Defunding the police


What are the police for?

In 1842, Lancashire magistrates, voted by 81 to 55 votes to abolish the police force. In the same year a number of townships petitioned county magistrates to defund the police.

Durham Quarter Sessions received 172 (out of a possible 240) petitions, with over 6,000 ratepayers (property-owning males) signatures. Although the Lancashire resolution was never implemented, having failed to reach the required three-quarter majority, the force was reduced by over a quarter and, elsewhere, petitions to defund the police checked their growth. The current campaigns in the US to defund the police after the death of George Floyd, asphyxiated by the pressure of a police officer’s knee on his throat, has again raised questions about the purpose of the police and whose interests it serves.

Public service policing only emerged in the mid-18th century. Prior to this, most of what we would call police activity today had been either privately organised and paid for to protect the king, the local lord or the church, or undertaken in an unpaid, elected and rostered capacity by local men. The rising population coupled with increasing urbanisation powered by the industrial revolution sparked middle class fears of crime and disorder, while the growth in manufacturing led to more opportunities for theft and fraud. As the electoral franchise expanded to include more property and business-owning ratepayers keen to protect their interests, so too did the police. Towns, cities and boroughs began to pay for policing, particularly a night watch, out of public funds.

Starting with Glasgow in 1800, more cities developed their own police forces. This culminated in the development of the Metropolitan Police Force (Met) in 1829, the first overtly professionalised police force. Robert Peel’s Met was closely aligned to the system he developed in Ireland while chief secretary for Ireland between 1812 and 1818. It was hierarchical, uniformed, militaristic and accountable to the home secretary along with three local commissioners. In contrast, police arrangements elsewhere in England were non-uniformed, untrained, locality based, and responsive to need identified through local government.

Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, identified what she called the ‘boomerang effect’, where policing and other control structures and approaches deemed necessary for the maintenance of colonisation and slavery were brought back into the home country. The Irish police force was developed for the control and suppression of the Catholic working class in Ireland; it ‘boomeranged’ back to England in the development of the Met and then spread across the UK.

The public order function of the Met was very evident from the outset and it encountered strong opposition. In 1833, not long after the Met was established, several hundred police officers with military backup were sent to suppress a demonstration of a few hundred people in Coldbath Fields. This provoked a riot as they ‘kettled’ peaceful demonstrators into a narrow street, beating them as they tried to break free. At the time the Times wrote:

“The police furiously attacked the multitude with their staves, felling every person indiscriminately before them; even the females did not escape the blows from their batons – men and boys were lying in every direction weltering in their blood and calling for mercy.”

In the ruckus a constable was stabbed and his death was later declared ‘justifiable homicide’ by the inquest jury and, although the government appealed and the decision was set aside, the general feeling amongst commentators at the time was that the decision was the correct one. Similarly, the first accusation of police infiltration into a legal political organisation was met with outrage. William Popay, a police sergeant, infiltrated the National Political Union who organised the Coldbath Fields demonstration and was later convicted of acting as a provocateur.

Given the high level of opposition surrounding its inception and early actions, it is unlikely that the Met and other police forces would have developed in the way they did without central government funding. The Coldbath Fields incident and the use of the Met in other demonstrations left local authorities wary of establishing a police force that might increase rather than reduce problems of social disorder. The Rural Constabulary Act of 1839 required local magistrates to determine if there was a need for a police force in their area, but it was the local authority, through local ratepayers, that had to fund it.

This dislocation between those with the power to require the setting up of a police force and those who had to pay for it was at the core of the objections raised in Lancashire and elsewhere in 1842. The magistrates wanted a professional police force so that they could better deal with the problems that were brought before them as magistrates, while the local ratepayers, then all property-owning males, had their own ideas of what needed to be policed and what could be afforded.

The issues are slightly different today but the principle of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ is still evident in the current anxieties about policing. The central funding element of policing means that police forces are more directly answerable to the home secretary and reflect national priorities and concerns. Performance indicators that focus on arrests and conviction rates and the development of highly specialised policing units far removed from local communities, distances the police even further from those living in their ‘patch’.

The police practice of ‘stop and search’ is probably the most contentious area of British policing and one that has been researched more than any other. In spite of all the evidence accrued from dozens of research studies showing that it discriminates against black people and is based on false assumptions (that black people are more likely to be offenders, carry knives or be in possession of drugs) it still continues to be used disproportionately against them.

Not only is stop and search discriminatory, but it is also ineffective. Home Office statistics show that there is an inverse relationship between the number of searches carried out and detection of a crime that warrants arrest. In other words, the greater the number of searches, the fewer the arrests. Moreover, the way in which a search is conducted often leads to crimes – such as assault or resisting arrest – that would not otherwise have been committed.

A police inspectorate report in 2015 found that 15 per cent of searches were illegal, while the level of arrests that year was only 7 per cent of all searches undertaken. So, police searches were not only increasing offending, but the rate of police offending during searches was twice that of those suspected of a crime. It is sometimes argued that stop and search deters others from carrying offensive weapons, stolen good or drugs but extensive research by Tiratelli, Quinton and Bradford found no positive effect.

In light of all of the above, Theresa May as home secretary, and with more determination than any of her predecessors, took action to curtail the use of stop and search. This brought the numbers right down and without any negative impact on crime levels. But incidents of stop and search have started to climb again in the past couple of years and use of this power has been given the green light by Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.


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The promotion and continuation of a practice known to be both harmful and ineffective in terms of outcomes, defies logic. One can only conclude that stop and search serves some purpose other than reducing crime; a purpose that has not been discussed or agreed with the public. Alex Vitale in the End of Policing argues that the role of the police in our modern society is to manage the consequences of inequality, as homelessness, racism, addiction, poor mental health, street living and unsupervised children come under the oversight of the police. Keeping the lid on social disorder in a period of rapid change and growing inequality requires levels of social control and intimidation similar to those established in the initial days of the Met.

The poorest communities are usually those most affected by street crime and want ‘something done’. But if their concerns are appropriated to justify more controlling and punitive measures against their own people, without increased security, it breeds discontent. Black people and young people in the UK are the most likely to be ‘over policed and under protected’. Black Asian and minority Ethnic (BAME) people have been affected most severely by coronavirus while being disproportionately fined for lockdown breaches, while young people whose need for protection from street violence has been ignored, face severe punishments for taking their own protective measures by carrying knives.

Calls to partially or fully defund the police are not new and are supported by many research studies. Elinor Olstrom, the Nobel Economist, found in the 1970s that the greatest determinant of perceived police effectiveness was related to the how closely the police worked with the communities they served and that there was no relationship between police effectiveness and budget levels. In the 1990s, the ‘justice reinvestment’ approach to managing crime transferred, to good effect, US federal government funds for juvenile incarceration into educational and community based approaches to tackling crime-related social problems. In the UK, the strongest advocate of reinvesting police funding into social, health and early years services has been (the now retired) John Carnochan, the detective chief superintendent who established the violence reduction unit (VRU) in Scotland, again to good effect.

Over the years, transferring police funds from enforcement to engagement has occurred intermittently. ‘Neighbourhood’, ‘community’, ‘problem solving’, ‘situational’, ‘harm reduction’ and ‘legitimacy’ policing initiatives have all been tried. Each has been found to be successful but then not extended of followed through – they have even been rejected by politicians, in spite of the evidence, because they are not sufficiently ‘enforcement’ focused.

For example, the London approach to gang-related knife crime includes activities based on the Scottish VRU ‘public health’ model whereby young people and communities are engaged in developing anti-violence strategies. But, while £110m has been invested in increasing police numbers with increased powers to stop and search, only £250,000 has been allocated to community-based initiatives. The dominant focus is highly punitive and, as stop and search has increased so too has knife crime with the highest levels ever recorded in 2018/2019).

The police service does not operate in a vacuum. It reflects the dominant values of society, ignorant and contradictory though these often are. Many people still believe that black and working class communities are more heavily policed because they commit more crime, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary; their over-representation in crime statistics is an outcome of being over policed. The majority of deaths of children aged 5–14 in the UK are caused, not by stabbing, but by road accidents, often because the driver is speeding. Yet the public is content that speeding offences are dealt with through education measures while possession of a knife by a young person will almost inevitably lead to custody.

Defunding the police should not be understood as a desire for anarchy or disregard for the victims of crime – or even opposition to the police – but as a call to consider how the vast resources we have as a society are better utilised to enhance the wellbeing of all and not just the protection of the few. The call also challenges continued expenditure on practices, such as stop and search, that are costly, ineffective and inherently racist.  As history has shown, the more power, control and resources the police are given, the greater the risk of abuse.  Achieving safety and protection for all requires a different, community-led approach to its achievement. The debate around defunding the police should be welcomed as an opportunity to consider what policing is for and who should be its beneficiaries.

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