Why Do the Police Exist?

by Connor Woodman

20 June 2020

US police

“The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it.”

David Bayley, academic expert on the police, 1996

The police force was, in fact, invented very recently – in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The police were created not to protect the majority from a dangerous ‘criminal’ element, but, in the words of Sir John Woodcock – former chief constable and HM chief inspector of constabulary – as “a mechanism set up to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes”.

Colonial Ireland, Proletarian Britain and the Metropolitan Police.

The UK state’s first police force was a colonial police force. Ruling through force and famine, Britain imposed this unique model on Ireland at the turn of the 19th century. Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, used his spell as Irish secretary to turn the colony into a laboratory for this new institution of social control.

Like an imperial boomerang, the new model of generalised surveillance and population management was taken from Ireland and imposed upon the UK’s emerging industrial cities. The domestic use of the army was becoming increasingly untenable following the massacre of suffrage demonstrators at ‘Peterloo’ in 1818. Less brutal and more integrated into daily life, the new police force was to prove all the more effective at managing unruly populations. 

From the start, police officers were deployed almost exclusively to working-class communities, where they were commonly received as a “horde of blue locusts”. As they spread out from London across provincial England, officers acted as ‘domestic missionaries’, imposing the social values of domesticity and public order dear to the newly triumphant industrial ruling class. Public gambling, drunken behaviour, union organising, the suffrage movement – all were to come under the boot of the expanding police force. In turn, the working-classes greeted the locusts with riots, from Hull to Manchester, including a mass uprising against the Leeds Corporation Police in 1844.

Across Europe, police forces developed to manage the new forms of landed property that emerged in the capitalist epoch. Capitalist agriculture developed, displacing the negotiated, blurred rights and privileges of the feudal order with a more absolute property regime. Peasants who had enjoyed the customary right to gather wood from common and lordly lands found their actions reclassified as theft. Roaming gangs of ‘vagrants’ were broken up and industrial dock workers monitored to prevent pilfering and smuggling as a novel social order developed with the invaluable assistance of the police.

The fear of the crowd, in the US and beyond.

In the 18th century, elite penal reformers across Europe argued for a new system of law based on Enlightenment rationality. Their proposals to rationalise and expand the criminal justice system, many of which remain with us today, helped lay the intellectual basis for the establishment of the police.

Behind their rationalist proposals lay a less sublime motivation: the fear of the popular crowd, the dangerous mingling of bodies and minds in a realm out of the control of the enlightened ruling classes. Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 On Crimes and Punishments became something of a manifesto for the reformers, denounced the “brawls and revels in the public streets which are meant for the conduct of business and traffic”. To confront the “dangerous amassing of popular emotions”, he proposed “street lighting”, “sober and moral sermons delivered in silence” – and “police”. This underlying justification for the tight policing of proletarian crowds – whether in the form of football fans, riots or political demonstrations – has never disappeared. 

In the early US, this feared crowd was largely that of the enslaved and the colonised. A cauldron of oppression, from patrols searching for runaway slaves in the North and South to Texas Rangers defending the white settlers seizing Mexican land, congealed into the American police departments we know today. The police, which enforced the post-Civil War Black Codes, implemented Jim Crow segregation, and protected the white masses that lynched over 6,500 African Americans, continues its function of racial control in the modern-day lynchings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brookes and countless others.

Today, perhaps one third of black males in the US can expect to see prison time in their lifespan, although as hip-hop duo Dead Prez put it, “You ain’t gotta be locked up to be in prison … They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks”. The poorest black people are circulated endlessly through panoptic prison cells and ghettos, where the disciplinary power of police is omnipresent. As Angela Davis, African American anti-prison activist, said whilst incarcerated: “If you’re a black person [in the US], you walk out on the street everyday seeing white policemen surrounding you… I was constantly stopped… you live under a situation like that constantly”.

Wherever one looks at the origins of the police (and prisons), one finds they “develop hand in hand with social inequality and hierarchy”, as Robert Reiner, the UK’s leading scholar of police, explains. The police is, he writes, a “means for the emergence and protection of more centralised and dominant class and state systems”.

These historical functions have in no way receded. In Australia, more than 50% of imprisoned young people are indigenous, despite comprising around 3% of the population. Indigenous Australians, reduced by settler colonial displacement, massacre and disease from one million in 1788 to 75,000 by 1930, continue to suffer the predations of the police and prison guards (and even, as during the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ of 2007, the army). In the UK, hundreds of people have died in police custody, many of them essentially murdered, many of them people of colour.

In the banlieues of Paris, Brazilian favelas and streets of Tottenham, police continue their primary function of disciplining and punishing the poor, the migrated, the racialised. Spend a few days in the public gallery of any court in Britain and you cannot fail to miss the steady stream of working-class defendants hauled before the well-heeled judges, magistrates and barristers of the law. 

Political policing.

From this, we can see that all policing is in some sense political, in that it involves the exercise of power by certain groups over others. Modern police forces do, however, possess dedicated sections that perform explicitly political functions: the monitoring, infiltration and undermining of social movements and political organisations.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, only 1% of FBI activity was directed at organised crime, according to documents retrieved from an FBI office. 40% was targeted at political organisations, part of the Bureau’s massive ‘Counterintelligence Program’ to undermine and destroy the New Left, Black Power and anti-war movements. The CIA, ostensibly concerned with combatting the US’s enemy states abroad, was by the 1970s ploughing as many resources into domestic political activities as its overseas Cold War functions. MI5 and the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, the heart of the UK’s domestic political policing apparatus, held files on millions of Britons during the 20th century, which was racked with strikes, riots and unrest.

Today, private security firms work with police departments to “[exploit] ongoing native versus non-native rifts” at Indigenous American protests against oil pipelines. Undercover police infiltrate left-wing political movements in the UK from Stop the War to Climate Camp. Police forces from West Papua to Brazil put organisers in body bags for standing up to corporate and state interests. Controlling the activities and movements of workers, slaves and the black and brown underclass has always entailed confronting and undermining their expressions of organised political resistance.

What about crime?

Despite popular perception, the police doesn’t exist to suppress and reduce crime, at least not in any obvious way. According to a scholarly review, the number of potentially indictable criminal acts that end in a successful prosecution sits somewhere between 0.4% and 3.3%. In other words, up to 99.6% of ‘crime’ is never effectively dealt with by the criminal justice system.

Nonetheless, the number of arrests and prosecutions, here and in the US, is vast. There is, however, little guarantee that those people put behind bars have even committed their supposed ‘crimes’, rather than just committing the de facto crime of being black and/or poor.

In the UK, around 90% of people on Manchester Police’s gang database are people of colour – despite only making up only 23% of people involved in serious youth violence. You can end up associated with ‘gangs’ for as little as being in a grime or drill music video. In the US, as Michelle Alexander writes, “Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining”. As a rule, suspects agree to take prison time in return for an admission of guilt, avoiding a lengthy and costly trial, and the possibility of a much higher sentence at the end. Millions are essentially incentivised to admit guilt without the evidence against them ever being tested in court. This fact alone renders the US criminal justice system about as effective in getting to the ‘truth’ about crime as the medieval method of torturing a suspect until a confession is wrenched from their broken spirit.

Even to the extent that those who come into contact with the police and prison system have committed the ‘crime’ they are accused of, there are systematic disparities in which crimes police officers choose to target. Those they do tend to be the ones committed by the poorest.

In order to target a particular person or activity – a troublesome demonstrator or a street corner drug dealer – police will exercise their ‘discretionary powers’, cherry-picking a law to achieve their pre-existing aim of arrest. As one former police officer in the US recently wrote, police work is “a logic puzzle for arresting people, regardless of their actual threat to the community… We used to have informal contests for who could cite or arrest someone for the weirdest law”.

When harmful acts are committed by those who are richer and whiter – the paedophilia of Cyril Smith MP, the invasion of Iraq by Tony Blair – the actions are either not defined as ‘criminal’, or else the police will politely neglect to enforce the relevant legislation. Little wonder, then, that from 2013-2018 only eight cases of white collar insider trading were prosecuted, whilst over 10,000 working-class people suffered prosecution or penalty for benefit fraud.

Abolishing the police.

At any mention of the idea of abolishing the police, developed intellectually and politically largely by African American women, many respond: ‘But what would you replace it with?’ This reaction is based on mistaken assumptions about what policing’s function actually is. What people think is being replaced is an institution which largely – if somewhat clumsily and brutally – attempts to reduce crime and protect the majority from harm.

A review of the historical and contemporary evidence shows that this picture is wildly mistaken. The reality of the police is closer to the corrupt, brutal, broken machine of The Wire than the dedicated professionals of Kurosawa’s High and Low. The line between police and criminal, legal and illicit, is blurrier than a windscreen in a downpour. When police officers are being paid to protect racist killers, helping to kill civil rights leaders whilst embedded in the KKK, burning down Debenhams stores with the animal liberation movement or planting weapons on people they’ve just murdered, we have to ask if our entire conception of law enforcement is mistaken. Even the Metropolitan Police’s anti-corruption unit is corrupt.

What we are demanding be abolished is the police as it currently exists: that is, the institution tasked with managing, controlling and sometimes eliminating individuals and populations at the bottom of the social ladder. There is no need for such an institution in any kind of humane society.

The question nonetheless remains as to whether a just social system would include an institution that does something like what many consider the police to do now. Insofar as police officers are forced to be amateur social and mental health workers – as they increasingly are – then of course, we want organisations that can fulfil that function. But they should be specially trained, accountable to the community, and unarmed: in short, social workers should be social workers, not police officers. Vast swathes of police work, including the policing of drugs, homelessness, sex work and borders, could either be eliminated without replacement or rendered redundant by proper investment in individuals and communities.

As for those areas of life that might maintain a need for some level of coercion and investigation, there are models of non-state, proletarian organisation that can be looked to for inspiration: the self-defence forces of Rojava, community militias of 1930s Barcelona, neighbourhood patrols of the Black Panther Party.

Ultimately, there may be some vastly reduced, heavy circumscribed functions of what we imagine – falsely – to be the current functions of police and prisons in a future society. We may want a small unarmed detective unit to investigate murders, and we might need some limited and temporary confinement for certain individuals who have been so damaged by society that they are a clear and persistent danger to others. But given that, overwhelmingly, actually-existing policing in capitalist societies exists to enforce an unjust and unequal racial and class order, we should organise for total abolition and the reorganisation of society as a whole.

Connor Woodman writes for Novara Media and other outlets.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.