You might remember my last article where I went through the history of policing. Today, I’m going to do something a little different than usual for ourselves at the ACU and discuss something hypothetical- what a post-police world could look like.
Before this however I think it’s only fair that I put my biases on the table and admit- at the risk of losing my leftie credentials- I don’t hate polis.
At least not individual ones. I do believe that the police service is something that has outlived its usefulness to communities across the world some time ago, that better systems already exist and that- sometimes by design and sometimes by accident- policing has upheld systems of abuse and oppression. I do not, however, as a rule hate polis. I am sure there are individuals that join the police service looking to exercise some authoritarian power fantasy because of an antisocial tendency that they never grew out of; but I also know polis that are good people, that want to help their community and for these people, for better or worse, if you really want to help your community police work can be, if not the only, certainly the most obvious game in town. I can’t bring myself to hate individual people who want to make the world better but don’t have the radicalisation or the education to imagine other, more effective ways of going about it.
I do, however, firmly believe that for a better world to exist, police need to not.
If we’re going to imagine a world without police, we need to first understand their job, and then look at what bits we would want to keep and what parts are better left to the dustbin of history. Police Scotland define their role as “improving the safety and wellbeing of people, places and communities in Scotland” which sounds rather nice. Those are, after all, principles I do like and that I think are important. However, police do serve specific roles, like upholding the law and serving the community interest, which are two purposes that can be at odds with each other.
Before lockdown went into place I had a nice chat with a police officer. We were talking about body cameras, a practice that some reformers are calling for the expansion of, where an officer will be required to have a camera that’s on 24/7, recording everything they say and do. Naturally, I was very much in favour of this proposal and said as much to the officer, that accountability in any role is important, doubly so in a role where you exercise a lot of power. This officer, however, said something that stuck with me: “How many people in the west of Scotland would still have a license if instead of letting people off with a warning, I had to write them up when they did something a bit daft on the road? How many kids would be spending time in juvy if instead of giving them a telling off when I caught them stealing something or vandalising something, I had to make sure that they were persecuted to the full extent of the law? If the camera is on 24/7, I don’t get to decide what’s worth taking seriously, and I don’t want to take every daftie to prison ‘cause then streets would be empty”. I still think police accountability is a good and a vitally necessary thing, although what she had said really hammered home the (perhaps unintentional) point that the community interest and the exact letter of the law is not always one and the same.
Until the introduction in 2011 of the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act there were a number of so-called “cold cases” like the famous incident involving Angus Sinclair; historic cases that had new evidence emerge as a result of modern DNA analysis techniques, that were nevertheless not able to be taken to court as the law at the time stated you could not be tried again for a crime you were already found innocent off, even if new evidence emerged. Angus was arrested in 2004 for the World’s End murders in 1977 and then acquitted; it wasn’t until 2014 and the passing of this new law that he was finally able to be taken to trial and found guilty of the crime he long ago been proven to have committed. Stepping aside the complex issue of the use and morality of prison as a punishment and instead focusing on the issue of upholding the law, we can see here that keeping to the law does not always mean keeping the community safe, it sometimes means letting a known murderer walk free for years.
Another, less savoury role police serve in modern society is using violence in order to maintain the state’s internal monopoly on violence. Essentially, the only way a modern state can exist is if it is the only organisation that is legally allowed to use force to maintain itself and its property, and it does this via the use of police.
That’s a word salad, so what do I mean by this? Basically, if you do something the Government doesn’t like they can send the folk in blue to batter you and take you away, you however, canny rock up to a polis station and arrest the polis. This makes sense, it would be bedlam otherwise and most people would agree that if you are a murderer or a violent criminal it’s good when the polis stop your rampage. The Government, however, has a longer list of do’s and don’t’s than just “don’t murder people” and in the past police have been happy to oblige Government directives to cracks down on union strikes, and have turned up in full riot gear to peaceful protests, often leaving protestors bruised, and sometimes dead. The same police force that keeps our communities safe also turned up to gay bars to do mass arrests, fed information to employers about trade unionists for industry black lists and conducted spying on minority groups that amounted to targetted harassment.
What’s the alternative though? If the Government doesn’t have a monopoly on violence, does that mean anyone could be violent? Surely that chaos is worse than any oppressive order imposed on us? We tried might makes right in the past and collectively agreed it was not a very nice time for most people. What if instead of there being a select group of people permitted to dish out violence on the Government’s behalf and to uphold the Government’s laws, police were instead directly accountable to the people they serve and protect?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume, dear reader, that you, like myself are a fan of democracy. If we agree that democracy is good, we can employ it as a solution here. Instead of being representatives of the Government we could introduce a model where every police officer is elected by the community. This sounds strange, until you consider that the people that decide our laws are already elected- why not, then, the people that actually carry out those laws? This would mean that the police aren’t just faceless men and women that act as agents of the state but instead people with names, faces, promises and accountability. The police are not apolitical, each and everyone will have some political inclination even if it’s not shown during work hours and they remain completely professional throughout their career. Would you not rather know if the person walking about your town, upholding the law in your community is ideologically opposed to you? The Police and Crime Commissioner is already an elected role in England and Wales, so why not officers on the ground?
Now that’s a pretty radical idea, and not jumping at joy at the idea of bringing political division into police work is an understandable response. What if you don’t like the government, and think the MPs people vote for are all idiots already, that Westminster and Holyrood are without a single honest person. You agree we need some form of police, but you don’t like the mercenary idea of just hiring people to do it, and don’t trust the type of people that would stand for election just to put on a uniform. There already exists in our legal system a method of selection that avoids the issues that both methods raise: Jury duty. What if the police officer walking through the town was from the town and picked out by lot. No favouritism, no politics, just a lottery, and two weeks out of their life a year, everyone gets a shot and no one gets the be polis for too long. The idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might first think, it’s an old idea. Lenin discussed something similar to this that he thought could have been brought about in Petrograd while he was still in Germany, and Ancient Athens put a lot of democratic trust into the idea of selection by lot. After all, we already have jury duty as part of our justice system, if twelve strangers chosen by chance are a fair way to send someone to the jail, maybe it’s a fair way of bringing them to court in the first place.
What we have discussed so far still falls under the umbrella of reformism, even as dramatic as my proposals so far have been. Let’s say you aren’t satisfied with what I’ve offered up so far. When you say you want police abolition, you don’t want to just fix recruitment and have a better police force. You’re saying exactly what you mean: you want the abolishment of the police. What would we be left with?
More than you might first think, actually. Detectives, the people that investigate serious crimes are already separate to the day to day officers and CID. They don’t carry out many of the roles that could fall under the term population control and support the court system by providing evidence. What about community policing? Well, we have experimented in Scotland in the past with community wardens; without a police budget to support we would have more money to invest in the warden scheme that suffered more from a lack of resources than anything else. Police, as part of their role, don’t just respond to crimes but also mental health crises- without police who would turn up to prevent suicides? What about social workers or medical staff properly trained and focused on providing the care and support needed in such extreme situations?
A post police world is possible, and it wouldn’t even take a radical change in society to make it a reality. All we would have to do is expand what already exists to make sure the parts of policing that we need in place still gets carried out.
These are just my own ideas, there are better educated and smarter people you should listen to first but I hope this has maybe opened you up to the idea of what a post-police world could look like, and that it doesn’t necessarily look that different from the world we already live in. The ideas I have presented today have been hamstrung in this discussion because the scope of this article was to discuss the post-police world, but any suggestions that do not confront the prison industry, the mental health system, poverty, legalism, capitalism and statism are ultimately limited to be reforms rather than revolutionary changes in human history. If I got into all of that, this would have turned into a very long and very boring book. Instead, what I wanted to do was write about ideas that are not just possible within today’s system, but could be put into action tomorrow. We already have the tools necessary to build a better tomorrow. We just need to be willing to imagine a better world and make it real.