Most of us, even if we have never had a good relationship with the police, take them for granted. They’re necessary, right? Don’t we need police? Aren’t they a natural part of any civilized society?
I want to delve into the history of the police in the U.S. for a bit here and then we can analyze whether they’re necessary at all, because–stay with me–I’m not so sure they are.
Are there police in ancient history?
Yes and no. In ancient Greece, publicly owned slaves were sometimes used as a sort of police force by the magistrates, and in Athens they were used as guards at public meetings and to assist with arrests. In ancient Rome, the military doubled as a sort of police force. Ancient China used prefects to enforce law, and this method spread to Korea and Japan as well.
Overall, a police force on the scale and sophistication as we see in modern times did not exist in ancient history.
How did modern police get their start?
The first centrally organized police force was in 17th century Paris, organized by the king. Similar small-scale, top-down police forces followed in other European cities and in England, but these still did not look like the highly sophisticated police forces we have today.
It was really the Industrial Revolution that brought the police to their modern level. The growing population of the cities, particularly London, with the new massive labor force proved difficult to control with the constabulary and similar small-scale police in place at the time, and in London a parliamentary committee was established to tackle the issue. The Metropolitan Police Service, established in 1829, was the first modern police force in history.
The express purpose of this service was not only to supposedly protect residents (read: the wealthy elite who were suddenly making a lot of money from industrialism) from crime, but to act as a visual deterrent to crime. Police in England were specifically established as a force; in other words, violence and threat are in the nature of the establishment.
American police history is perhaps even more violent in its origin, because rather than being an expansion on an existing constabulary they were, particularly in the South, an expansion on the existing slave patrols. This is especially apparent in places like Charleston, where many slaves actually lived on their own, and therefore more force was needed to keep them under control. City officials took charge of this force, and from there developed the police force we recognize today.
Is it any wonder then that, especially in the South, police violence and profiling targeting black folks is still horrifically out of control and indeed institutional?
The modern police state, with its specific stated emphasis on deterring crime and controlling the working population, was established from the beginning as a threatening presence at best, and a violent tool of the state and the ruling class at worst. It was not a response to crime but to a growth in population, which raises the question: what is it they’re really meant to deter?
The current state of the police:
For this part I am going to focus mainly on the United States, because I know very little about police forces elsewhere besides how they compare statistically to my own country. That said, I have lived in several different areas of the U.S. and I feel that I have a general vibe for how the police operate that is not colored by any one local force.
A lot of people, thanks especially to the Black Lives Matter movement, are aware of the disparity in police treatment of blacks, Latin-Americans and some other minorities versus whites. The racial tone of policing and the direct birth of the modern police force from the super-gross womb of slavery makes this issue completely inseparable from the larger one of the police force in general, and I don’t wish to gloss over it. If police are hammering the general population, they’re dropping anvils on black and brown people. We must not lose sight of the racism inherent in this issue when we talk about it.
With that said, we must also realize that this is not only an issue for people of color. While nationally, black folks are arrested at a rate three times higher than other races (and at an even greater disparity in certain areas), the rate of arrest and incarceration of white folks and other minorities is still significantly higher here than in most of Europe (not that they’re not racist too, because of course they are).
We live in what’s commonly referred to as a “carceral state,” where not only are we sending an absurd number of people to prison (we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its incarcerated population) but we are also incriminating poverty, mental illness, melanin and other non-harmful traits or behaviors, which does more to encourage crime than to deter it. To top it all off, police use force in one out of six arrests.
So can we reform the police?
Well. Hm. That’s the question, really, isn’t it? I’d argue no, we can’t reform the police, and I’ll explain why, but this article did a really good job of it too if you want another person’s explanation.
First, police forces by their nature, as we delved into a bit when talking about their history, are violent, forceful and threatening. Their literal point is preventive policing–meaning they’re out “patrolling” and looking for people to arrest! This is not what happened with the ancient and even medieval constabularies. This is an entirely new facet of modern police.
As the article I linked to above points out, not only is patrolling not effective at preventing crime, police are actually pulled from their patrols to respond to 911 calls, which is when they deal with actual crime.
They also have a weird set of legal abilities to judge people they personally deem “suspicious,” search their belongings and their person, and even arrest people for what amounts to an attitude they dislike (resisting arrest, etc).
And let’s not forget crowd control, which is, in my opinion, the main function of the police as a tool of the state; the biggest threat to a ruling class government is a mass movement of the people.
The police also, by their very nature, are extremely vulnerable to corruption. They are given extraordinary power, allowed to use their own judgment about how to apply it, and authorized to use violence–even deadly violence–to enforce it. Some of them will naturally take advantage of this, and in many if not most police forces in the U.S. the corruption is systemic.
To me, when the question is “do we want a state-run force that is violent and meant to frighten the people into submission to its laws?” the answer is pretty simple. Um, no.
In my opinion, while we should continue to fight for any reforms we can gain and continue to hold police accountable, we need to have a larger conversation about the issue of the system as it exists overall. We need to consider alternatives and try to bring them to mainstream awareness.
Okay, but what do we do instead?
Say you agree with me that the police as we know them are by nature unfixable, and need to be done away with, but you’re still uneasy about violent crime. How do we, as a population, protect ourselves from violent crime without a police force?
The trouble is that we can’t eliminate the police entirely (though we can certainly reduce their number and their power drastically, decriminalize all drug use, hold police accountable for murder, address systemic racist attitudes and replace prisons with rehabilitation centers and the like, just as a start) without changing the whole system–a goal which, while lofty, I hold to on top of my daily fight for reform within the current system. The police weren’t born from nothing; they came from a classist society with a massive labor force that needs to be controlled if the few intend to keep power over the many. And here’s where you go “oh yeah, I forgot Samantha is a goddamn commie.”
But really though, I’m not the only one who sees a major problem with capitalism as it exists, and while my ideal solution might be a bit too far to the left for some, the rise in socialist ideas among young people and the unexpected popularity of Bernie Sanders shows that a lot of people are on a similar page to me.
In a society that works for the people, not to control them and exploit them for their labor, crime would necessarily drop. Poverty and oppression are major factors in most of the crime we see today, and fixing those issues would knock down the crime rate. So would reevaluating what we consider a “crime,” for example, why on earth are we punishing drug use? Another thing to do would be to address the fundamental mindset in our criminal justice system of retribution and punishment. These methods don’t work to prevent further crimes, to prevent others from committing crimes, or to help the victims of those crimes. They are merely an eye-for-an-eye, unproductive, old-fashioned idea of what justice means. What if the goal were to improve the wellbeing of the victim, address the root causes of the crime for the perpetrator, and form the perpetrator into a better-functioning member of a healthy society?
These are the conversations we need to be having. Let’s think big picture, on top of addressing the most pressing issues like police violence against black folks. We can do both! To be “radical” is to make a change that affects the fundamental nature of something; to get at the root of the problem. Let’s all be radical thinkers.
What do you think? What are your ideas for how to improve upon or replace the police and the criminal justice system as a whole? Share in the comments!