Volume 59

Ensuring Dignity as Public Safety

by Ben A. McJunkin

In his Distinguished Lecture for the Academy for Justice, Are Police the Key to Public Safety?: The Case of the Unhoused, Barry Friedman contends that America needs to rethink the meaning of “public safety.” Guaranteeing public safety is arguably the most foundational responsibility of government. Yet a too narrow understanding of what public safety requires may be at the root of our country’s overreliance on police to handle tasks for which they are ill suited. Through the lens of police interactions with the chronically homeless, Friedman suggests that a broader conception of public safety would include affirmatively providing for citizens and would better account for the safety trade-offs entailed in police deployments. 

In this response to Friedman’s lecture, I connect Friedman’s more expansive definition of public safety to legal philosophies that elsewhere tend to speak in the language of ensuring human dignity. By highlighting the dignitarian strands in Friedman’s work on public safety, I hope to give Friedman’s account a richer theoretical grounding and more purchase in American constitutionalism. However, doing so also raises questions about whether Friedman’s legal prescriptions are fully consonant with the extremes of his theoretical commitments. 

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