1980s >> 1980 >> no-905-january-1980

Fuzzing the Issues

It is probably fair to say that public lack of confidence in the police is more widespread now than it has been for some years. The reasons for this are a crop of cases which go well beyond the sporadic exposures of police corruption and reveal violent handling by the police of prisoners and others. During an anti-National Front demonstration in Southall, Blair Peach died after being beaten around the head, and witnesses have stated that it was policemen who did the beating. The Kirkby division of Merseyside police has figured in several allegations of brutality: in one case a man died who had been arrested for drunkenness, while in another, the victim ‘only’ had his spleen and one kidney removed after being ‘interviewed’ by the arresting officers. In Glasgow a policeman resigned in disgust at the way other officers had treated a man who died in police custody.

Part of the disquiet is due to the way such accusations are dealt with, for it is the police who police the police. In the Glasgow case, a sergeant was charged with culpable homicide and acquitted, but usually an internal inquiry is all that takes place. After the Blair Peach incident, a member of the Special Patrol Group, an ‘elite’ anti-demo squad, was suspended from duty, but nobody has been charged with murder or even assault.

‘Accountability’ is a word beloved by liberal supporters of capitalism when discussing the police force. If public rather than internal inquiries were held, they argue, the police would be seen to be answerable and subject to the laws of the land just like ordinary citizens. Even politicians who as a rule staunchly support police actions will sometimes join in the call for a public inquiry, since it will simply ‘clear the police’s name’.

Such demands can be placed in their proper perspective if we ask ourselves exactly what capitalism wants from its police force. The police exist to enforce the laws promulgated by the state with the aim of conserving the capitalists’ rnonopoly of the means of production. The police must therefore be as efficient as possible in protecting property (which means predominantly capitalist property) and in apprehending those who take what legally belongs to someone else. Whether such efficiency expresses itself in bending the law and framing innocent people is of no concern unless it becomes sa blatant that public respect for the police is called into question.

For the capitalists also want the workers — those excluded from owning more than insignificant amounts of property — to regard the police as the protectors of all, high or low. The police arrest not only the perpetrators of bank frauds but also those who mug old age pensioners in the street. They protect individual workers from the wrath and potential violence of picket lines, and also control crowds and keep the peace at football matches. We are, the conventional wisdom runs, all equal before the law, and the police — who are subject to it themselves — do not discriminate in the way they enforce it.

The capitalists and their apologists scoff at any suggestion that such a description is a myth, and staunchly uphold the honesty and reliability of the police. When this honesty is called into question, it is defended even more strenuously. But just occasionally it becomes impossible to keep up the pretence any longer, and the bent or brutal copper is made an example of and made to resign — or even sent to prison for a stretch. Members of the police force who are found out in this way are characterised as ‘rotten apples’, the assumption being that such behaviour is quite alien to the vast majority of the police.

However, the view that the rotten apples are few and far between simply isn’t supported by the evidence. An American commission investigating police corruption in 1970 discovered that in one section of Brooklyn, 73 out of 75 policemen were regularly taking small bribes from gamblers and supermarkets for turning a blind eye to lawbreaking. The way bent policemen are exposed is so often the result of chance that many must go undetected, since they never make a crucial slip. For example, Soho’s notorious Sergeant Challenor was only exposed in 1963 because one of the people he tried to fit up was an active member of the National Council for Civil Liberties. (Challenor was charged with perverting the course of justice but found unfit to plead through ‘insanity’.)

Such framing of the innocent may happen because of the pressures on the police. Financial reward, promotion and improved status are usually achieved in the force by results — which means a large number of arrests and convictions. Policemen are workers who are forced to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage, and they suffer all the poverty and oppression entailed by such a status. If the prospects for a wage increase will be assisted by a higher rate of solved cases, then the temptation may be hard to resist to bend the rules a little, and gradually to do so more and more.

The main pressures on the police, however, are due to the kind of society in which they and we live. A society based, as capitalism is, on oppression, violence and inequality will yield crime and policing in its own image. A century and a quarter ago, Karl Marx wondered “what a state of society is that which knows of no better instrument for its own defence than the hangrnan?” And what a state of society is that which relies for its defence on violence and corruption on the part of those who are supposed to ensure the safety of all its citizens? The bent copper — whether one who frames the innocent or takes bribes from lawbreakers — is merely responding to the cut-throat, dog eat dog ethics of capitalism.

But a police force without corruption — were such a thing possible — would still be an instrument of class warfare, designed to protect the capitalist class’s monopoly of property and power. This is seen most starkly in the way the police harass pickets and give protection to blacklegs, thus helping to blunt the efficacy of strike action. Grunwick was just one of a long line of such cases. To expect capitalist laws and capitalist police to act in any other way is utopian. The way the law defends property was revealed in a judgement against squatters handed down by Lord Denning in 1971:

If homelessness were once admitted as a defence to trespass, no one’s house could be safe . . . the courts must, for the sake of law and order, take a firm stand. They must refuse to admit the plea of necessity to the hungry and the homeless, and trust that their distress will be relieved by the charitable and the good.”
(Quoted in J.A.G. Griffith, The Politics of the Judiciary)

Rarely has ruling class interest be en expressed so transparently.

Besides the possibility of being framed or beaten up, anyone who comes into contact with the police runs the risk of being held in prison while awaiting trial. Judges usually accept police opposition to bail, even where, should the verdict be guilty, the sentence will not be a custodial one. One such case is summarised by Barry Cox in Civil Liberties in Britain:

A man was charged with conspiring to rob and possession of a firearm. He had no previous convictions, yet the police successfully opposed bail four times before they withdrew their objections — after the defendant had spent a month in prison. At his trial the judge stopped the hearing and directed the jury to acquit him. But by then he had lost his job and council house, his wife had had a mental breakdown and his son was having to have psychiatric treatment.

It is also worth pointing out the extent to which the police actually create the law as well as enforce it. Picketing is a case in point — the law allows much latitude to the police to decide on the spot what does and does not constitute reasonable picketing. The conspiracy laws are so all-embracing that they allow the police to charge people on suspicion that they planned to commit an offence — even if they don’t actually commit it. The centuries-old vagrancy laws come close to giving the police carte blanche to arrest anyone on ‘suspicion’ that they may be intending to commit an offence, and they have in recent years been interpreted in a racist manner as a device to keep young black people off the streets.

There are also things which the police do without legal justification. Nobody is obliged to go to a police station unless they have been arrested , not even to ‘help police with their inquiries’. There is in law no such thing as a general warrant — but the police are in practice allowed to search houses for anything incriminating, not just for items connected with a specific crime. It is not illegal to hold meetings in the street — but that didn’t stop two Socialist Party of Great Britain members in Bolton in September from being charged with obstructing the highway. Such is the capitalist concept of freedom of speech, and such is the grubby work of enforcing capitalism ‘s laws.

Workers should reject the liberal view that a publicly accountable police force could be turned from a tool of oppression into a bastion of liberty. The police are a class creation and will always remain so. It will be a testimony to the human and comradely nature of socialist society that it will require no policing and no police.

Paul Bennett