Police organisation has historically been created in order to control exploited and oppressed communities, and this remains the case, argues John Clarke.
Police spokespersons have been very anxious to disown Wayne Couzens as a rogue element who has brought shame upon them. Cressida Dick described the killer of Sarah Everard as someone guilty of ‘a gross betrayal of everything policing stands for.’ Still, those who sought to hold a vigil for the murdered woman on Clapham Common in March, and who faced such appalling police brutality, might have concluded that Couzens is actually an extreme expression of a broader misogynistic violence within police ranks.
Yet, the way in which the police conduct themselves is not, primarily, a question of the kind of person who gravitates to the profession. It is determined by the basic nature of their function, and the society in which they carry it out. From a socialist perspective, it is incorrect to see policing as a ‘public service’ that should be supported and strengthened. When the Labour Party calls for more police officers, a focus on ‘neighbourhood policing’, and promises to ‘invest in policing to prevent crime and make our communities safer,’ it takes an entirely incorrect view of the role that the police play in the lives of the poor working-class communities they ‘patrol and control’.
For nearly three decades, I was an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto. In that role, I witnessed how poor tenants, the homeless, Black communities and Indigenous people are targeted and persecuted by the police. One day, I saw a police car, that had likely been in a collision, being towed down the street. As it passed by a drop-in for homeless people, all those who were gathered outside cheered and clapped at this welcome sight. They had no illusions that the police are there to ‘make our communities safer’.
Policing in Canada
Like many of Canada’s institutions, its police forces emerged out of the country’s place within the British Empire. The roots of its federal police body, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are to be found in the drive to clear the Indigenous nations from the path of European settlement. The RCMP’s forerunner, the North-West Mounted Police, was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and was created as a mechanism of colonial enforcement. The RCMP’s ‘paramilitary origins are still highly visible in everything from its training depot to how it organizes its officers into troops, right down to the horse and the uniform.’
Today, the RCMP is still responsible for maintaining ‘law and order’ in more than 600 Indigenous communities across Canada. The racist brutality with which its officers carry out this function is utterly stark and shocking. Such is the level of state violence against Indigenous people that they are more than ten times more likely to die at the hands of the police than white people. Aluki Kotierk, a representative of Inuit people in the northern territory of Nunavut, put things clearly and powerfully in a media interview, when she stated:
“Many of us grew up with a fear of the RCMP and what is it they’re going to do? You walk in your community, and you see the RCMP drive by. And you take stock of what has happened. Are they looking at you? You hear a knock on the door and you think, ‘oh my goodness, who is that, is that the RCMP?’"
The forms of urban policing in Canada, have also drawn on the British model. Toronto’s first police force was established in 1834, just five years after the Met came into existence in London. Robert Peel, of course, took this initiative as the Industrial Revolution was underway, and densely populated working-class communities were proliferating. Policing was justified in terms of controlling crime but its function from the outset was actually one of class based social control. As one academic paper puts it, dryly but accurately: ‘Research on the subject for the purposes of this analysis reveals a high level of intersectionality between class structure and the development of what we consider the modern police.’
In Canada, as in the UK, policing covers a wide range of specialised functions. It is also true that the police are the frontline repressive force against protests and organised forms of social resistance. Indeed, Priti Patel has some particular priorities in this regard at this very time. However, the main day-to-day function of most police officers is to intimidate and exert control over targeted communities. This means a focus on poor working-class people, and an effort to contain the seething discontent that exists in communities that face ongoing racial injustice. The deeply racist nature of policing is clear and obvious, and easily confirmed by any serious study of the issue. In Toronto, Black residents of the city are fully twenty times more likely to be shot dead by the police than white residents.
As to the question of who the police keep safe, it is determined along the same lines of social inequality. In 2002, Robert Picton, who owned a farm near Vancouver, was arrested for the murder of dozens of women. His victims were mainly Indigenous, most were sex workers, and they were all poor. Picton expressed regret that he had been arrested before he was able to take the life of his fiftieth victim. Family members of those he killed derided the police for not acting on mounting evidence of Picton’s horrific crimes and allowing others to die needlessly. What was happening at Picton’s farm was common knowledge on the streets for a very long time before the police acted, but the safety of those threatened by his violence was simply not a priority for them.
Challenging the police
Whenever the reality of the police role becomes too jarring to disregard, leading police officials will generally respond to storms of public outcry with assurances of impending reform measures. As the Met issues preposterous advice to women on how to protect themselves from male police officers, policing minister, Kit Malthouse, assures everyone that Cressida Dick is “willing to change” and can lead reforms at the force. In Canada, the hard pressed RCMP Commissioner, Brenda Lucki, has even made this reluctant confession: “I did acknowledge that we, like others, have racism in our organization, but I did not say definitively that systemic racism exists in the RCMP. I should have.”
Yet these forms of damage control shouldn’t be taken as an indication that the leopard is likely to change its spots. If you accept the myth of a police function that is devoted to impartial enforcement of the law, it is possible to conclude that the brutality of the police at the vigil on Clapham Common or the terror that the RCMP inflicts on Indigenous communities in Canada are regrettable abuses that can be corrected. This, however, would be to fail completely to understand what the police are and what they do.
Policing emerges as a means of imposing a brand of public order that is in the interests of the capitalist class. We can and we must challenge police power, seek to set limits on it, and demand that the resources that are devoted to their repressive function be used to provide the public services that will really keep communities safe. The notion of community friendly policing, however, remains a false hope and a dangerous delusion.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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