And the headline was so promising. In his debut column for the Guardian, Owen Jones advocates the abolition of the Metropolitan Police and its rebuilding ‘from scratch’ by a Royal Commission. It’s good to see someone in a major newspaper pushing this line: it would not have been thinkable five years ago. It is a fine testament to the work of a number of campaigners, whistleblowers and journalists that this issue is now in open public debate. I don’t doubt he’ll catch hell from politicians and powerful pro-police lobbyists. But here’s why we think Owen doesn’t go nearly far enough:
1. It’s not just the Met.
Corruption and abuse is not a localised feature of policing in the capital: it’s endemic across forces, both in this country and beyond. We might point to the lack of repercussions facing South Yorkshire Police from Hillsborough or Orgreave, or West Yorkshire Police from Savile. The instruments of accountability are also beyond a joke: the 2008 resignation of over a hundred lawyers from the IPCC’s advisory board is a case in point; the make-up of the commission itself, largely of ex-cops, has been rightly criticised for its feeble recommendations in clear cases of corruption or abuse.
The aggregation of specialist police units – such as Counter Terrorism Command, or the National Domestic Extremism Unit, the latter responsible for the infiltration of protest groups – under the aegis of the Met makes it easy to focus on the Met alone. And the capital is often a laboratory for new policing techniques. But the problem with policing isn’t just in those specialist units, nor only in the TSG, but in the everyday strategies of policing felt by people across the country.
2. Thin Blue Lines & Fat Blue Crimes.
Owen speaks of his respect for everyday policing – the people whose responsibility it is to take “rapists and killers off the streets” – and argues that the problem with policing is structural. This might be a deft way of anticipating and diverting argument, but it concedes too much. We’ve argued before that the image of police, bolstered in the popular imagination by crime procedurals and police dramas, as an overworked band of noble men barely keeping a lid on social chaos is misleading. Virtually all studies of the police conclude that there are multiple endemic problems in policing: (i) a culture protective of the police institution from outside examination and ‘interference’; (ii) the inability of police to deal with top-end crimes perpetrated by higher social strata; (iii) ongoing decline in perceptions of police legitimacy; (iv) woeful rates of crime solution; (v) enduring racism and prejudice in policing operations.
Statistics are unreliable: they don’t deal in unreported crime, and are subject to frequent distortion. But maybe they give us a decent broad-brushstroke picture. As of 2012-13, the overall clear-up rate for crime is 27%. Within that category, clear-up for specific crimes varies hugely: 18% solution rate for theft as opposed to 94% for drugs offences – the vast majority of which is cannabis possession:
These figures hide a simple truth: the vast majority of crimes solved are ‘self-solvers’, where the culprit is at the scene, or witnesses know who did it. In the absence of these factors, policing operations round up ‘regular offenders’ or simply harass likely-looking (i.e., black) people in the local area. In the vast majority of crime solutions police play simply an administrative role.
As for Owen’s assertion that police keep rapists off our streets – well, the vast majority of sexual offences don’t happen in the street, and the recent history of the police Sapphire unit should give serious pause to repeating those claims.
3. ‘Armed social work’ doesn’t work.
The standard defence of policing from its critics is that headline police malpractice, abuse and violence, doesn’t account for the vast majority of policing operations, which is closer to a kind of ‘armed social work’ than conventional models of policing. This isn’t anything new: the laws establishing the Metropolitan Police are geared precisely to this kind of preventive work, closer to the maintenance of social order than detection and solution of crime. It is obvious to say that very few problems have as their solution a pair of hi-vis jacketed strangers turning up with truncheons and powers of arrest and imprisonment, and the imposition of police solutions (the containment and harassment of black or working-class people) fails to do anything but inflame the situation. This isn’t solely an indictment of the police: it’s an indictment of a society which thinks of poverty, illness or discontent as problems to be policed.
4. Police powers don’t obey legal frameworks or political resolutions.
Trying to contain policing operations through new laws misses the historical development of police powers. Time and again, police aggregate powers to themselves de facto that then get retroactive approval in law. The development of powers of arrest and questioning is a key instance: police have historically expanded their powers of arrest in practice beyond those outlined in successive Judges’ Rules until their new formulation in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984. Despite police acting beyond their proper boundaries, courts and parliament – though occasionally criticising ‘flagrant disregard’ for the law – tend to rubberstamp these practices. Powers of detention for questioning, search and seizure in absence of warrant, house searches, collective preparation of evidence – all these police practices have their origin in acting beyond the law, staking a claim to those powers as necessary, and parliament subsequently bowing to the will of the police. Sir David McNee, Commissioner of the Met at the time of the 1981 Brixton Riots, openly paraded operation beyond the law before Royal Commissioners and argued for its extension; his predecessor, Sir Robert Mark, argued that there was a “moral justification” in getting around the rules, and opposed the establishment of an independent complaints body on that basis.
5. Reform isn’t abolition.
Royal Commissions are perfect for kicking political problems into the long grass – and in any case, we’ve seen the contempt in which they’re held by the police. Administrative attempts to ‘reform’ the police invariably fail, because they operate on the axiom that failures in policing are administrative problems. Abolitionists ought to say instead that the history of policing suggests that these failures are inextricable from policing function: you can’t ‘rebuild’ the police along lines that exclude them, because they’re part of what policing is. Of course, we need to extend the argument beyond the police to the criminal justice system more generally: the administration of justice and the obscenity of the modern prison system.
Of course we welcome the new light being shone on historical instances of police corruption, and the high-profile cases that are finally getting the attention they deserved – and ought to be extended further, especially to the Nicky Jacobs case currently underway. But the record of dealing with ‘corruption’ scandals in the police hardly gives us heart: the ‘venal private army’ of CID in the 1920s, the corruption scandals of 1969, the Drug Squad and Obscene Publications scandals of the mid-70s, the Robbery Squad corruption revealed in 1978, the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six, Stefan Kiszko, John Stalker and the RUC – right through to the present Stephen Lawrence scandal, the Daniel Morgan case and the police-mandated rape of activists by undercover officers. The list can multiply several times over.
We will doubtless soon see a repeat of the law-’n’-order campaign mounted by prominent cops like James Anderton in the wake of the last serious wave of critical attention to the police, as well as the assiduous lobbying by the Police Federation last seen in its capture of the Labour Party in the early 90s. Doubtless, too, the right will seize on any assertion of police autonomy as much-needed plain-speaking about social scum. But the question of policing is too important, and too much a part of the daily lives of so many in all our cities – not just that covered by the Met – to be left in the hands of politicians, the judiciary, or a Royal Commission, only to emerge without change a few years later. Reform – even from the ground up – is not enough.