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Reforming the police

Can progressives and conservatives find common ground?

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Now that the May 28–June 1 looting orgy in many cities is in our rearview mirror, but calls to abolish police forces are in front of us, we can take time to ponder some historical experience. I’m fascinated that Vox progressive Jane Coastan and The Dispatch conservative David French agree that we need to “curtail the power of police unions”—and it’s even more interesting that The New York Times and Calvin Coolidge agree with them.

After all, this is not the first time in U.S. history that protests, theft, and violence followed a pandemic. (We hope that’s accurate, and that demonstrators have not given COVID-19 a new foothold.) After the “Spanish flu” from spring 1918 to early summer 1919 killed 500,000 to 850,000 Americans, the Boston police went on strike—and from Sept. 9 to 11, 1919, mobs smashed windows and looted stores.

The strike came because the police had formed a union despite the opposition of Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis, a former Boston mayor. Police unions then were innovations: The American Federation of Labor only in June 1919 had begun accepting police organizations as members. By September it had granted charters to 37, but Curtis, backed by Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge, said no to the Boston police on conflict of interest grounds: Police were to be under the city’s authority, not a union’s.

The New York Times agreed: “A policeman has no more right to belong to a union than a soldier or a sailor. He must be ready to obey orders, the orders of his superiors, not those of any outside body. One of his duties is the maintenance of order in the case of strike violence. In such a case, if he is faithful to his union, he may have to be unfaithful to the public, which pays him to protect it. The situation is false and impossible. … It is the privilege of Boston policemen to resign if they are not satisfied with the conditions of their employment. … [B]ut it is intolerable that a city … should be deserted by men who misunderstand their position and function as policemen, and who take their orders from outside.”

Coolidge sent into Boston several thousand members of the Massachusetts State Guard, saying, “There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime.” That statement, transmitted across the nation, received widespread applause and led to Coolidge, little-known until then, becoming vice president under Warren G. Harding. When Harding died in 1923, Coolidge entered the White House.

Demonstrators who are calling to abolish police departments and substitute nothing are foolish, unless they hope to see more broken glass and looting. But maybe progressives and conservatives can agree on reconstituting police forces to de-unionize them and make sure they concentrate on stopping crime, so nonviolent demonstrators can proceed in peace.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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