Regarding the police


Some hazy thoughts on two contemporary news stories about the cops.

The bigoted blue line
Almost a decade after a report into the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence branded the Metropolitan Police “institutionally racist” an investigation into the force’s handling of several homophobic murders has returned a verdict of “institutional homophobia”. Though the Met is credited with having “changed” – there has been a concerted effort to eliminate discrimination – the tricky aspect of institutionalised oppression is that it occurs spontaneously rather than being an overt policy; it is an issue of culture rather than structure.

The difficulty in weeding out racists and in sanctioning sexism and homophobia has been due to the notorious “canteen culture”; there is often a closing of ranks when allegations of wrongdoing are made. This response to criticism or investigation is due to the isolation police officers often face within their own personal lives and is made possible because of the lack of accountability.

Another problem in tacking discrimination within police forces is that the police routinely characterise people as “criminal” on grounds of appearance and occupation: discrimination is part of the job. Victims of hate crimes and domestic violence have been regarded by police as guilty and therefore deserving what they got: the murdered black youth who is assumed to be a gang member and petty criminal; the man who is queer-bashed is assumed to have been soliciting; the raped woman who is assumed to have led her attacker on.

The argument will always be made that as there are bigots in society, so there are bigots in the police force. That racism, sexism and homophobia were and are part of the working of British society is usually forgotten, as is the lack of accountability: the police are not under democratic control, and so must be viewed as part of the “secret state”.

A Relevant quote
“The police always realized they had potential power over the state. It could not easily do without their service – controlling the ‘dangerous classes’ – and it could not easily turn to another military force, such as the army, which would be seen as a blatant occupation and threatening a fragile consensus. Consequently, the state’s attempt to reform the police into a reliable force against its domestic enemies could only be bought at a price demanded by the police. They wanted autonomy from gross political interference; they got this in the shape of organizational and operational control with only the hint of public accountability being anything more than a smokescreen to comfort the faint libertarian heart. They wanted to keep their own house in order if and when their men misbehaved; they got this in the form of a complaints procedure that guaranteed their control over the investigation, and through that, the judicial outcome, thus leaving police discipline essentially as an internal matter. They wanted the tools to do the job; they got them not only in the guise of modern technology, but also in the form of enormous discretionary powers of apprehension and arrest.

“This exchange between the state and the police effectively granted the latter a licence to misbehave within tolerable limits. From the state’s point of view, it implied that if you carry out your control function, we in turn will not insist that your men keep strictly within the law, providing of course you keep your deviants relatively invisible and confine the more violent and brutal outbursts to those classes and sections of the community you are controlling for us. We will turn a convenient blind eye to misconduct and defend you publicly as the ‘best professional police force in the world’. There will of course be machinery for processing complaints and for holding you publicly accountable, but do not lose any sleep over these, for we will make certain they can never be effective. We do not want to be seen condoning police brutality and corruption when the public become aware of them, so if they are seen occasionally as getting out of hand we will need a few wayward junior officers as patsies in order to keep up the good appearance of having an honest police force.

“Sir Robert Mark, when he was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, understood the nature of this bargain very well. When he took up the post, shortly after The Times’ revelations of scandals had taken the lid off police corruption in London, he clearly had to do something. His subsequent campaign was portrayed as a clean-up job. And certainly with eight times as many officers being ‘retired’ as there were prior to his appointment, there are grounds for thinking he was entirely serious and successful. But his campaign was not so much to clean up corruption as a strategic handing over of a body of scapegoats in order that the police investigation machinery would remain in police hands.”


“Through this bargain, the police institutionalized their relative autonomy. They became conditionally reliable. As long as the state did not interfere too much, the police in effect promised to control the ‘dangerous classes’. Whenever the state has threatened to step up its level of interference, the police have effectively defended their relative autonomy.”

– Steven Box, Power, Crime, and Mystification, 1983 (London: Routledge, 1992) pp. 116-7

Pigs might strike
The Home Secretary was booed by rank and file police as he addressed a meeting at the Police Federation’s conference. This display of disrespect was a re-run of last summer’s booing of Patricia Hewitt at the Royal College of Nursing conference.

Police officers know that they are not exempt from the attack on the public sector, but unlike other public sector employees the police cannot strike. The deal is that the police rank and file can organise in the Police Federation and will be guaranteed more generous pay and pensions than other workers in the state sector, but in return they will not take industrial action.

Because it is hard to attack the pay and conditions of the police – politicians seek their political support – a new kind of cop has been created: the community support officer. Tasked with similar duties, but with less pay and power, the “yellow-clad numpties” are cops on the cheap. This tactic of undermining wage demands by introducing a parallel layer of police officers has been tried in other countries, including Ireland.

The response of the Police Federation has been negative: both to the creation of community support officers and to the wage cap imposed by the Treasury. The Police Federation is now requesting the right to strike – if the pay freeze is not thawed. But the Federation is not a trade union and chances are they will not co-ordinate resistance to Brown’s parsimony with other public sector unions.

White collar riot
The threats of strike action coming from the Police Federation pose questions for the labour movement. The role the police played in breaking the miners’ strike in the eighties might make class-conscious workers wary of making overtures to “militant” coppers. What position should we take?

Without a doubt, if the police take industrial action the government would be forced to cough up an above inflation pay rise, weakening the resolve on imposing pay restraint. Militancy within police forces is an encouraging sign, though I doubt that there will be many copies of Socialist Worker being passed around the police canteen in coming months.

Lest anyone think I have gone soft, there is no question that the police play a reactionary role and that many police are reactionaries. At the same time, I am always aware that there can be no revolution in the UK without some backing from within the armed forces and police.

We should support the right of police officers and members of the armed forces to organise and take industrial action. The purpose of the repressive state apparatus is to defend capitalism and imperialism, but we should not assume that this objective fact is internalised subjectively by members of the police and armed forces.

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