Policing the Pandemic raises important issues about institutional racism, but the police cannot be treated separately from the system they serve, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Lambros Fatsis and Melayna Lamb, Policing the Pandemic: How Public Health Becomes Public Order (Policy Press 2022), v, 141pp.

In the first lockdown in 2020 in particular, various police forces across the UK appeared to relish the chance to police mundane public behaviour which had previously fallen far outside their remit. Derbyshire Police published drone footage of walkers in the Peak District, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire Police both referred to checking that supermarket shoppers weren’t buying ‘non-essential’ items, and numerous individuals were harassed, arrested and fined for simply being outside, whether or not they had a reasonable excuse.

As a participant in a recent study of policing in ethnic-minority communities during the pandemic put it:

‘So this, it’s a mad dystopia, like, thinking would we live in a society where the police can go up to anyone and say, why are you out today, are you going to the shop, is this an essential journey? Go home or I’ll give you a fine, like, it’s mind boggling.’i

The answer to the question ‘can we trust the police…in using their new Covid-19 powers?’ was a resounding ‘no’. The police were following, as they so often do, the ‘rule of police’, not the ‘rule of law’, as forces and individual officers interpreted Covid-19 laws and the often vaguely-worded government guidance to give themselves free rein.

It has been apparent from the beginning of the pandemic that ‘what is required is a public health response, not a criminal justice response’. Fatsis and Lamb echo that conclusion, pointing out that the choice to respond to the pandemic with legislation rather than with health measures was a political decision, and one that shows us the nature of policing and the state.

Punitive approach to public health

It is important to note that, as Fatsis and Lamb point out, this political decision was not simply a response to public irresponsibility. Compliance with lockdown, social distancing, masking and so on has been remarkably high throughout the pandemic, and arguably could have been even higher had the measures to deal with Covid not been framed in a punitive way. It’s almost as if most people will be responsible when necessary to protect their communities from a deadly disease. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that compliance with Covid rules would have been lower had police enforcement been less oppressive.

As Fatsis and Lamb argue, responding to Covid as a legal rather than as a health problem recast the police in the role of public-health professionals, calling into question what we perceive public health to be. It also raises crucial questions of ‘what policing is, what it does, who does it do it to and who does it do it for’ (p.4). This was spotlighted by the policing of the Black Lives Matter and Kill the Bill demonstrations in 2020 and 2021, and the vigils for Sarah Everard. In all of these, the police justified their response by citing Covid rules, despite the fact that arresting demonstrators, holding them in crowded police vans and so on was much more likely to spread the virus than were the actual protests.

Fatsis and Lamb do not mention Sarah Everard, which seems a surprising omission, given that the rape and murder of a young woman after she had been arrested by a serving police officer, under the pretext that she was breaking lockdown rules, was for many a seminal moment in the story of policing the pandemic. It was a particularly brutal illustration of the truth that ‘policing risks social health and security when it is used to solve social and health problems.’ii They do, however, discuss the Belgian case of a 19-year-old called Adil, who was killed fleeing police on his scooter as he tried to avoid a fine for breaching lockdown. It gave rise to the slogan appearing on walls in the area ‘the police are the virus’ (p.20).

The Covid pandemic exposed the racism of health outcomes in the UK, with black people more than four times more likely than white people to die from the disease, even after the effects of poverty, poor housing, public-facing employment and so on are stripped out. This startling statistic led some to speculate implausibly about genetic susceptibility or melanin, but it is much more likely that it demonstrates both the effects of generations of racism on health and of more immediate racism which makes black people less likely to receive the help they need.

In the same way, the effects of policing in the pandemic had a particularly acute impact on black people since they are already subject to abuse by the police. Black and Asian people were disproportionately fined and arrested for breaches of Covid rules in the same way that they are disproportionately stopped and searched, and for the same, racist reasons. The punitive policing seen in the pandemic was not exceptional, but revealed the essential nature of policing.

History of institutional racism

As Fatsis and Lamb point out, despite the portrayal of the police in official sources as ‘a benevolent and kindly institution that eliminates, solves or responds to social problems’ (p.22), at least for those deemed respectable and law-abiding, they are nothing of the kind. For Fatsis and Lamb, this is a result of their history. Accounts of the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, followed by other police forces around the UK, omit, they argue, the roots of the institution in colonial police forces like the Royal Irish Constabulary, and in the militias used by plantation owners to round up escaped slaves.

It is of course important to understand the imperial context of the founding of the Met, but this does not obviate the key role of policing as a means of controlling the working class. The police are there to ensure the orderly conditions necessary for production to continue, profits to be made, and the bourgeoisie to be able to keep and enjoy the results of those profits. This was and remains their central function, as it was also the function of the local militias, parish constables and watchmen out of which the police forces of the nineteenth century were formed.

This is not to argue that the institutional racism of the police is not also central. Indeed, the continuing racism of the Met, decades after the McPherson report, indicates that it is inherent to the force and not simply an ephemeral culture problem. For Fatsis and Lamb, though, police institutional racism is there because of police origins, not because of ongoing institutional conditions and requirements. They see it as arising solely and specifically from the colonial origins of police forces, which are, they argue, ‘held hostage by [their] own institutional, social and political history’ (p.22). This is rather close to seeing police racism as a kind of original sin: their origins were tainted by racism and therefore they remain ineradicably racist. It simultaneously understates the centrality of class and the ongoing function of racism in policing.

Seeing police forces as ‘held hostage’ by their history could also be read as letting current police leaders off the hook for the institutional racism of their forces. If they can’t escape the legacy of their past, it’s hardly their fault. Fatsis and Lamb are, however, generally clear that the racism of the police is not simply a matter of a few bad apples, or even of changing the culture of the police. As they note, the policing of the pandemic, the murders of George Floyd, Sarah Everard and others have made questioning the very existence of police forces a much more mainstream debate than it has been for decades, if at all.

Fatsis and Lamb are clear in support of calls for abolishing the police. The chaos that people fear would be let loose if the police weren’t there is, they argue, ‘a characteristic of police power itself’ (p.112). The police do not prevent crime, but create it. They recognise that for many, particularly white people whose personal experience of the police has been positive, this appears counter-intuitive at best. This is, they argue, because we are taken in by the security theatre practised by modern police forces. This performance of security gives us a sense of safety and security, as a result of police activity, which is mostly false.

In broad terms, Fatsis and Lamb are correct. Given that the police exist to facilitate our exploitation, we should not defend policing as an institution, nor imagine that it would have any place in a socialist society. There is, however, the question of what we should call for in the short term, in our present, capitalist society, and there the arguments put forward by Fatsis and Lamb are less persuasive.

What is to be done?

One of the effects of more than a decade of austerity has been that the police have ended up taking on more and more social functions abandoned by other, overstretched agencies. If social workers, council officers, housing officers, even doctors cannot respond to a particular situation, the police are increasingly the last agency standing. The result has been that incidents which would and should have been treated as civil or health issues are criminalised, with dire effects for those concerned. See, for example, people in mental-health crisis who are increasingly likely to be arrested (or in the US, shot dead) by police, rather than helped by health professionals.

Calls, therefore, for defunding the police and refunding other agencies so that this development can be reversed are clearly right. Can we, however, really do without the police entirely? The argument that the police create crime posits that without the police, crime would disappear. This may be true semantically – policing reifies a wide range of behaviour into ‘crime’ – but would we be free of the threat of violence, theft and fraud? Within the current system, it seems unlikely.

The police are the enforcers of the capitalist state. They are not the only source of violence in the system; the divisions and inequality of capitalist society creates the conditions for all sorts of crime. The police may amplify this, but it is not quite correct to see them as the only source of it. If we were to abolish the police tomorrow, without changing anything else, the most likely outcome would be that those who could afford it would pay for private security and those who couldn’t, would suffer. To an extent, that already happens, as rates of burglary, for example, are often higher in poorer areas, where people are less likely to be able to afford effective home security.

As shown by the resignation of Cressida Dick, the Met at least have lost the confidence of those they police (insofar as they had it). That there is a real debate as a result of the policing of the pandemic about the existence of the police is a very positive development. In imagining how we could abolish the police, however, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this requires also abolishing the exploitative society that requires policing.


i Scarlet Harris, Remi Joseph-Salisbury, Patrick Williams, Lisa White, A Threat to Public Safety: Policing, Racism and the Covid-19 Pandemic (Institute of Race Relations 2021), p.13, https://irr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/A-threat-to-public-safety-v3.pdf.

ii Ibid. p.20.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.