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    The Unspoken Influence of William James' Pragmatism on Modern Policing:
    A Caution for Police Ethics Trainers

    The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage
    for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us.
    - Paul Valery

    A lie told often enough becomes truth.
    - Vladimir Lenin

    This page explores the origins of the curious policing philosophy that leads community leaders to require
    that law enforcement officials maintain a community perception of safety and the implications of such a
    philosophy for law enforcement ethics trainers.  The discussion explores some of the roots of policing in
    the United States and attempts to link modern policing to William James' version of Pragmatism.

    Dr. Frank Kardasz,. November 2, 2008

    The following sentence is an excerpt from the performance achievement plan listing a goal of a police
    commander in a major U.S. City:

    Crime Suppression: To become the safest major city, maintain a high perception of safety in the

    Measuring the success of the goal was done by conducting telephone surveys of citizens and asking the
    citizens about their opinions of the police department.  The police commanders' compensation package
    and pay increases were based partly upon the success of meeting the goal of maintaining a high
    perception of safety.

    Making the police responsible for changing community perceptions leads to the following questions:

  • How did policing reach a point where a goal includes maintaining the fickle community

  • Why are law enforcement officers required to perform the "perception-maintenance"  work
    sometimes associated with public-relations firms or hypnotists?

  • Some law enforcement agencies have witnessed a growth in the number of employees assigned to
                community or media relations functions in recent decades. Is there a growing trend towards
    perception-maintenance at the expense of "street" enforcement work?

  • What are the ramifications of policies that encourage perception-maintenance for instructors of

    Peel’s Police Reform Principles of 1829

    The framework for modern policing in the United States emerged from England in the mid
    1800’s’. Sir Robert Peel is credited as the father of modern policing. Peel was a British statesman and
    member of Parliament. In 1829 he helped reform and organize London’s police (Peel, Sir Robert, 2003).

    Peel developed nine principles forming a model for policing that was later  transplanted to America as a
    basis for its police service (Taylor, 1984). Some of the principles are still recognized by police in the United
    States as parts of the community based policing model.  A review of the principles helps to show how
    modern theory developed. The nine principles (Sir Robert Peel’s, 1829) were:

    1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and by
    severity legal punishment.

    2. To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent
    on public approval of their existence, actions, and behavior, and on their ability to secure and
    maintain public respect.

    3. To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means
    also the securing of the willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

    4. To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured
    diminishes, proportionately, the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving
    police objectives.

    5. To seek and to preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly
    demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without
    regard to the justice or injustices of the substance of individual laws; by ready offering of individual
    service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing;
    by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in
    protecting and preserving life.

    6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be
    insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to
    restore order; and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any
    particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

    7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that
    the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public
    who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen, in the
    interests of community welfare and existence.

    8. To recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain
    from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the state, and of
    authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

    9. To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not
    the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

    Pragmatism’s Influence

    This section briefly examines the philosophy of pragmatism, with emphasis on William James’ beliefs.
    Pragmatism is reviewed here as a prelude to later examination of its apparent application to modern police
    community relations and the possible influence on police ethics training.

    Pragmatism is a philosophy based on the belief that the meaning and truth of an idea is a function of its
    practical outcome (American Pragmatism – 1, n.d.). Emerging first in the United States in the late 1800's,
    pragmatism attempted to apply scientific and social developments of the era to prior metaphysical beliefs.
    Pragmatists are anti-absolutists, believing that principles are working hypotheses rather than binding
    axioms. Pragmatism is sometimes associated with experimentalism. Pragmatism and experimentalism
    both assume that the universe is ever changing and that the individual must interact with the environment
    to solve problems (Reinertsen and Hedges, 1988, p. 129).

    Pragmatists included Charles Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-
    1952). Each held slightly different beliefs regarding pragmatism. Pierce believed that a connection exists
    between an action and the meaning derived from the action. Pierce said that an idea's meaning is found in
    its "conceivable sensible effects" and that a belief is generated through the habits of action (American
    Pragmatism – 1, n.d.).

    Reinertsen and Hedges (1988) suggest that pragmatism is an appropriate philosophical theory for
    criminal justice education. In an article discussing learning theories for adult learners, they synonymize
    pragmatism with experimentalism and conclude that the philosophy is useful because it requires group
    learning and objective thought. It is important to note that their recommendation focuses only on the critical
    thinking aspects of pragmatism as an investigative tool for applied policing and not on pragmatism as it
    was developed by William James.

    William James – Counterintuitively Creating Fact from Belief

    William James’ ideas about pragmatism differed from those of Peirce and Dewey. James’ beliefs are
    worth examining in a law enforcement context because of the apparent application of some of his ideas to
    modern police administration.

    James developed pragmatism as a theory of truth. True ideas, according to James, develop from
    experience in ways that provide consistency, orderliness, and predictability. James described pragmatism
    with the statement; "True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False
    ideas are those that we cannot." (Pragmatism, 1907, p. 77).

    For law enforcement ethics instructors, the concept that information should be validated, corroborated and
    verified is credible. The segment of pragmatism that encourages the investigation and corroboration of
    truth is compatible with ethics training in law enforcement.

    Some of James’ ideas are not useful in the context of applied policing. According to James, (Pragmatism,
    1907, p. 77) pragmatism asks questions including; ”Grant an idea or belief is true, what concrete difference
    will it's being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be
    different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in
    experiential terms?" In an applied law enforcement context, James’ requirement for introspective
    interpretation of truth in an individualized manner may be problematic. Analysis of the truth by an irrational
    thinker can lead to subjective decision-making. For peace officers, the truth should not be followed by the
    question, “What’s in it for me?”

    James also theorized that beliefs help create reality. He said, "These, then, are my last words to you: Be not
    afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact." (Albright, R. Winter
    2000, p. 17). This sort of self-hypnosis may be useful as a psychological technique for a depressed person
    attempting to develop a positive attitude, however manufacturing fact from metaphysical belief is not a
    useful process in law enforcement administration. The troublesome aspect of  James’ version of
    pragmatism for teachers of ethics is the concept that beliefs, once held, become reality. In other words, an
    idea, whether true or false, becomes actuality for the holder of the idea. Consequently, an unethical
    pragmatist can manipulate facts and circumstances to cause himself or others to believe lies.

    The 1837 children’s story, The Emperor’s New Suit, by Hans Christian Anderson provides a silly example
    of James’ version of pragmatism run amuck. The story describes a vain Emperor, deceived by scoundrels
    and fearful followers to believe that he is clothed when he is in fact naked. For the misguided emperor, the
    deception became his reality. Although the intimidated citizenry is quietly aware that the emperor is naked,
    they too are led to believe that he is clothed. He parades naked down the street, believing he is clothed. A
    small child is the only one brave and unwitting enough to mention that the emperor has no clothes. The
    story is an exaggeration of the pragmatic way in which a mistaken belief can become reality.

    The lessons of pragmatism are not lost in modern American police administration. Although few public
    administrators would openly embrace the seemingly self-hypnotic tenants of James’ version pragmatism,
    all are keenly aware of theability to create reality through carefully spun publicity and misinformation. Sadly,
    there is no shortage of unwitting victims of unethical pragmatists. The philosophy of pragmatism is as
    applicable in modern society as it was when it first began in the 1800’s. James’ version of pragmatism
    may have found it’s way into modern police practice, as the following sections will attempt to demonstrate.

    The Newark, New Jersey Foot Patrol Experiment: No effect on crime rates

    In 1979, a widely publicized foot patrol experiment was conducted in Newark, New Jersey (Police
    Foundation, Foot Patrol Experiment). The experiment attempted to determine whether foot patrol made
    citizens feel safer and reduced crime. Police who had previously patrolled only in vehicles instead walked
    the beat and mingled with citizens on a more personal basis. The results of the foot patrol experiment are
    summarized as follows:

    Residents in areas where foot patrol was introduced clearly changed their attitudes about crime and how
    they felt about the safety and livability of their neighborhoods. They also were more satisfied with police

    While foot patrol had no effect on recorded crime rates, it should be remembered that citizens feel
    threatened by non-criminal (disorderly) behavior as well, and that this threat of victimization may
    dramatically alter their lives. In response to a perceived threat, they may, for instance, nail their windows
    shut, carry lethal weapons, or avoid walking in their own neighborhood. Thus, fear can undermine the
    viability of major cities and erode the quality of urban dwellers.

    The experiment’s summary ends with this interesting statement: Close contact between police and the
    citizenry helps the former develop first-hand information about crime and possible criminal behavior. Such
    information systems are likely to have a positive long-term impact (Police Foundation, 1979).

    The Newark experiment reflected a movement towards humanism in policing. Humanism in the context of
    policing emphasized peace officers acting not only as agents of the law but as change agents for
    improving human development, human understanding and the human condition of those being served
    (Leonard, 1980).

    The Newark foot patrol experiment and other similar confirming research marked a turning point in
    American policing. As a result, one new measure of police effectiveness was not the actual absence of
    crime but the mere perception of an absence of crime. Offering vague and nebulous “long-term” impact
    instead of immediate results, foot patrol was an acceptable answer for helpless officials fighting
    burgeoning crime problems in some cities. According to the findings of the Newark, New Jersey foot patrol
    experiment, despite the crime rate, those citizens who saw the nearby cop walking the beat might convince
    themselves they were safer.

    Broken Windows

    The “broken windows” theory of social disorder was developed and described by Wilson and Kelling in a
    1982 article in the Atlantic. The article was based partly on the 1979 Newark foot patrol experiment. The
    broken windows theory states briefly that a community can deteriorate into major disorder and crime if no
    one attends to maintenance of things such as broken windows, graffiti, and minor incidents of public
    nuisance. Wilson and Kelling state:

    Above all, we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities
    as well as individuals. Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but
    they do not measure communal losses. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of
    fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police--and the rest of us--ought to
    recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows (Wilson &
    Kelling, 1982).

    In their book, Fixing broken windows: restoring order and reducing crime in our communities (1996. p. 18)
    Kelling and Cole reflect on the earlier Newark foot patrol experiment. They state:

    …police officials were unimpressed with foot patrol, however citizen responses were uniformly
    positive… Overwhelmingly, fear declined and citizen appreciation for police soared. Although foot
    patrol did not reduce the incidence of serious crime, residents of foot-patrolled neighborhoods felt
    more secure than did those in other areas, believed crime to have been reduced, and appeared to
    take fewer measures to protect themselves from crime (such as staying home and locking doors).

    The Newark foot patrol experiment and the Atlantic article by Wilson and Kelling contributed to popularize
    foot patrol as an alleged long-term way to reduce crime and improve police-community relations.
    Politicians began demanding and promising police foot patrol as part of their political crime-fighting
    platforms. Foot patrol, and later Community Based Policing programs, became susceptible to pressures
    from special interest groups and political leaders (Trojanowicz & Harden, 1985, n.p.).

    Police Community Relations and Community Based Policing

    The phrase “police community relations” was first popularized in 1955 (Taylor, 1984, p. 146). Police
    community relations developed through the combined disciplines of sociology, psychology, education, law
    and political science. It advocated improving the image of police through such tactics as public speaking
    engagements, open houses and police athletic programs (Taylor, 1984, p. 156).

    The 1970’s and 1980’s saw a shift towards what is now known as community based policing. Community
    based policing promotes cooperation and teamwork between law enforcement and the public. Citizens are
    encouraged to assist the police in non-enforcement tasks intended to improve the overall community and
    the collective sense of public safety. (COPS, 2003)

    Remnants of the public-service elements of Sir Robert Peel’s ideas are found in contemporary versions of
    community based policing. But Peel's ninth maxim, that the measure of police efficiency is the absence of
    crime, was not a stated goal of many community based policing plans (Trojanowicz, Colgan, & Harden,
    Community policing programs: A twenty-year view, 1986). Focusing on cooperation and participation,
    community based policing continued to advocate shared responsibility for law enforcement with the

    Increased cooperation between law enforcement and the public also meant increased access to the police
    by citizens and the media. Citizens have active and legitimate interests in law enforcement work. Popular
    culture, the media and entertainment all maintain macabre fascinations with the intricacies and drama of
    law enforcement work. Action-adventure films and documentaries portray policing in exhausting, and
    sometimes-inaccurate detail. Investigative reporters, sometimes motivated by producers seeking improved
    ratings and additional viewers, work diligently to expose every sensationalized aspect of police work in
    ways that will draw viewers and sell advertising. It is likely that public perception is dramatically effected by
    such exposure.

    Today, police administrators are tasked with shaping public perception as an important job duty. Improving
    public opinion of the police is a frustrating goal for contemporary agency heads. Despite any righteous
    goals related to law enforcement and the apprehension of criminals, a basic fact of police agency life is
    that they are dependent on their community for financial resources and support (Taylor, 1984, p. 157).

    Molding the often fickle and sometimes misguided public consciousness is so important now that in some
    agencies it is a top goal. For example, in one major city, the number one goal of the Organized Crime
    Bureau commander is listed as follows: Make the city the safest major city in America by raising the public
    perception of safety. Although state law in this unnamed jurisdiction defines peace officer as one whose
    duty is to maintain public order and make arrests, the commanders’ list of goals make no direct mention of
    arrests. This is not surprising since theoretically, every arrest indicates that an unsafe condition existed.
    Increasing arrest statistics may only decrease the public perception of safety. Disbanding the Organized
    Crime Bureau and re-deploying its personnel as smiling public relations specialists may be the best way
    to fulfill the goal of raising the public perception of safety.

    For police ethics instructors there may be a dilemma. To what extent should ethics training recognize that
    peace officers are tasked with shifting public perception?  How does one adhere to the rule of law and
    report the crime-ridden truth while simultaneously raising the perception of safety?

    Perception or Reality?

    Edwin J. Delattre, author of Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (1996, preface) describes an alarming
    trend towards appealing to public perception, potentially at the expense of law enforcement ethics. He

    I have been shocked and alarmed by a tendency I have witnessed in educational programs on
    ethics for police and police executives. I have repeatedly heard academics lawyers, reporters, and
    other outside “authorities” tell police that “appearances” and “public perceptions” matter more than
    anything else in policing, law enforcement, and other forms of public service.

    I do not know any competent philosopher or student of ethics who would make such an indefensible
    claim, especially in a setting where so much is at stake. After all, if you perceive me as your true and
    loyal friend, when in reality I am a cheat and a liar who will take advantage of you when the time is
    right, which matters more to you: what you perceive me to be, or what I truly am? Which is of greater
    importance to your well being, your perception or the truth?

    As these simple questions show, the idea that perceptions are more important than everything else
    is false. Police should reject this dangerous idea. First, public perceptions of police (and everything
    else) are always varied. Some public perceptions are rational and fair-minded; others are
    unfounded and prejudiced. Second, public perceptions are notoriously fickle, changing as rapidly
    as television sound bites. A police department or law enforcement agency that is driven by
    adoration of appearances, by preoccupation with public perceptions, can have no real focus,
    mission or standards to which it is durably faithful.

    Delattre’s observations may have important implications for law enforcement ethics training. Ethics is often
    (correctly ) associated with obtaining the truth. What style of ethics training will be developed by the police
    administrators who are led by the “authorities” Delattre describes? Delattre comments further:

    A police department or law enforcement agency should be determined to deserve the confidence
    and trust of the public, not merely to appear to be worthy. If its members care most of all about
    public perceptions, they will be tempted to deceive the public by covering up wrongdoing and
    mistakes rather than improving themselves, their policies, their practices, their trustworthiness.
    Reality matters.

    But no element of responsible policing and law enforcement is compatible with the indefensible
    claim that perceptions or appearances are themselves the most important reality.

    Delattre’s comments are important for law enforcement ethics instructors and for developers of police
    ethics training. Ethics training tools must be applied in ways that guard against their use as weapons
    of manipulation.


    This page described the path of policing theory from Sir Robert Peel through the growth of pragmatism in
    the 1800's to contemporary community based policing theory. While citizens continue to fear crime, experts
    recognize that it will never be eradicated. Embarrassed by an inability to erase crime, public administrators
    sought alternative ways to appease the public. Foot patrol, although proven not to reduce crime, succeeded
    in causing citizens to simply believe they were safer and offered potential long-term benefits.

    Through the 1980's and beyond, some leaders tacitly embraced an unwritten policy of attempting to
    manipulate public opinion. While there is no evidence of law enforcement leaders openly subscribing to
    James’ version of pragmatism, it seems that the policy of manipulating reality was often quietly accepted.
    Community based policing followed, with increased emphasis on citizen, media and police interaction
    designed to improve the perception of public safety.

    Frustrated law enforcement officials now devote increased resources to building positive public images
    and improving their agencies’ approval ratings. As William James said, opinion, not necessarily fact,
    becomes reality. Pragmatisms’ inclination towards self-deception as not openly endorsed as a guiding
    philosophy but a tendency towards manipulating public image seems to indicate an association in practice
    between pragmatism and modern policing.

    Philosophers including Delatrre are dismayed at the notion that public opinion is the most important
    aspect of policing. From Peel’s time to the present, some agencies have tacitly endorsed a pathology
    encouraging subtle deception in the name of improved public image. The predilection may create a
    dilemma for ethics trainers employed by organizations devoted to improving public image above all else.
    For ethics trainers, it is important to be aware of this trend and to guard against being unduly influenced by


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    Purchase the book:
    Kardasz, F. (2008). Ethics training for law enforcement: Practices and trends.
    Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag.
    ISBN: 3639001567. ISBN-13: 9783639001563.
    Available from