As part of the new comix anthology that Last Hours is producing Peter Hogan has written a piece on why the police do more harm than good, exploring their formation in the nineteenth century and their ongoing violence against individuals since then, it also looks at some alternatives that may be considered to the police force.
One of the first objections to anarchism you’ll hear will be a question along the lines of who will deal with crime. And it’s a good question. People will frequently criticise the actions of the police, but their role within society rarely meets with more than a cursory and simplistic analysis. But this is understandable, given the effort with which the importance and necessity of the police is forced down our throats every evening on the telly and the wide ranging responsibilities which they now have within society. It is hard enough to imagine a world without authority, let alone a world in which problems like crime are dealt with by ordinary people coming together to resolve the issue.
When the police were established in London in 1829, it was ostensibly because the existing measures were not working. The piecemeal system of constables and watchmen, it was argued, was inefficient and they were unable to deal with the problem with which they were faced. A new, pan-London body of men was the solution arrived at, but underlying this new police was a dichotomy. Although they were charged with detecting and preventing crime, they were also given the primary responsibility for maintaining public order.
On the one hand the police were expected to be a civilian force, while on the other they were to be the new coercive face of the state.
So, on the one hand the police were expected to be a civilian force, who would solve murders and rapes as well as thefts and criminal damage, while on the other being the new coercive face of the state. While they were to be nominally independent, they were to also uphold the existing order, an existing order which had traditionally called in the army or the yeomanry – forerunners of the Territorial Army – to deal with riots. The Metropolitan Police was therefore born as a part military and part civilian institution.
Yet as well as dealing with crime and public order, the police were considered for other roles too. Over the years the police have been given a number of remits which have seen their tentacles spread throughout society. As Clive Emsley describes, in the nineteenth century they became responsible for regulating traffic, ensuring the pavements weren’t blocked, looked out for unsafe buildings and burning chimneys, gave first aid at accidents, drove ambulances, administered aspects of the Poor Law, looked for missing people, licensed street sellers and cabs, and supervised the prevention of disease among farm animals.
This wide range of roles has continued into the 21st century; in contemporary times the police have received a number of powers which have, among other things, made their knowledge of a loss or theft a prerequisite to an insurance claim. In short, the police have accumulated a range of responsibilities which place them among the most powerful bodies in modern society. They are by no means limited to dealing with crimes and keeping the peace.
Despite claims to the contrary, the history of the police has not been a happy one.
Despite claims to the contrary, the history of the police has not been a happy one. When reviewing The Blue Lamp, the 1950 film which introduced Dixon of Dock Green, the Times critic said it did not depict “policemen as they really are but policemen as an indulgent tradition has chosen to think they are”. There has not been a great decline in policing in the past fifty years. The police have always been effectively as they are now. They have never been a neutral institution – they could not be, as the laws they enforce are laws made in Parliament for the benefit of the state and the powerful.
The periodic debates about the politicization of the police, whether they are a political body, misses out the simple fact that they have always been a political body. For example, a brief article in the Manchester Times and Guardian of 22 August 1829 outlines the new Metropolitan Police. Strikingly it does not mention what most people now would say to be the primary purpose of the police – the detecting and preventing of crime – but it does say, “The whole police force will gradually be placed under such a degree of discipline as may enable it to act with effect, should any situation arise for its services, as an united corps – for instance, the late riots of Spitalfields, or tumultuous mobs of any kind”. In other words, the suppression of dissent was at the heart of the police project from the start. If proof were needed, the police famously attacked a meeting of the National Political Union in 1833, and during the ensuing disorder one constable was killed – the inquest jury bringing in a verdict of justifiable homicide. The use of the police at strikes throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – notably at Grunwicks, throughout the miners strike of 1984-85, and at Wapping during the News International strike of 1986-87 – clearly shows the political nature of the police. This is compounded by the police’s attacking of demonstrations and harassment of protesters since 1829.
However, the most significant aspect of police behaviour has been their role in keeping the working class in their place. While this is most overt in times of upheaval and conflict such as during the miners strike, there is a strain of low-level harassment of working class communities which occupies the police on a day-to-day basis.
Young men and women have long been targeted for no other reason than their youth, beaten up and fitted up by the police.
Young men and women have long been targeted for no other reason than their youth, beaten up and fitted up by the police. Obvious cases of this include the Tottenham Three, who prior to their conviction for the killing of Keith Blakelock, had come to the malign attentions of the police, facing harassment and intimidation. Every day, young people throughout the country get stopped and searched without cause, while the police let them know they consider them second class in their own land. When communities have had enough of this sort of oppression, like Brixton in 1981 or Broadwater Farm in 1985, and fight back, their rebellion is met with all the power the state’s ‘justice’ system can muster, with entire communities criminalized1.
Police as crime fighters
When one considers the police’s role in fighting crime, it has to be said that they really aren’t that successful. Some crimes, like murder, are frequently cleared up, while others, like rape, have long run into a number of brick walls, notably a long-standing police inability to deal appropriately with rape victims. Crimes which affect people’s everyday lives, like mugging, burglary or theft, are frequently dealt with cursorily by the police. This is not to say they don’t have successes or that the police don’t at times make an effort to do something about crime. Clearly they do. But it is to say that the police often target ‘crimes’ they don’t need to work on to get results, things like faredodging in London, street drinking, or traffic offences. Throughout their activity, however, several key pointers determine which victims of crime they deal with effectively. And high among these is class. People who are working class are more likely to be victims of crime than middle or upper class people, but they are also less likely to see any real action taken by the police. Examples like that of Peter Woodhams, of Canning Town, who was murdered after a campaign of harassment the police did nothing to investigate are thankfully rare. But there are vast numbers of cases where working class people are the victims of crime which the police do not deign to investigate. A burglary on a council estate is much less likely to receive the same attention as a burglary in the more salubrious parts of Kensington and Chelsea.
What we’re faced with is a police force which is oriented towards maintaining the current social order
What we’re faced with is a police force which is oriented towards maintaining the current social order, a force which has itself become a power in the land above and beyond the considerable authority it was given at its inception. More, it is a force which even on its own lax terms is riddled with corruption. The recent scandal of the police credit cards is indicative of the problem. And the Met’s refusal to do anything about the 1,000+ officers who have abused them, is, if anything, greater than the 1970s scandals which saw the famous fall of Scotland Yard. The 70s saw a score of Met detectives jailed, hundreds more leave the force in disgrace and a wholesale reorganization of the CID. In comparison the recent scandal has been acknowledged but goes unpunished beyond a slap on the wrist. It continues a sorry history of police corruption, stretching from the birth of the police to the present, which has seen no depths too low for the police to plumb. One of the higher profile cases was at Stoke Newington police station during the late 1980s and early 1990s where police confiscated drugs of people they’d arrested, and then sold them on themselves.
There is no point setting up and declaring no-go areas for the police if we’re going to be left with the dregs of society preying on those in the ‘liberated zones’
Against this background, it seems clear that we should look forward to the day when these swaggering bullies are swept from our streets. However, the absence of police we desire brings with it its own pitfalls. There is no point setting up and declaring no-go areas for the police if we’re going to be left with the dregs of society preying on those in the ‘liberated zones’. If the vulnerable among us feel no safer without the police and would like to see them back, it’s not a revolution but the creation of a safe haven for anti-social elements. The old Class War slogan of ‘No muggers, no burglars’ must have action behind it if when we drive the police off our streets we are to make a revolution where we live. The solutions which groups like the IRA have tried in the past – things like punishment beatings or tarring and feathering – are unlikely to strike people as acceptable replacements for the criminal justice system we currently endure.
We need to consider how we would deal with anti-social criminals in the absence of the police. What would you do if you saw someone attacking your neighbour or breaking into a flat or house across the way, if doing nothing is not an option? How do we build a community in which we work together to maintain safe streets and ensure that parasites don’t prey on the elderly or vulnerable? What form of justice would be dispensed which avoids the excesses of vigilantism? These are by no means easy questions, but ones which people seeking a better society need to address.
A good place to start is why we seek the removal of the police. Their bullying, their frame-ups, their all too frequent harassment of people – coupled with the fact that all too often they provide no solution to deep-seated problems within society – makes their presence unwelcome. Their imposition of an arbitrary order which takes no account of local conditions, provides no lasting solutions and makes them part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But instead of creating local police for local communities, our aim must be rather to foster and nurture those elements of community which have survived. A strong community, self-organised together, will be in a better position to deal with anti-social elements without resorting to the uglier forms of vigilantism. And possible ways forward from there could be boycotting offenders, or forms of restorative justice, rather than our current, punitive, criminal justice system.
Excessive Force, which features this essay, is published on October 22nd. To order a copy visit the Last Hours shop.