“But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” – Jesus of Nazareth
Is this why you became a police officer?” asked the reporter, “No, sir, I did not. Have a good day,” replied the officer; this was the final scene during Pastor Tim Stephens’ arrest outside his family home. Handcuffed and surrounded by his wife and eight children, three uniformed officers took him into custody. His crime: breaking a provincial health order by holding an outdoor religious service. As I closed the video player, words eluded me – but frustration did not. It seemed unnecessary, excessive, shameful. And deep in their core, I believe all three officers felt the same.
Therein lies the trouble with oaths; despite potential personal discomfort, each officer was merely “doing their job.” Their personal views were of no consequence, superseded by feelings of duty, honour, and loyalty to the state. I could be wrong in my assumptions, and the officers may have felt wholly justified in their actions. However, this is of little consequence when addressing the general and inherent problems with sworn oaths.
The acronym “ACAB” has long been synonymous with the anarchist movement. It signifies “All Cops Are Bastards.” Some, including myself, prefer substituting the word “Bastards” with “Bad” when presenting the topic before broader audiences, but semantics aside, let us examine this claim. It’s believed the term originated in England during the first half of the twentieth century. The first signs of the acronym appeared during a 1940s worker strike. ACAB eventually found a permanent home with punk music, which effectively carried its message throughout the world.
Most moderates shudder upon hearing the phrase. They find reconciling its assertion with specific displays of police heroism and sacrifice difficult, and may experience cognitive dissonance. Their aversion is understandable. I need only reflect on the officer I’ve met on numerous occasions who now serves in a small northern rural community; the God-fearing husband and father of six, humble and gracious. Privately, I can say he is anything but “bad.” So how can both be true simultaneously?
ACAB is the idea that donning the uniform and swearing an oath places well-meaning individuals in a precarious position—A position that calls upon enforcing unjust laws, even if it means contradicting personal conscience. It is this reality that prevents some from ever viewing law enforcement favorably. The sworn oath binds the officer to the state, and from its seed, injustice blooms.
To see that oaths are not homogenous, we need only look at the differences between state and association oaths among the police. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, a non-profit organization aimed at advancing leadership and professionalism among police officers, posts the following “Law Enforcement Oath of Honour”:
“On my honor, I will never betray my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always maintain the highest ethical standards and uphold the values of my community, and the agency I serve.”
Aside from a brief mention of “agency,” the focus is on the individual officer’s integrity and character, and the importance of maintaining public trust. These statements represent a balanced approach to carrying out police duties. Unfortunately, they do not mirror the required state oaths. The three officers responsible for Pastor Tim Stephens’ apprehension were members of the Calgary Police Service. The following is their pledge to “serve and protect”:
“I, _______ , swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law, in the office of _________ for the _________ of ________ and that I will diligently, faithfully and to the best of my ability execute according to law the office of _________, and will not, except in the discharge of my duties, disclose to any person any matter or evidence that may come to my notice through my tenure in this office, so help me God.”
Canadians will recognize the allegiance to the Queen as a metaphor for the state. But the focus is clear: Loyalty to the state and execution of duties according to law. There is no mention of community, no room for discretion based on circumstance. The officer is an agent of the state and must enforce its statutes.
Anarchy rejects state legitimacy, so there is no room for state-funded police services in their society. Anarchists present alternative solutions to protecting life and property (and the reader is encouraged to delve into those ideas elsewhere), but we don’t have to go that far. The ascending state’s reliance on law enforcement presents tension even for those who don’t consider state police services illegitimate by nature.
Advocates of a night-watchman state would limit government to the provision of military, police, and the courts, but find the majority of modern laws unjust. Referred to as minarchists, they consider anything outside of protecting one’s right to life, liberty, and property to be an infringement on individual natural rights. Police officers who safeguard this trio of rights conduct themselves like good actors, while those enforcing anything else – like bad.
Worldwide, governments have become massive and full of injustice. Swearing oaths to serve such governments contractually binds people to enforce laws that violate individual rights. These rights do not exist as a consequence of the law, but are fundamental to every human life. So how do uniformed individuals manage the mental discomfort at the intersection between their conviction and sworn oath? Through the justification and rationalization of cognitive dissonance.
“the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort. This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.”
When law enforcement utters, “I’m just doing my job,” one could argue the officer is experiencing some discomfort with the situation at hand; dissonance has set in, and they now feel the need to justify their actions. After apprehending a violent offender, what officer sheepishly states they were only carrying out their orders? I have heard countless reports of officers remorsefully issuing Covid lockdown-related tickets while providing instructions on contesting the ticket and encouraging them to do so – this shows incongruity.
The fact that a growing number of law enforcement officers find themselves enforcing laws they disapprove of represents a dark cloud on the horizon. A thorough review of history books reveals numerous instances of populaces claiming “that would never happen here,” that were dealt tough lessons in the end. Gaining compliance and disposing of internal discomforts is achieved in two ways:
Policing is a livelihood, and nobody wants to lose their source of income. Income plays a crucial role in securing life, liberty, and property. Following orders to ensure continued employment is a strong motivator. It is not much different than voting for a political party based on the promised financial benefits one hopes to receive. But lurking deep in one’s subconscious, an ace in the hole lies ready to dispel any dissonance—that troublesome oath.
An oath is a promise. As evidenced by the pledge above, every officer makes a promise to uphold the law. Individuals who value solid moral character want to avoid letting others down. For them, breaking a contract is no easy thing. In a “Psychology Today” article, wellness expert Michelle Glelan explains:
“When we don’t keep a promise… [w]e have chosen to put something else ahead of our commitment. Even when we break small promises, others learn that they cannot count on us. Tiny fissures develop in our relationships marked by broken promises. We are not only communicating all of this to others, we are telling ourselves that we don’t value our own word. We think it is okay to let someone down, to say something we don’t mean, or to fail to follow through on something we said we would do. Not keeping a promise is the same as disrespecting yourself. Ultimately it can harm our self-image, self-esteem, and our life.”
As officers begin to doubt an order’s moral legitimacy, their sense of duty to upholding their promises acts as a solid motivator in carrying out their orders. Coupled with financial incentives, this makes it extremely difficult for anyone serving to listen to some still small voice.
Some in law enforcement are indeed worthy of being called “bad.” They lust after power, revel in their authority, act as aggressors, and know nothing of serving their communities—the primary motivators behind all those punk lyrics and ACAB T-shirts. But to those who serve with good intentions, I turn to you now – smelling salts in hand. Like pawns on a chessboard, you have been made expendable and placed in impossible situations to enforce unjust laws that break down social trust. Your badges are the instruments that politicians and technocrats alike use to implement unfair laws and respond whenever neighbour reports neighbour. It’s not too late to revisit your oath and judge for yourself the legitimacy of recent laws and health orders. And to those contemplating joining the profession, consider a different path. A path that doesn’t require pledging allegiance to an oppressive employer.