The Metropolitan police force was established in 1829 and attempted to standardise policing so that soldiers wouldn’t have to be used to keep order. Whilst this makes sense on the surface, the creation of a paid police force paved the path for the monetisation of the police force. The police were now wage labourers and servants of the crown, which calls into question the extent to which they serve the people or the state that pays their wages. In the late 20th century when the war on drugs and new right Thatcherism arose the police became central to maintaining the status quo. There are many examples of this, like during the miner’s strike, and other instances of industrial action the police met strikers with violent hostility. These were people striking to end the cruelty they had faced at the hands of a conservative government trying to ‘starve them back to work’ and if the police were there to protect people then why did they side with the government? Why were miners, who posed no risk to anyone but the Conservative Government, treated so awfully at the hands of the police?
Another example is the war on drugs, whilst my position on drugs is liberal, anyone who has seen parts of the country affected by drug misuse will tell you the war on drugs has been a colossal failure. The over-policing of communities affected by drug use has only brought harm to already marginalised communities, whilst middle-class white people get away with doing hard drugs casually, black people and searched on the streets for no reason. This lies in the fact that the drugs policy has never been about drugs, if it was then black people and white people would be arrested at the same rate because skin colour very clearly doesn’t affect drug use. Drug laws were always meant to target already marginalised communities. Nixon aide John Ehrlichman is quoted admitting this “You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities” and again whilst we tend to focus on American policing the same was happening in the UK. Modern policing is defined by its willingness to serve the political goals of the state rather than helping the people it should help. People from marginalised communities, queer people, people of colour, particularly black people, and working-class communities inevitably show a certain level of distrust to the police, not because they have something to hide, but because historically the police have been used to target them and suppress their voice in society.
Prisons have been subject to the political whims of the government. In the ‘tough on crime,’ era of the late twentieth century prisons became more about punishment than rehabilitation and any perceived ‘nice treatment’ of prisoners was scorned, now this may have had and continue to have popular support but is essentially just an act of theatrical security, the idea that we concentrate all the ‘bad guys in one place and throw away the key. The inevitable consequence of the dehumanisation of prisoners is that it casts them out of society essentially, modern prisons offer little chance of redemption and re-offending rates are high due to the scarcity of work available and poverty that comes with that. Prisons are also subject to the privatisation that recent governments have pursued, and conditions in prisons have been worsened by governments assigning contracts to businesses seeking profit rather than caring at all about security or prisoner welfare. There are now fewer people working in prisons, who are often less qualified and experienced and the food in prisons is often poor and the living conditions dire. There is a knee jerk reaction in this to just not care, to think they’re serving a just sentence and deserve the conditions they face but with the problems endemic in policing many of them are serving sentences that are too long, for crimes that are entirely politically motivated and serve no public purpose. The modern system of incarceration doesn’t serve the public, as it creates a cycle of re-offending, it doesn’t serve the prisoners who stand no hope of rehabilitation and come out of prison with more problems than they went in there with. The only people profiting from the current system are conservative governments and private companies who make money from crime.
The idea of ‘defunding’ the police has long been considered but became popularised this summer in a reaction to police violence, presumably because “Reallocate police funds and deal with the societal issues that cause crime’ is a lot less catchy phrase. However, the concept of defunding the police is often confused with underfunding the police which has already been occurring over the past several years under conservative governments. The idea that we just unilaterally remove all police from the streets without changing anything about society is an incompetent one but that is not what defunding the police means. It speaks to a wider issue that if we take a proactive approach to crime by dealing with what causes it, which is often issues of poverty, inequality and discrimination. There is less need for a powerful policing system that abuses its power because the major causes of crime will be gone.
This is by no means simple, to eradicate the causes of crime requires major societal upheaval and a proper reckoning with how this country views issues of class, race and gender but to do so is crucial to the security of citizens, because, as shown the current system does very little to protect people. In this discussion, people often cite violent crimes as a reason against the dismantling of the policing system, without recognising that things like sexual assault lie on years of cis-hetero patriarchy and that the current police do very little to stop them. The vast majority of rapists will not spend a day in jail and those who go to jail are likely to re-offend thanks to the uselessness of the prison system. If you stop the causes of violent crimes before they happen society as a whole will benefit. Crime does not happen for no reason, people are not born criminals and the concept of focusing on rehabilitating people and making sure that the causes of crime are dealt with is a much more effective and humane method of creating a safer society.
It would be wrong of me to claim that these are my ideas, there is a long history of police abolitionist literature and thinking. “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis (And everything Angela Davis writes) is an iconic text in this field. There is also an excellent article in the New York Times called “Is prison necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore might change your mind” and so many other writers that talk about the benefits of police abolition and the focus on community-based solutions to crime. The majority of this is centered on American policing but the arguments remain the same.
There is a tendency for many to react strongly about this issue, to see it as a personal vendetta against police officers but this is untrue. Police officers in the UK are often underpaid and their job is often too wide in scope, they have to deal with addiction issues, mental health crises and a whole host of other issues and I personally would struggle to do their job. I understand they are doing a job and have to work within a system and simply quit their job would achieve little else but personal financial stress. I am not targeting individual police officers but rather a system created not with security in mind but to maintain a theatrical form of security that overwhelmingly targets marginalised people and perpetuates a race and class hierarchy. The current system only serves to benefit companies that use prisoners for-profit and Governments, like the current one, that use a ‘tough on crime’ attitude to give the allure of competence whilst utterly failing the people of their country in every regard.