‘The Police Officer as Stoic’ by Peter Villiers

The Police Officer as Stoic

by Peter Villiers

Albert Camus began his study of the rebel by asking:[1] “Who is a rebel”? The answer is someone who says no. We begin by asking: “Who is a Stoic?”. To which we answer, not necessarily someone who has read and absorbed the reflections of Marcus Aurelius, but again, someone who says no.

No to obsequiousness and flattery. No to career-mindedness. No to expecting that others, even members of his own profession, will understand and accept his values and motivation, which may be rather different to their own.  Most occupations, I would suggest, do not acknowledge and reward Stoicism. The Stoic, indeed, may be seen as eccentric; unsociable; not a team player: a useful person to have around during an emergency, perhaps, but not someone in whose presence others are always comfortable. The Stoic does what he believes to be right, not to impress others, but to impress himself.

Is virtue, then, its own reward? Not quite; for Stoicism does not rest upon any commonplace notion of reward or punishment, even if those concepts be individually generated and judged. The average police officer is not, we would suggest, a declared Stoic; and nor would it necessarily be beneficial if he were.

Nevertheless, the virtues of the Stoic are worth considering within the context of policing by consent. Police work is demanding. Contrary to its normal portrayal, the virtues it requires are patience; determination; the ability not to be deterred or distracted by irrelevant considerations; an awareness of human frailty and weakness, together with the ability to withstand a consequent assumption of cynicism – in a word, Stoicism.

These are not, however, the virtues for which police officers are necessarily rewarded; and the popular image in the media, in police recruiting publicity, and even in the carefully constructed memoirs of retired police officers, does not always reflect the reality of the work that will be encountered.

What do police officers actually do, on a day-to-day basis?  Work which, if they are honest, industrious and disinterested in their labour, reflects the virtues of Stoicism.


–     much of police work is dull;

–     nevertheless, it often presents a conflict of objectives;

–     the police do not direct the criminal justice system; and

–     victims are not always cared for, nor villains punished.[2]

How, then, are we to see police work as benefiting from being carried out from within a Stoical framework – especially as Professor Christopher Gill in his article on Stoic virtue, points towards a respect for justice as being one of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism? Let us examine the Stoic conception of justice a little further, within the context of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism.

The Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism Applied to Policing

Professor Gill explores the basis of Stoicism as resting on four values: wisdom, courage, self-control or moderation, and justice. These four virtues are inter-related and mutually supportive, and none works on its own in the absence of the other three.How does this relate to policing?


A good police officer needs wisdom, in the sense of professional skill: what tends to be described in policing recruiting folklore as judgement.  A good police officer can prevent a riot, simply by the way in which he approaches a crowd; and a bad police officer can cause one.  What is the difference?  Something that cannot necessarily be taught, and is not necessarily acquired simply by experience: judgement.  (The capacity to reflect on experience, however, is an extremely useful characteristic in any police officer: and what are Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations but his own reflections on his own experience?  Was he the original ‘reflective practitioner’, and are we entitled to speculate as to how much he might have questioned the use of such a phrase?)


Courage is a necessary quality for any police officer: both physical courage and the moral courage to stand up for what he believes to be his duty, whether in the face of the mob or the disapproval of his own colleagues in the aftermath of an unpopular decision and action (such as in reporting one of them for a dereliction of duty.)

The Golden Mean

We may note here that Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean is of considerable value in considering the identification of the true meaning of courage.  We seek police officers who are neither recklessly impetuous (without fear, and therefore easily capable of putting their colleagues in avoidable danger), nor ‘lacking in moral fibre’, and therefore incapable of displaying courage when it is needed.

We may note, however, that the Stoically inclined police officer does not necessarily attack and blame his colleagues if they fail to show the qualities, in action, which he believes to be commensurate with good policing.  What counts is his behaviour.

Self-control or Moderation

Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing,[4] is supposed to have said that the police constable’s most important requirement was a perfect command of temper.  (We say ‘supposed’, for there is a certain element of myth about the foundation of the New Police, soon to become the Metropolitan Police Service under joint commissioners). Be they real or mythical, Peel’s words represent a fundamentally Stoic view, appositely expressed.


Police officers must desire to achieve justice (i.e. the notion that the guilty should be identified, arrested, tried, convicted and punished – and, we presume, that the virtuous should be rewarded), for otherwise their work lacks a justifying rationale.

Policing is in essence a moral activity, not in the sense that ethics and law coincide, although they should bear some relationship to each other, but in that a good police officer believes that criminal activity is not just illegal but wrong: although there is an infinitely adjustable scale of wrongness, and a working police officer makes good use of his discretion as to when and how to enforce the law.

We would expect the police officer to feel a healthy moral outrage at the carrying out of certain crimes, such as in the abuse of children; and to exercise an immoderate commitment towards their investigation.  As we have seen in regard to other virtues, however, moderation is generally desirable, and there is a fine but needed barrier between the passionate pursuit of justice and the blind desire for vengeance which is the hall-mark of the vigilante.

Police officers need to be aware that:

a) justice, however defined, cannot always be achieved;

b) that they play an investigative part in the criminal justice system, and not a judicial one.

Moreover, there is a necessary element of pragmatism to the police mentality.  The fundamental purpose of policing, where there is a conflict of objectives, is not to serve justice but to keep the peace.  Thus, for example, one does not arrest a leading criminal when his arrest at that time and place is likely to provoke a riot.  One hopes to do it later: for the police officer must be able to take a long-term view, and to cope with the frustration of his occasional inability to achieve a short-term objective.

Effective Policing by Consent Requires Stoic Qualities

The British police service attempts to put into practice the doctrine of policing by consent; and this places an additional demand on the virtue of the police officer. Before I can show how policing by consent requires Stoic qualities, let me explain in detail what policing by consent involves.

What does it mean, to police by consent?  In essence, it removes the supports of policing by authority on which the police officer might otherwise have relied, and places its major weight upon the shoulders of the individual police officer. Policing by consent rests upon the constitutional position of the police officer under common law, that he holds his powers as an individual and not as a subordinate.No one may order him to enforce the law, and to where, when and how it is his responsibility to do so.  Firstly, he has discretion, and there will be many occasions on which he may choose not to exercise his powers (but not to ignore his responsibilities.)  Secondly, although he has superior officers within the organisation, and the police service as a whole has some aspects of a military or paramilitary organisation, the image is a misleading one.  Senior police officers do not command, as do army officers; and the constable retains his original powers, for which he is accountable in court.  If asked: “Why did you arrest this man?”  The answer: “Because I was ordered to do so” is not the right answer. Furthermore, policing by consent is the opposite to policing by force, or, paradoxically, by authority. Policing by force is simply the exercise of brute strength; and, we would argue, the person being policed (the victim, as it were) is under no moral obligation to accept the dictates of the police officer, although he may well find himself physically compelled to do so. Policing by authority, however, is quite another matter; although it may also involve the use of force.  If the police force (or service: the choice of word is significant, at least in terms of aspiration) is policing by authority, then it has legitimacy, and the subject should accept the actions of the police officer as intended to serve the common good (provided, in modern terms, that those actions are within the law, and necessary, and proportionate – and so on.)

What does Policing by Consent Require?

What we shall argue is for key factors, a combination of which tends to suggest the presence of policing by consent, and an absence of a significant number of which may indicate or precipitate its withdrawal. Those factors are not necessarily constant over time, and nor are they finite in number. However, there is what we might call a critical combination of successful factors, which good police leaders need to keep in mind if they are to be able to continue to police without force, or with only such force as is tactically necessary.

                Those factors include:

  • upholding the rule of law, which means, most importantly, the police not seeing themselves as above the law;
  • not acting as a political police, but preferring to deal with ‘crime ordinary’;
  • maintaining a visible presence in the community;
  • remaining an unarmed and civil police, and not a paramilitary organization;
  • preferring to use persuasion rather than coercion where possible;
  • tending to use the official power of the law as a last resort;
  • attempting to balance the rival interests at stake in any conflict, and find a common sense solution in which no-one is an absolute loser;
  • emphasising the original authority and discretion of the constable as an officer of the law—which means considerable variation in how problems are dealt with;
  • playing a specific and constrained role in the criminal justice system;
  • defining its other duties inclusively rather than exclusively;
  • not being directly accountable to central government, but recognising and applying the principle of accountability in everything that it does;
  • attempting to be and remain locally recruited, responsive and accountable;
  • showing that the idea of the police as a friend in need is not entirely mythical.

Policing by consent is a renewable, organic and realistic doctrine. It implies that the police service engages with a dialogue with the public both as to its duties and modus operandi. That dialogue will, of course, include the propensity of the public to complain about the police. Complaints are a good thing, in that they indicate that the complainant believes that it to be both safe and worthwhile to make a complaint. The same logic applies to the police complaining about the public, for example in not volunteering information that would help to solve crimes.

Policing by consent is an organic doctrine. Its tenets cannot always be neatly separated into philosophy, doctrine or style; and it is not necessarily the case that top police leaders deal with policy, intermediate commanders with strategy, and more junior officers with tactics—although police training manuals would like to have us believe that this is so. In reality, policing by consent is an organic doctrine that cannot easily be separated into its constituent parts, nor applied by one section of a police service in isolation from its other parts.

Policing by consent is a realistic doctrine.One of the problems of the performance management culture, in its various manifestations, is the sometimes huge disparity between what the organization is supposed to be doing, according to its official policies, priorities and procedures, and what is actually going on. Our comments here are certainly not restricted to policing, but apply to other public sector organizations. We would suggest that what happens at street level is both the reality of policing, by definition, and more likely to correspond to the practice of policing by consent. Police officers are street-corner politicians, and their essential role is to negotiate between conflicting parties and find a way forward.[5]

The reality of policing by consent includes negative as well as positive factors. Policing by consent is not necessarily the best solution to any problem. It may not appear the most efficient way to make use of the resources available to the police; and it is bound to give rise to disparities between the apparent productivity of one force, unit or officer and another. We would argue, however, that improvements in efficiency do not necessarily lead to corresponding improvements in effectiveness; and that policing by consent is the most effective form of policing for the United Kingdom.

Returning to Stoicism: Why is Policing by Consent an Inherently Stoic Doctrine?

I now give three links between policing by consent and Stoicism, the first two being shared qualities of character which both require and the third being an example of the need to respond to a difficult situation with qualities that that situation demands.


Because, more than any other style of policing, it places a fundamental onus on the individual police officer to exercise his discretion on all occasions as to how to interpret and enforce the law.

A scrupulous and unaffected dignity

The police officer is, at least in theory, both omni-competent and autonomous; and his role requires the continuous exercise of judgement.  Moreover, there is an immense satisfaction to be obtained from proper police work, founded upon the principle of policing by consent, which allows the individual officer rise above, as it were, the inevitable restrictions and frustrations of his work.  As Gill puts it, translating Marcus Aurelius:

‘At every hour, give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from all other concerns. You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing and god-fearing life; the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles.’ – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.5.

Listening and acting: a worked example

Policing by consent means, in effect, taking a variety of shades of opinion into account before choosing a course of action, and is therefore not always a popular option with the police service’s ‘natural’ supporters.  Consider the example of hunting.  Before hunting with dogs was banned under current legislation (2004), the police faced a considerable difficulty in policing hunts where protest was active.

The hunters, many of whom would have seen themselves as ‘natural’ supporters of the police, and indeed included magistrates, judges and police officers amongst their number, tended to see the role of the police as to ensure that protesters and ‘hunt saboteurs’ were stopped in their tracks and that the hunt was enabled to progress.  The protesters, on the other hand, and especially the saboteurs, tended to condemn hunting as a barbaric activity which should be stopped by any means possible.

And what of the police themselves?  My impression, from many conversations with police officers, was that they resented having their allegiance taken for granted – by either side.  Hunting was, before 2004, a lawful activity. On the other hand, peaceful and law-abiding protest was also a lawful activity: and a sensible police service supports and indeed facilitates the right to demonstration and legitimate if impassioned protest (and did so before the incorporation of the Human Rights Act into domestic law with effect from 2000 A.D. gave legal substance to what had been previously a common law tradition.)

What, then, are police officers to do, when faced with one group which is determined to sabotage the activities of another? It is here that Stoic qualities, once more, come into the picture. In short, the police officers are to look:

–    To do their duty honestly and vigorously, ‘without fear or favour’;

–    To be aware that they cannot please everyone, and that indeed by not ‘taking sides’ they are liable to be unpopular with both sides in any essentially arid confrontation; and

–    To be constantly aware that, if virtue is not necessarily its own reward, there is an absence of alternatives.  Policing by consent, whether in regard to managing protest, investigating domestic violence, or dealing with community conflicts, as well as an almost infinite range of other issues, requires a long term investment by the police officer, in the face of what may be unrealistic expectations – with the pay-off, as it were, remaining the sometimes somewhat grim satisfaction of doing one’s duty.


Police work, under any system or doctrine of policing, can place considerable demands on the individual police officer.Those demands are exacerbated under the doctrine of policing by consent, with its emphasis upon dialogue and negotiation, and its view of the exercise of brute force as a last resort – or rather, one of a range of tactics and possibilities open to the thinking police officer, rather than an immediate and obvious response (see, for example, controversies in the use of TASER.) The good police officer finds the golden mean in his choice of behaviour; does not expect too much of the public, or indeed of his colleagues on some occasions; and maintains a cautious and pragmatic optimism in his view of human nature. He is neither naive nor unduly cynical, and is prepared to accept failure as a part of his work.  Policing has been described as a Sisyphean task.  Is it?  Quite possibly: but it has to be done.

We could supply many references on the meaning and doctrine of Stoicism, as an academic pursuit.  Need we do so?  Let us rather conclude our main argument by saying what it means to be Stoic, as the adjective is used in everyday speech. To be Stoical means to be able to accept what fate has to offer, with neither despair nor disillusionment.  To accept disappointment, if not with equanimity, then with a full command of one’s emotions.  And to continue to believe in doing one’s duty.  In this sense, it is a good creed for a working police officer – whether policing by authority or consent. The rewards, in other words, come from within.

[1]  Camus, Albert (2000) The Rebel Penguin Modern Classics.
[2] (eds.) Adlam, Robert and Villiers, Peter (2003) Police Leadership in the 21st Century:Philosophy, Doctrine & Developments, Waterside Press, Winchester, p.3 and passim.
[3] Adlam and Villiers (2003).
[4] Ker Muir Jr., William (1977) Police: Street Corner Politicians, Chicago, p.7.
Peter Villiers served as a army officer in the 1970s, working closely with the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the height of the troubles.  He went on to join the directing staff at the national police staff college at Bramshill in Hampshire, where he gained a wider knowledge of policing as a global enterprise; began to write about policing; and ended his formal employment as head of human rights.  He has published a large number of books, articles and essays on policing, ethics and human rights, some in company with his fellow tutor and author, Dr Robert Adlam. Peter Villiers is a Stoic by inclination rather than by training, what follows is a result of personal reflection rather than a course of study. It has become increasingly clear to him that the virtues of a Stoic are the virtues of a good police officer, and in this essay he relates those virtues to the requirements of policing by consent.

9 thoughts on ‘The Police Officer as Stoic’ by Peter Villiers

  1. fredt says:

    Nice in theory, but in practice…
    Police have done themselves damage by taking on traffic. It has put them at odds with the normal citizens. They frequently create problem areas and then ticket any that do not adhere to the letter of the law within eye sight. They just piss off the citizens.
    Some of the laws are irrational or local. Stretches of highway through towns with low speed limits and no exits/entrances for example. Photo Radar, and slow speed limits (30 km on sections of open road) in dinosaur controlled towns. Waiting at 4-way stops…up to a minute… and if some goes out of turn… etc. Not Justice.
    Also justice is a yes/no and moderation do not seem compatible, especially when dealing with traffic.

  2. John Bonnice says:

    To me the real problema today are, the militarization of the police to handle terrorism; the use of surveillance to invade privacy; and the accountability of police to their public.

  3. Gunner says:

    I happen to think both comments are based on emotion not reality. Police today are working in the most complex, diverse, stratified, and demographic society that has ever evolved, especially in our country, the USA. I believe police are working with skill sets developed in the 20th century and applying them in the 21st century. Consequently, there is blow back primarily due to the many cultures making up contemporary society. In my opinion, I believe the police are the best trained and equipped of any time in history; however, I also believe the police are not educated or socialized in complexities of the environment where they apply the skills. Militarization of the police has nothing to do with their behavior. When we use examples of military vehicles, clothing, and tactics and compare it to the U.S. Marine Corps we are comparing apples an oranges. In other words they aren’t even close to being the same. Moreover, society has become more violent and less educated therefore more impressionable and apt to resort to violence.
    Before we criticize let’s do research and look to the military who conducts culture awareness training before sending our military people into a foreign country, why? so they can operate and not offend the populace. Maybe we should include social stratification, demography, culture relativism, social problems, and culture anthropology in our police training/education and prepare our police officers to work in the 21st century.

  4. John Beddard says:

    I read through this essay, first of all quickly. Finding that the author’s experience resonated with my own life experience.
    The Stoic Way interests me because it offers the possibility to people from different backgrounds. To temper themselves with resolve and malleability in the furnace of everyday life. In my case, finding the reported life experiences of James Stockdale, Marcus Aueralis and Leonadis Konstantakos (in a previous essay), to be relevant to my own experience.
    The essence of paradox is not lost in stoicism. With best outcome of Aesop’s Fable :”The Tortoise and the Hair.” Being that they both actually depend upon each other. So now I now return this beautifully crafted essay, to read and re-read it, in order to bring this piece of gold into everyday life.
    I must read Camus.

  5. Francis Norton says:

    As a Brit, I’m glad to live somewhere where policing by consent is at least an aspiration, and at best marked by the rarity and news-worthiness of police shootings in the UK.
    Looking at UK policing with an outsider’s eye (eg https://www.quora.com/How-do-UK-police-compare-to-US-police/answer/Tim-Dees) it seems our commitment to policing by consent includes spending a lot of money training our officers. I assume that our heavy gun regulation also helps keep things less scary than, say, the USA.
    Would Peter Villiers say that the formalisation of process (I’m trying to avoid the phrase “red tape”!) that has taken place, so that all cautions have to be on the record (I believe) makes policing by consent harder, or just different?

  6. Archibald Leonard O'Chus says:

    I think this is a very charming yet decidedly quixotic view of the police. I believe it is self-evident that the police, individually and institutionally, seek to control externals rather than themselves. I believe also that they work primarily to protect the propertied, the rich and powerful, the elites of this world–those whose investment in worthless trinkets such as gold, diamonds, vast estates of land, property, etc., is way over and above any investment in virtue they may give lip-service to–yes, I believe police work is all about protecting this tiny minority from the ‘idiotes’, that is, from the ‘mob’ (an unfortunate term) and its demagogues, those that numerically comprise the greater part of the polis. And also that whenever their masters or commanders deem it necessary, policemen will follow orders and use force and violence–the ‘Miner’s Strike’ during Thatcher’s period in office springs to mind–to oppress those that in their eyes threaten to overthrow ‘the Establishment’, which is at the end of the day an essentially unequal and unjust status quo. In other words, whatever tyranny is in power, no matter the euphemism it employs to describe itself and its policies, the police work for and on behalf of its leading lights. The idea that a policeman can be a Stoic philosopher or the police force a Stoic school of philosophy, is, I’m afraid, a non-starter.

  7. I appreciated your article Peter. As someone who served as a police officer in the United States, I wish I had access to Stoic philosophy back when I served but alas I did not.

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