, DLA Piper Professor of Law; Director, Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence, University of Baltimore School of Law; Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation
Montpelier aims to be at the forefront of helping to repair the public trust in law enforcement in the coming years.
Tim Longo explains a Montpelier law enforcement seminar
The Future of Policing
How do we move forward in an era where biased policing seems to have become the rule, not the exception?
When community trust in its law enforcement erodes, this compounds already tense relations between some communities and police departments, particularly due to disproportionate targeting of minority groups. In fact, according to Gallup, only 49% of non-whites feel confident that the police will protect them from violent crime, compared to 60% of whites. There’s a catastrophic breakdown of the reciprocal relationship that should exist between law enforcement and the community, the image of law enforcement is tarnished, and it becomes a vicious, dangerous cycle of violence and mistrust.
A step towards solving this systemic issue, is to ensure public safety officers act constitutionally. To begin to rebuild trust between the community and the police, law enforcement must commit to understanding not only their constitutional limits, but take to heart that they are sworn guardians of constitutional liberty. The trust that an officer will exercise his or her power constitutionally is what legitimizes that power and the government itself.
A commitment to the Constitution is how we ensure that those who are tasked with protecting our rights and liberties aren’t abusing them, and as new situations and technologies challenge existing presumptions of policing, it’s crucial that constitutional considerations are front-and-center. Without this backbone, the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve will continue to fray, and it’s this coexistence that we as a society rely on so that we can live freely and safely—something that’s beneficial for officers and the public.
Richmond Police Officer, Jordan Clark, explains the importance of the Constitution to effective police work