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
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.
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
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.
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 &
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
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.
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
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 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/3639001567/