Friday, 18 April 2008

Branch Meeting: Crime and Policing

Last night's Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting looked at the thorny issue - for the left - of crime and policing. A opened with a few observations on the nature of the police. He said that because the police's are historically the state's front line in the defence of capitalist property relations there is the temptation to dismiss the police as an undifferentiated reactionary mass. This is precisely what ultra lefts do with their present day calls to smash up the police and replace it with a workers' militia. But if the revolutionary left want its ideas to be taken seriously we have to be rather more subtle and skilful in our approach. The problem is this: what constitutes a strategy that neutralises the police as a repressive apparatus; and to make this strategy compatible with tackling crime in the here and now.

A briefly noted how the police are as capable of struggling for their own interests as much as any other section of the working class. This was the case in 1919 when sections of the police went on strike, resulting in the breaking of the independent police union and its replacement by the Police Federation. Moving forward to 2008 we have rumblings of discontent against the government's attempts to impose peanuts pay rises across the public sector. This offers socialists an opportunity to drive a wedge between the police and the state. We should support the police's right to strike, their right to form an independent union and the right of that union to build relationships with the wider labour movement. The state's ability to shield the police from the rest of the working class has made it a more effective servant of capital's interests.

The other strand is bound up with policing and tackling crime. Traditionally Militant and the SP have called for the placing of the police under democratic community control. At present crime fighting tends not to be determined by the priorities of the communities they police but government initiatives or media hobby horses. Here in Stoke there has been Operation Nemesis, a clamp down on the city's cannabis factories. We've also had raids on take aways and restaurants and the arresting of "illegals", threatening many of the businesses involved. These make tough-sounding headlines but do the residents of Stoke feel any safer?

There was once a small element of democratic oversight of the police. In the past there were local authority police committees which drew on representatives from the force and the council chamber. For there to be any meaningful democratic control of the police such bodies need to be reintroduced, expanded and vastly strengthened. The only other proposal reintroducing an element of democratic accountability into the police comes from UKIP(!), who favour the election of chief supers and commissioners. This would be more cosmetic than far reaching and do nothing for community policing priorities.

In short democratic control of policing has a number of positive effects from a socialist point of view. Increased democracy makes it more difficult for the state to act as capital's handmaiden. The police will be more responsive to pressures from below. Crime prevention, containment and reduction actually become what policing is about. At the same time it would empower communities, foster more cohesion, erode the division between the police and the mass of our class and see to it residents' concerns are properly addressed, not routinely ignored.

In and of itself this is no panacea. For it to be truly effective it has to be linked to wider policies that tackle the roots of crime, encompassing social policy, a programme of decriminalisation, and punishment and rehabilitation. But it is practical, empowering and meet the concerns of working class people head on.


Imposs1904 said...

One for the archives.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

there are still local police authorities in existence - they are composed of 2/3rds local councillors and 1/3rd local magistrates - obviously this leaves a lot to be desired and they also just tend to rubber stamp what the police say. A book a reviewed a while back had a lot to say on these committees as they existed in the 80's (and I think are about the same now). I didn't go into what they said in the book, more focussing on the conclusions they drew from it. see

Phil said...

Cheers for correcting me on LC. I'll have to ask the comrade more about it, as he was under the impression they'd been abolished. Is this the case in some areas?

I was also wondering if you knew there had been any work done by Marxist criminologists on democratisation of the police and/or experiences from overseas we could draw on to put some policy details on the bones of the few principles outlined here.

Anonymous said...

Is there maybe the case for electing individual police officers as well? Epidemiological studies have shown that the best way to reduce crime is to reduce inequality. There are other key factors such as the legal status of drugs and availability of drug treatment, but inequality is very important.

Phil said...

Perhaps, Jim. Being a decentralised system I would imagine how democratic control is practiced would vary from locality to locality. I can see that some communities would prefer to have the same coppers on the beat day after day, and this will be something they will be able to demand.

Anonymous said...

Election of police officers could be problematic. Radio 4 recently covered a case in Jersey where a convicted abuser secured election as a police officer seemingly because he was persistent and the electing meeting knew and liked him; they dismissed the conviction as a 'youthful indiscretion' and he subsequently went on to engage in quite serious sexual abuse. I think elected local police committees is the answer. Your lead off was probably referring to the historical local watch committees in which the local bourgeois controlled 'their' police. They were abolished as working class people got the vote and therefore the potential to exercise control of the police.
Andy, Liverpool branch