I was a student of the NWRC a few years back and every day I’d make my way down from the bus stop by the Guildhall to the building on the Strand Road. Right beside the NWRC, was a police barracks. In the Republic and other places in the UK a police station looks relatively like a normal building. Here in Northern Ireland however, a police station looks more like a fort.
I’d walk past this building every day, gates almost always shut and only a small narrow door to allow civilians in and out. Walls and fences built so high as to prevent certain people from throwing petrol bombs inside. A few times there’d be a guard outside the gate, holding a rifle.
At this point its worth noting that the PSNI are the only police force within the UK that are allowed to carry guns with live ammunition. A thought that, when you see a nervous looking police officer holding a machine gun, doesn’t really inspire a feeling of security.
It’s strange the things you get used to or assume is normal. Being in Derry it was pretty common that a street would be closed off due to suspicions of a bomb being planted. A situation that would normally cause horror in other nations simply became an inconvenience to us. In the same way we don’t notice that many of our police vehicles look like they were built to tour war torn Afghanistan.
In America a lot of things have been normalised. The anxiety that students and teachers have that when they go to school they might get shot dead by a madman. That it’s acceptable to beg for money on the internet to pay the medical bills that are bankrupting you and that it is normal for a police officer to beat, harass and even kill someone and not get convicted.
Right now cities around America are experiencing riots, looting and the dispersal of peaceful protesters through police officers enacting violence on behalf of the state. It’s hard not to look at videos of cops attacking civilians and not understand how many Americans feel that they’re less like the guardians of civil society and more like an occupying army.
In Ireland, we’ve unfortunately had a lot of experience with occupying armies and police forces distrusted by large swathes of the public. Which is why in this article I hope to give a Northern Irish perspective on an American and, sadly, global problem alongside answering this question; Do we need Police?
The current police force of Northern Ireland are, by the vast majority of the populous, trusted and appreciated. With 51% of people thinking that the PSNI were doing an excellent or good job and 36% of people thinking they did just OK.
In regards to Sectarian issues, 82% of people think that the PSNI treat Catholics and Protestants equally. The same could not be said for the RUC, the police organisation in Northern Ireland before the PSNI. Operating between the partition of Ireland, the Civil Rights movement, the Troubles and was only disbanded in 2001.
While trusted by the Protestant population, the RUC was held in contempt by the Catholic population. Human Rights watch investigated the organisation in 1992 and found that the organisation would beat and harass children, forcing confessions to crimes they did not commit. Alongside colluding with Loyalist paramilitaries to kill Catholic civilians, which three separate inquiries would prove to be true.
In the beginning RUC members were 20% Catholic, with that percentage dwindling over time as Catholic officers were ostracised in their communities and faced discrimination and harrassment from their protestant colleagues.
So safe to say, when my local police barracks in Dungiven were shut down, sold and turned into a Presbyterian church- it doesn’t really help any counter arguments for the RUCs sectarian allegations.
Here in Northern Ireland we had British Soldiers acting as an occupying army and a police force that might as well have been. The pain and anger that the RUC has caused is why many bomb threats are presumed to be planted with the intent of killing PSNI officers.
Here’s a seemingly simple question; why do Police exist?
The obvious answer would be to protect the peace, enforce the law and ensure the safety of the general public. Police have existed in some way shape or form for thousands of years, with the earliest examples seen in China dating back to 791 B.C. Ancient Egypt and Greece had their own systems, alongside the Aztec Empire and city states in the Mayan civilisation.
Smaller populations such as towns and villages, for the most part, appealed to their village elders or local lords to end conflict, seek justice for theft and to protect the citizenry from harms way. That’s how class structures began forming. Some men with a lot of spears promised to protect farmers from other men with spears and in turn they get most of their produce. Operate under this system for years- centuries– it’s understandable to see how this is the openly way to live.
Police forces were never founded with the intent of protecting the general public, the working class. The British model of policing is what many nations operate under today, with guidelines on how to police effectively and with the consent of the general public. But the Police of London were founded to prevent thieves from stealing goods from the ships of West Indies merchants.
Police forces, in some way shape or form, were founded with the intent to protect property. With their presence on the docks to act as a deterrent for criminals, as if they pursued their intentions they would be met with violence, imprisonment and possibly death.
Many Southern states in America had police forces evolve out of Slave Patrols. With white citizens constantly fearing the potential for slave revolts, citizens volunteered to chase down and capture runaway slaves alongside establishing an environment of constant fear and terror to deter the slave population from revolting.
It seems we have two common factors with the history of police. Many were often established by the dominant social power in the region to protect what was ultimately material, such as dockyard police in London preventing desperate poor people stealing from West Indies merchants- who themselves were slavers and thieves in their own rights- in order to get by. Police forces were established to maintain colonial rule and to ensure that the dominant ethnic group of a region never lost a footing of what they had stole in the first place.
It is, however, with pointing out the evolution of the London dock police into the Metropolitan Police. An organisation that set the structure for other nations to follow around the world. They operate by Peelian principles, otherwise known as Policing by consent.
As Rick Mur from the Police Foundation put it;
The Peelian principles talk about preventing crime and disorder, not just ‘catching crooks’. They speak of the police securing the cooperation of the public in observing the law, so that there is less of an emphasis on having to enforce it. They talk about ‘offering individual service and friendship’. Policing is about enforcing the law and investigating crime, but it is also surely about preventing crime, keeping the peace, responding to emergencies of many kinds and protecting the most vulnerable from harm.
Going on to add that while many critics think that the police should be dedicated to “catching crooks” that way of policing doesn’t necessarily work for the benefit of the general public.
All our experience from England’s big cities in the 1980s, from Northern Ireland, from modern day France, from countless cities in the US, shows that militarised heavy mob policing leads to community alienation and undermines public confidence…it goes against our long standing tradition of policing by consent.
With this outlook, you can understand why people have such issues with police in America. Many police officers in America have adopted a “warrior ethos” in regards to their work. In which they approach every situation with the mindset that it could result in their death, with one article of police conduct putting it bluntly; “Remain humble and compassionate; be professional and courteous — and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”
It doesn’t help that, with adopting the Broken Windows policy of law enforcement, police are pressured to arrest more people on charges that are ultimately minuscule. Mayors campaign on fighting crime, which in turn makes them pressure police commissioners to wrack up some numbers which gets passed down the chain of command to the beat cops who have to stop citizens in the street.
This over policing, alongside the officers hostile worldview and the history of prejudiced law enforcement- such as the war on drugs- leads to citizens resenting their law enforcement, many seeing them as an occupying army and this hostility only reinforces the cops worldview which is why they treat every single interaction with a citizen like an enemy combatant.
Now with these issues highlighted, I’ll ask another seemingly simple question; do we need Police?
The immediate answer is yes. Because if you dismantle the police force then society will fall into chaos, with murders and robberies and rapes soaring through the roof. But this isn’t necessarily the way we have to live. People think of grand old institutions like the police as if we were in a boat out at sea. That any change to the infrastructure to that boat, no matter how minor, will result in the boat sinking.
But modern police forces are only about 240 years old and if society could exist and function before police forces, surely we can exist after them. It’s not impossible to end the wars, legalise the drugs, abolish the prisons, house the homeless or dismantle the police. People just don’t want to do it, because they don’t understand how to do it.
American author Alex S. Vitale wrote a book called “the End of Policing” noting that American police forces were tasked with doing too much. The police are called to deal with homeless people, but instead of housing them they jail them. Police are called to deal with drug addicts, but instead of treating them medically- like they should be- they’re instead jailed.
Calling police to deal with the social issues of your society is like having a pitbull watch over your baby- it’s not going to end well. As Alex notes;
Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. But police are violence workers. That’s what distinguishes them from all other government functions. … They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested. So when we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence, because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests. That’s what really is at the root of policing. So if we don’t want violence, we should try to figure out how to not get the police involved.
His argument about abolishing the police force is less reliant on the immediate dismantlement of the police and hoping everything will work itself out, but using the funds that would normally go towards this institution and instead using that money to solve the social problems that currently facilitate the need for police.
You won’t need police to deal with homeless people if you create a program to house the homeless, a program that has proved to both improve the lives of homeless people and is cheaper than cleaning up after them on the street. You won’t need police to deal with drug addicts or dealers if you legalise these substances, offer facilities to help treat drug addicts and create sufficient jobs for young people with decent pay so that they do not feel the need to commit crime.
Once you eliminate the structures that create poverty, you in turn eliminate the need for a police force. You don’t need a thief catcher if you quell the environment that produces thieves.
Now my issue with Alex’s arguments is that they seem Utopian in nature and thus somewhat unobtainable. That’s why the Harvard Law review, when detailing the problem with the warrior ethos in Policing, that instead of dismantling the peace they replace that warrior mindset with the guardian mindset.
Effectively changing American police culture from one where there is pressure to make arrests and act like soldiers trying to enforce the law, they instead cooperate with communities to keep the peace and protect the vulnerable.
With difficult problems the solution seems to be that to fix one problem, you need to fix another fifty. People have to decide whether they want to keep pruning or tear out the weed from the ground. Whether or not people have the will to do so remains to be seen. Until then, we will live in a world where we believe that we need police.