Metropolitan police at G20 Metropolitan police at G20 / Flickr / Ale / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While the Tories promise crackdowns on ‘anti social behaviour’, the country’s forces protect themselves, not the rest of us, argues Terina Hine

Faith in British policing is at an all-time low. The Metropolitan Police, the country’s largest force, was charged with institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia by the Casey Review, and similar accusations could reasonably be made against other forces across the country. With a string of scandals and a history of brutal repression, the case against the police is getting stronger.

Orgreave, Hillsborough, Spycops, deaths in custody, racist stop and search, a massive back catalogue of corruption and coverup from Stephen Lawrence to Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes, this is more than bad apples. It is a system rotten to the core.

The majority of Londoners no longer trust the capital’s police to keep them safe. Women have been issued with advice on how to protect themselves from the ‘rogue officers’. In 2019 the Met was accurately christened the ‘biggest gang in London’ by a Brixton graffiti artist.  

The cases of Wayne Couzens and David Carrick have made it clear that the police have form when it comes to ignoring violent sex offenders in its ranks. Following these high profile cases we learned that eight out of ten UK police officers accused of domestic violence since 2018 remained in post, and in the Met more than half of those found guilty of sexual misconduct were allowed to keep their jobs (2016-2020). The police have no difficulty protecting themselves, it is in protecting the rest of us that they fail.

Policing by race and class

Profiling is key. Those from the least economically advantaged backgrounds are most likely to be targeted by the police – not all communities are policed equally. The way you look, speak, dress affects whether you are treated as a criminal. Doctors, lawyers and journalists are three times more likely to be let off with a caution for a drug offence than the unemployed.

Consequently, prisons, both in the UK and US, house the poor and powerless, regardless that rich people commit crime. We know that black and minority groups are disproportionately incarcerated, but class is crucial: blacks who end up in gaol are close in economic condition to white prisoners. The criminal justice system is managing poverty and inequality, and ‘those with no capital get the punishment’.

Racism in the ranks is rife. Even children are victims of racist profiling, with black children subjected to demeaning and humiliating strip-searches 11 times more frequently than their white peers. As if that is not bad enough, child protection law was broken in more than half of the child strip-searches carried out between 2018 and 2022. That’s 1,500 instances of police abusing children.

But none of this intimidation or profiling helps solve crime. In 2021 just 5% of burglaries and violent offences were solved by the police in England and Wales. Of reported rape cases 98.7% went unsolved. Home Office data shows 74% of theft cases in 2020-21 were closed without a suspect ever being identified. Minor offences are barely investigated, with police doing little more than providing crime numbers for insurance claims.

It seems the police are failing on all fronts. But should we be surprised? The police may be tasked to protect and serve, but who are they protecting and who do they serve?

A sorry history

The Metropolitan Police, the first force, was established to enable the state to control political upheaval and protest. The ruling class responded to the 1819 Peterloo massacre by moving away from using soldiers with sabres to breakup riots and strikes, towards a less lethal form of control. The aim was to ‘tranquilise’ the masses through coercion and truncheons rather than swords and muskets. So began a ten-year campaign for a police force.

The densely populated working-class communities that grew up in the cities of the industrial revolution needed to be controlled and industrialists wanted their property defended from ‘the criminal classes’. In 1829 the Metropolitan Police was born. Although organised along military lines, the new force had a blue rather than red uniform to distinguish it from the real military. By the 1840s almost all large towns in Britain had their boys in blue, but unlike local constabularies, the Met was given also national role.

From the outset the Met’s role as an arm of the state was clear and the force became a symbol of government power, putting down protest or political dissent their primary concern. In the 1830s the Met was tasked to prevent Chartists from ‘disturbing the peace’, and often resorted to heavy-handed dispersal methods which ended in violence. Plainclothes officers were used to spy on political radicals in crowds and at meetings, and in 1833 a police sergeant was accused of being an agent provocateur, leading to a parliamentary select committee investigation into the role of police spies.

By 1842 non-uniformed officers, or detectives, were officially permitted on the force; quite rightly the public viewed their introduction with distrust – the popular view of detectives was as informants using lies and deception, not to fight crime, but to infiltrate political movements.

Working directly for the Home Office, Scotland Yard detectives travelled throughout England as government agents monitoring foreign nationals and refugees from the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Police officers were used to spy as part of the vetting process for citizenship and provided evidence for extradition. This close, overtly political relationship between the Home Office and Met Police continues today, with the Met having national counter-terrorism responsibilities and the Commissioner remaining directly answerable to the Home Secretary.

It should therefore be no surprise that the biggest, and from the state’s view most successful, police mobilisations have been against social movements and strikes. It began with the Chartists in the 19th century and has continued into the 21st. We’ve witnessed paramilitary policing in the miners’ strike (1984-5) culminating in the battle of Orgreave, the violent policing of the print workers’ strikes at Wapping in 1986-7, the kettling and use of police horses against protesters during the Poll Tax, G8 and G20 protests, and violent attacks on student protesters in 2010. The investment in police spies to infiltrate trade unions and left-wing political organisations is still being revealed by the ongoing Spycops inquiry. Political policing is alive and kicking.

Scapegoating poor

The latest government crime plan will do little to help reduce crime. It uses the police as tools of social control in some of the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods, scapegoating the poor and vulnerable rather than acknowledging community decline is rooted in the government’s own austerity policies.

Hotspot policing, as it is called, is aimed at the all-important offences of fly-tipping, graffiti and alcohol abuse in public spaces. Nitrous oxide ‘laughing gas’ is being banned to send a message to the young who hang around high streets and parks. But where else are they to go when youth and public facilities have been cut to the bone? Just as in the 19th century, the police are instructed to target the poor and working class. Labour too prioritises investing in ‘community policing’ to be ‘tough on crime’. Neither party is willing to accept that more police is no answer to social decay.

So while City swindlers, Downing Street party goers and tax dodgers go virtually unchallenged, police cells become crowded with the poor, the young and the dispossessed.

And it is no accident that sexism, racism and homophobia are concentrated in police ranks. These attitudes are deeply embedded in the state, their function partly to divide the population and maintain the status quo. It therefore follows that the organisation most directly assigned with the job of sustaining the capitalist ‘order’ will both attract people with reactionary ideas and cultivate them.

But what is to be done? Campaigners calling for the defunding or abolition of the police are derided as anarchic, unrealistic or naive. But they are generally demanding investment to be diverted from brutal and oppressive policing towards public services, mental health teams and decent welfare payments. These are seen as at least a partial solution to anti-social behaviour and petty crime, drug and alcohol abuse, child neglect and gang violence, where such investment would pay dividends.

Rather than being stewards of public safety, the police are a tool of state control, they do not keep us safe, but exist to protect the interests of the state, to maintain the frontline against organised resistance, and to aid politicians in their demonising of the working class, refugees and ethnic minorities, blaming ‘yobs’ and migrants for the consequences of austerity.

The response to Casey’s report has been a call for reform. Reform might purge the force of criminal elements, but it won’t result in systemic change. For that we need a change in the whole way society is organised, and the coercion which comes with it.

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