Great Power and Great Irresponsibility

As this past weekend was Homecoming here on the Hilltop, the Society gathered an extra time for the annual Hamilton Debate, to welcome back all of our alumni! We had a wonderful group of ladies and gentlemen, ranging from the newly graduated to having been out of Georgetown for several years now. We even had one extremely youthful spectator, a Philodemic baby by heritage! Chancellor Drew took over the President DiMisa’s throne to preside as we debated Resolved: The Police Should be Trusted. Chancellor Nicholas Iacono of New York affirmed and Mr. Jonathan Zimmer of Virginia negated the resolution.

Chancellor Iacono framed the affirmation’s task as challenging the idea that widespread abuse of power is endemic among police officers. He pointed out that emotions, biases, and personal agendas have dominated the conversation on this issue, especially after the recent tragic events in Ferguson–often drowning out the facts and mitigating circumstances which may support explanations other than systematic police discrimination. He then argued that the allegers of widespread police abuse often distort statistics and exploit tragedies to make inaccurate and intellectually dishonest accusations about police behavior. In addition, he posited that we owe the police our trust because it is necessary for effective law enforcement, whereby all groups work together to better understand the needs and concerns of communities. He urged everyone to put themselves in police officers’ shoes when considering this topic and to recognize that they have an incredibly difficult job, making snap decisions in life and death situations. He conceded that mistakes are made, and that there are some bad cops out there (as in many other professions that we still trust) but that the vast majority of police officers and departments are motivated by an ethos to protect and serve the people with the utmost respect for the law and civil liberties.

Mr. Zimmer began his speech by declaring it had truly been “too long since last we met” (Huzzah!) and then jumped right into the heart of the issue, blatantly saying that there have been too many instances of excessive use of force, racism, and sheer injustices towards citizens by the police. We have seen the War on Drugs turn into a campaign for over-incarceration, filling our jails to the point of overflowing. We have seen, even more dangerously, “police for profit” through civil forfeiture—essentially theft by the police. We have seen racial profiling: stop and frisks for a population that is 90% innocent despite the “supposed threat.” These changes in police behavior for the negative have become systematic; the police have become militarized with Humvees going straight from Afghanistan to the streets of America. And yet, through this all, we have seen no consequences for police misconduct—a shadow of an apology and police misbehavior is expected to disappear—and nobody to keep the police in line. “The police are the public and the public are the police”, Mr. Zimmer declared, and yet we have done nothing to live up to this ideal.

Mr. Diasti opened the floor by asserting that trust comes from knowing our voices are heard—a privilege that we take for granted in the States. Yet Mr. Medina summoned a harsh reality from his life in LA, explaining that the police are in fact considered a gang there—they hold no trust. Mr. Spagnuolo cut the police some slack though, saying that they have no prior information and are expected to make sense out of chaos. Ms. Christenson (COL ’15), invoking Georgetown’s IR core, likened the trust between the two parties to the Prisoners’ Dilemma: the police will not be trusted until there’s institutional change.

Mr. Fairley also explained that the police are good people, but posited that there’s simply no commitment by cops who are not from an area that they serve. Mr. Cass did not rebut him per se, but instead challenged the affirmation to stop giving the police excuses and to start defending why they should be trusted. Mr. Jonathan Marrow (COL ’18) took up the call, saying that “trust breeds trust” and that the citizens must initiate the institutional change that will spark mutual trust. Ms. Coccia (COL ’15) firmly cut off Mr. Marrow’s argument, however, saying that “trust breeds complacency” and that we must always challenge the status quo.

Mr. Singh refuted Ms. Coccia’s argument immediately, declaring that cynicism and mistrust doesn’t make change, but, as Thomas Jefferson said (the Philodemic certainly loves the Founding Fathers!), dissatisfaction does. Furthermore, we cannot build a country without trust. Immediately thereafter, Mrs. Frenkel passionately dispelled the idea that we should trust the police like any other specialist though; the police are agents of the government, and as such we are responsible for distrusting them in order to check their power. Her husband, Mr. Frenkel, took it upon himself to disagree immediately, proclaiming that if we can’t trust our enforcers, we must dissolve into anarchy.

Ms. Grace (SFS ’16) followed Mr. Frankel by redirecting the debate and fixating on whether we should trust the police within our current system, and suggesting that because of their human nature, we cannot. Mr. Wilson (SFS ’16) then made a noble defense of the affirmation, positing that we need to trust the police because they are people, not government agents. On the other hand, said Mr. John, the police aren’t just people with a badge, but also people with a gun, and as such the only element we can check them with is our trust, which must be earned. The debate was still too off-track for Mr. Mouch (SFS ’15), who realized that in the US we take trust for granted—to truly not trust the police, it means being in a state like Mexico where corruption and bribery are not only rampant, but expected.

Ms. Thanki (SFS ’17) certainly debunked some speeches when she said that we don’t call the police because we trust them, but because it’s their job and conversely, it is our job to check the police and to not just give our trust away. Mr. Gootzit denied that we are the only checks on the police, asserting that the affirmation doesn’t advocate for blind trust, and instead to “trust, but verify.” He also mentioned that the police’s historical record has been more positive than negative, however, Mr. DiMisa (COL ’15), as a Sociology major, clarified that it is “norms, not laws” and socialization, not the police that lead to order. The police simply do not enforce the spirit of laws, and more importantly, do not take responsibility for police abuse.

Ms. Oster (SFS ’17) claimed that our problems with the police system stem from a lack of engaged citizenry. Mr. Meyes responded to a different line of thought, and implored the floor not to trust the police because, simply put, “they are not equal to you.” Finally, in the last floor speech of the afternoon, Mr. Dulick argued that police corruption can become much worse—case in point Mozambique, where he lived—and eventually become the vigilantism that defined Zimmerman. To prevent this type of degradation, we must trust the police.

Mr. Zimmer then returned to the floor, stating that negating this resolution is a signal to show the government that there is a major problem in our police system. Jesus once said, “To whom much is given, much is expected”, and the police have been given an incredible amount of authority; what are they doing with their power? Mr. Zimmer conceded a great amount of respect for officers—they often pay extremely heavy prices for their duties—but refocused on the fact that they are our agents. In lawyer-speak, they are the agents to our principals. Unfortunately, our agents have been shirking their duties more and more often, and we now need professional responsibility and regulations for our police force—most other careers have regulations in place already anyway. The police only have the right to use the least amount of force necessary to uphold the law, and now that we have granted them this enormous power, a relinquishment of our personal sovereignty in exchange for safety, they owe use responsibility.

Chancellor Iacono took up the negation’s challenge that police officers have a duty to earn our trust and that to affirm we must ask if that trust has indeed been earned. He argued that they have earned our trust by making the decision to don the uniform and put their lives on the line for our sake despite low pay and frequent exploitation by self-interested politicians and pundits. He cited the dozens of officers killed on 9/11 as proof of the exemplary character and motives of the majority of police officers. Chancellor Iacono also pointed out that many of the negation’s concerns about police authority are matters for legislators and courts, not the individual officers and departments. In closing, Chancellor Iacono argued that one can accept that there are bad cops, instances of strained police-community relationships and flaws in our criminal justice system that must be addressed, while still affirming that most officers are motivated by a desire to protect and serve in an honorable, law-abiding fashion.

After a stellar debate, the floor negated the resolution with a vote of 29-2-25, with our resident baby shrieking loudly in approval. Furthermore, the prestigious Hamilton Medal was awarded to Ms. Emily Coccia (COL ’15) by the alumni! Congratulations to her—she gave a phenomenal speech and certainly deserved it.

Once again, it’s been a pleasure.


Rosa Cuppari


*I apologize for any misspellings of names—please feel free to reach out to me so that I can correct them

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