The police exist to keep us safe – or so we are told by mainstream media and popular culture. TV shows exaggerate the amount of serious crime and the nature of what most police officers actually do all day. Crime control is a small part of policing, and it always has been.
Arrests for serious crimes are a rarity for uniformed officers, with most making no more than one a year. When a patrol officer actually apprehends a violent criminal in the act, it is a major moment in their career.
The bulk of police officers work in patrol. They take reports, engage in random patrol, address parking and driving violations and noise complaints, issue tickets, and make arrests for drinking in public, possession of small amounts of drugs, or the vague ‘disorderly conduct’. Officers I’ve shadowed on patrol describe their days as ‘99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror’ — and even that 1 percent is a bit of an exaggeration for most officers.
Even detectives (who make up only about 15 percent of police forces) spend most of their time taking reports of crimes that they will never solve—and in many cases will never even investigate. There is no possible way for police to investigate every reported crime. Even murder investigations can be brought to a quick conclusion if no clear suspect is identified within two days, as the television reality show The First 48 emphasises. Burglaries and thefts are even less likely to be investigated thoroughly, or at all. Most crimes that are investigated are not solved.
I grew up on shows like Adam-12, which portrayed police as dispassionate enforcers of the law. Hollywood, in the sixties and seventies, was helping the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) manufacture a professional image for itself in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots.
Today, we are awash in police dramas and reality TV shows with a similar ethos and purpose. Some are more nuanced than others, but by and large these shows portray the police as struggling to fight crime in a complex and at times morally contradictory environment. Even when police are portrayed as engaging in corrupt or brutal behavior, as in Dirty Harry or The Shield, it is understood that their primary motivation is to get the bad guys.
It is largely a liberal fantasy that the police exist to protect us from the bad guys. As the veteran police scholar David Bayley argues:
‘The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defence against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth.’
Bayley goes on to point out that there is no correlation between the number of police and crime rates.
Liberals think of the police as the legitimate mechanism for using force in the interests of the whole society. For them, the state, through elections and other democratic processes, represents the general will of society as well as any system could; those who act against those interests, therefore, should face the police. The police must maintain their public legitimacy by acting in a way that the public respects and is in keeping with the rule of law. For liberals, police reform is always a question of taking steps to restore that legitimacy. That is what separates the police of a liberal democracy from those of a dictatorship.
This is not to say that liberals believe that policing is without problems. They acknowledge that police sometimes violate their principles, but see this as an individual failing to be dealt with through disciplinary procedures or improvements to training and oversight. If entire police departments are discriminatory, abusive, or unprofessional, then they advocate efforts to stamp out bias and bad practices through training, changes in leadership, and a variety of oversight mechanisms until legitimacy is re-established.
They argue that racist and brutal cops can be purged from the profession and an unbiased system of law enforcement reestablished in the interest of the whole society. They want the police to be better trained, more accountable, and less brutal and racist — laudable goals, but they leave intact the basic institutional functions of the police, which have never really been about public safety or crime control.
Political scientist Naomi Murakawa points out that this liberal misconception led to the inadequate police and criminal justice reforms of the past. Liberals, according to Murakawa, want to ignore the profound legacy of racism. Rather than admit the central role of slavery and Jim Crow in both producing wealth for whites and denying basic life opportunities for black people in the US, for example, they prefer to focus on using a few remedial programs – backed up by a robust criminal justice system to transform black people’s attitudes so that they will be better able to perform competitively in the labour market.
The result, however, is that black Americans start from a diminished position that makes them more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system and to be treated more harshly by it. What is missing from this liberal approach is any critical assessment of what problems the state is asking the police to solve and whether the police are really the best suited to solve them.
The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and non-white people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.
Bayley argues that policing emerged as new political and economic formations developed, producing social upheavals that could no longer be managed by existing private, communal and informal processes. This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the eighteenth century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of a new industrial working class. This created what Allan Silver calls a ‘policed society’, in which state power was significantly expanded in the face of social upheavals and demands for justice.
As Kristian Williams points out, ‘The police represent the point of contact between the coercive apparatus of the state and the lives of its citizens.’ In the words of Mark Neocleous, police exist to ‘fabricate social order’, but that order rests on systems of exploitation – and when elites feel that this system is at risk, whether from slave revolts, general strikes or crime and rioting in the streets, they rely on the police to control those activities.
When possible, the police aggressively and proactively prevent the formation of movements and public expressions of rage, but when necessary they will fall back on brute force. Therefore, while the specific forms that policing takes have changed as the nature of inequality and the forms of resistance to it have shifted over time, the basic function of managing the poor, foreign and non-white on behalf of a system of economic and political inequality remains.
Any real agenda for police reform must replace police with empowered communities working to solve their own problems. Poor communities of colour have suffered the consequences of high crime and disorder. It is their children who are shot and robbed. They have also had to bear the brunt of aggressive, invasive, and humiliating policing.
Policing will never be a just or effective tool for community empowerment, much less racial justice. Communities must directly confront the political, economic and social arrangements that produce the vast gulfs between the races and the growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots. We don’t need empty police reforms – we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, non-punitive solutions to their problems.
This is an edited excerpt from The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale, published by Verso.
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