This spotlight on police behaviour is welcome. Under the Conservatives and New Labour the police have been deployed as a political tool, from aggressively and ruthlessly prosecuting class struggle from above to intimidating and criminalising dissent. The police themselves have enjoyed ever greater arms-length management and are actively lobbying for more power, and mainstream politicians are only too happy to indulge them.
There is one thing lacking in the mounting print and blog commentary on the left: what is to be done about the police?
Marxists have no illusions in the police. They are the first line of the repressive arm of the state. This state is, to paraphrase Marx, a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. One of these 'common affairs' is the problem of managing the working class and ensuring it is never in a position to threaten private property in the means of production - the wellspring of bourgeois power in all capitalist societies. For Marxists the police represent a serious obstacle to realising socialism. This is why, traditionally, many a revolutionary programme has argued for disbanding the police and its replacement by militias formed from the conscious workers themselves - to defend and strengthen working class power. The obvious difficulty is outside a revolutionary situation, calling for the abolition of the police invites derision and dismissal. The far left in Britain has either tended to argue this position regardless, compounding their isolation from the bulk of the politically interested population (take your pick from among the colourful array of ultra-lefts), or have maintained a strategic silence, as this otherwise okay piece in Socialist Worker illustrates.
This has tended to leave the far left with very little to say about crime and everyday policing. It may be good on the diagnosis of crime but is decidedly poor in what can be done about it, creating the impression the left is soft on criminality and completely unserious about it. Obviously, this is not good enough - it leaves us disarmed in front of those communities where crime and anti-social behaviour is endemic. And from an 'orthodox' point of view of progressing the class struggle, there is no development of a strategy to neutralise the police as the first line of the capitalist state. It's an issue left hanging in the air, presumably to be sorted out at some point down the line.
Among the revolutionary left the Socialist Party stands unique for developing a set of transitional demands on law and order issues. It recognises working class communities bear the brunt of crime and argues for a variety of strategies to tackle it - more resources is one part, but the other is about empowering those communities through the democratic control of policing. At the moment accountability is haphazard and indirect. Localised policing is overseen by local authority police committees on which sit elected councillors, police liason officers do the rounds at community centres, plus the IPCC quango deals with complaints. Democratic accountability exists partially through the police committees only, and even then they have no rights over policy or personnel. For example, last year Staffordshire Police were very pleased with themselves for clamping down on cannabis factories and raiding businesses for illegal workers - but these are not the crime and policing issues that exercise the press or Potteries people at large.
In the USA, with some variation, there is limited democratic input into policing - for example Sheriffs can be elected. And also looking back into Britain's past there once existed watch committees comprised of notables, but were largely done away with as mass suffrage came into being. Today so-called community policing and neighbourhood watch schemes place greater public expectations and diffuse "demands" on the police from below - but none of these are up to the accountability job. A tier of locally and regionally-based committees made up of lay community representatives in conjunction with a beefed up and democratised police watchdog with powers of scrutiny, policy direction, suspension and dismissal is what the situation demands to rein the police in. In addition the Police Federation (the SPF in Scotland) should be accorded the status of an independent trade union with the full rights enjoyed by other unions. The anti-democratic Association of Chief Police Officers should be abolished.
Reforms of these character are not a magic bullet that would clean crime up over night. Looking at what can be done to regenerate crime "black spots" from the ground up as well as pursuing more intelligent policies on drugs have to be part of any socialist crime and policing strategy. But reforming the police would certainly do more to create the kind of responsive policing the public expect.
Democratising the police would also blunt their role as the gendarme of the ruling class - as with all democratic demands placed on the state it weakens their class power and makes it more difficult for them to use it to defend their interests. It can also act as a response to policing ideology on two levels. It challenges the police on their hegemonic strengths - they portray themselves as the thin blue line between "decent people" and the deviant underworld. These reforms are designed to make sure the police stick to their 'official' role. And secondly, as difficult as some might find this to swallow, a lot of police join up because they subscribe to this ideology - there could exist a base of support from within the police themselves to make the reforms work.
Ultra-leftists are bound to spit blood at these sorts of measures. Some in fact take the SP's position on democratising policing as evidence of its "reformism", because it refuses to parrot the orthodox position. That's fine - they can indulge their love for the sacred texts as much as they like. It's up to them if they want to treat politics as preparation for a re-enactment of 1917, the Spanish Civil War or the French 'May Events'. However, as far as I'm concerned the SP's basic thinking is about making socialism relevant to the situation as it stands and not how we would like it to be, and the call to democratise the police reflects that.