Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Can the police be reformed?

Can the police be reformed?

The police have come under heavy criticism over their handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. But Peter Morgan explains that, despite calls for regulation, the record shows that the possibility of reform is limited

Few cases have had such a devastating impact on the police as the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The Macpherson Report into police mishandling of the investigation has exposed a catalogue of incompetence, racism and corruption. The stench is so great that even some police chiefs recognise that something must be done. Over the last three decades a succession of scandals have destroyed the myth of the honest policeman. Many of the scandals have centred on the endemic racism within the police force.

The main defence to charges of police racism has been to deny that any officers were racist in any way. That line has had to change as evidence of racism--from deaths of black people in police custody to the stopping and searching of innocent black people--has mounted. Now, following the Macpherson Report, the main line of defence by the police is to claim that just as there is racism in society, so there is racism in the police. The head of the Metropolitan Police, Paul Condon, says that police officers are no more racist than members of any other large institution in society. But this concession is designed to obscure the reality which has been exposed by Macpherson's report--that police racism is far more virulent than it is in society in general, and is not confined to a handful of officers, but is built into the fabric of the force.

The appalling police behaviour over Stephen Lawrence is nothing new. Reports of harassment of black people by the police go back to the experiences of black people in the docks area of Cardiff in the early 1920s and even to the last century. As black people moved to Britain in larger numbers in the 1950s and 1960s they faced systematic police racism. The West Indian Standing Conference reported police 'nigger hunting' operations in Brixton in 1966. In the 1970s there were repeated raids on the Mangrove and Carib, clubs in London. In 1976 Metropolitan Police Commissioner Robert Mark refused to accept that the murder of Asian Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall was racist. He accused anti-racists of 'manipulating' the murder for 'their own ends'. In 1987 the police strangled Clinton McCurbin in Wolverhampton while arresting him. In 1993 Joy Gardner was killed by police and immigration officials trying to deport her.

Behind each of these and many other high profile cases lie countless stops and searches, beatings and abuses of black people by the police. In no other public institution have such levels of racist behaviour come to light. The 'we are only part of society' defence breaks down in other ways too. The police have stuck out like a sore thumb as society has become progressively more integrated and hostile to racism, at least in its extreme, violent form. For example, fewer people now think that black people are lawless and violent than they did in the 1970s, but the police are still five times more likely to stop and search a black person than a white. At key turning points where racism has been weakened over the last 25 years the police have been on the side of those upholding prejudice rather than those breaking it down.

Police during demonstration against the Criminal Justice Bill

Just as police racism is nothing new, neither are inquiries into their behaviour and calls for reform. Intermittently, as some sort of crisis or scandal engulfs the police or justice system governments have come under pressure to set up an inquiry or a commission. More often than not this serves to deflect the anger away from the real cause of the problem as governments embark on a concerted effort to re-establish confidence in the system. Such was the case with the Scarman Report which investigated the Brixton riots of 1981.

The Scarman Report was one of the most influential reports in postwar Britain, yet despite criticism of the police they escaped blame for the events in Brixton. For years black youth had been subjected to intense racist policing. The riots erupted at the end of the first week of an operation called 'Swamp 81' in which the area had been flooded with more than 100 plainclothes cops. In two days they stopped more than 1,000 people and arrested over 100--twice the normal weekly average. As the Daily Mirror sald, 'Nobody rules the streets of London, Brixton, or even Railton Road except the Metropolitan Police.' Riots started after extremely high levels of police harassment.

However, Scarman rejected the claim that the police were institutionally racist. 'The direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist,' he said. 'I totally and unequivocally reject the attack made upon the integrity and impartiality of the senior directives of the force... The allegation that the police are the oppressive arm of a racist state not only displays a complete ignorance of the constitutional arrangements for controlling the police, it is an injustice to the senior officers of the force.' Although he did admit that the immediate cause of the riots in Brixton was due to some 'ill considered, immature and racially prejudiced actions of some officers', he made it clear that institutionalised racism itself was not a problem. His solution, therefore, was centred on more recruitment of black officers, better race awareness training, and the development of a black middle class in the area to act as a buffer to working class anger: 'Our underlying strategy should be to create ethnic minority opportunities in the universities, the professions, the civil service, the police, in politics and public life, in business activities and in industrial management.'

The report also sought to locate the riots in their social, economic and political context--namely the acute deprivation in Brixton, but even then its reforms barely scratched the surface. Despite the report's limitations it went too far for the ruling class and those high up m the police force. The police and their friends in the media went on the offensive to get some of the proposals watered down. Scarman's recommendation that racially prejudiced or discriminatory behaviour should become a specific offence in the police disciplinary code was attacked by the Police Federation and was eventually dropped by the Tory Home Secretary William Whitelaw. Although there was great stress on the need for community policing, this was not a sharp break from what happened in the past. The problem of harassment and racism in the police force continued.

Just a few years later this led to another explosion of anger with the riot on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham following the death of local resident Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid. The riot was led by local black people, but it also involved local whites, and the anger was again directed against the police. The government set up an independent inquiry into the riot, chaired by Lord Gifford QC. This report also stressed the need to improve local facilities, tackle unemployment and increase spending. But its criticisms of the police were much harder than the Scarman Report. On the issue of racism it said, 'We call for a ruthless determination to eradicate racism from the police force... The Commissioner's Report for 1985 tells us that there has not been a single substantiated complaint of racial discrimination since racial discrimination became a specific disciplinary offence in 1984. To us that speaks volumes. We urge the senior officers in Tottenham to prove by every means at their disposal--by publicity, by training, and by discipline--that disrespect and ill treatment of black people because of their colour will not be tolerated under their command, and will he punished.' The report was equally scathing about the police complaints procedure, accountability and their method of investigation. The Tory government virtually ignored the report.

The fate of these two reports shows one of the difficulties in reforming the police--the police are hostile to any reforms. On each occasion they fought tooth and nail to prevent even the mildest reforms being introduced. In 1981 a multicultural unit was set up at the police training centre at Hendon with a black lecturer, John Fernandez. He asked 62 of his students to write essays on blacks in Britain, and was so shocked at the level of racism that he disclosed the results. There was an outcry by the police, and the multicultural unit was disbanded. Prior to the release of the Macpherson Report into the Stephen Lawrence murder, the police and their friends in the media went on the offensive to try and pressure the government away from bringing in any change. So any changes will be in the teeth of opposition from the police themselves.

Any proposals to reform the police have to deal first with defining the nature of the problem. For Scarman, Gifford, Macpherson the Commission for Racial Equality and many others, the police's racism, hostility to working class people, culture of dishonesty and other crimes are aberrations from their true function. Reform therefore means stripping away these excesses from what is essentially a decent institution. In fact, the nature of the police itself means that these 'excesses' are so fundamental that they can only be dealt with by dismantling the force itself.

The police are not a simple reflection of society, they are a separate force which stands against most people within society--they are a law unto themselves. Sociological studies have shown that police officers tend to socialise with one another, have relationships with one another and live in areas close to one another. The force often provides accommodation in particular areas for its officers. The uniform and the warrant card set the police over and above the public they are supposed to serve. The collective identification with the force is reinforced by the high pay and perks they enjoy compared with other groups of workers like nurses and teachers. There is a constant pressure to adapt to the prevailing ideas within the force. Paul Condon tries to dismiss the idea of institutionalised racism by saying this must mean that every police officer is racist. Of course some police officers may not be racist. The issue is the dominant thinking in the police. Condon has denied there is institutionalised racism but accepts that there is a 'canteen culture' in which racism flourishes. So those with the basest racist ideas set the tone and others adapt to them. The testimony of black people and women police officers who have been driven out of the police force shows how deep seated racist and sexist ideas are within it.

The way the police are deployed and what they are there to do constantly reinforces the most prejudiced views and leaves anyone who joins the police force idealistically hoping to make the world a better place isolated. The police have to uphold racist laws--such as the laws over immigration controls. They believe most crime is concentrated in the inner cities, so black people are viewed as potential criminals and are subject to constant harassment. In 1995 Paul Condon said that 'very many of the perpetrators of muggings are young black people'. Yet 'street crimes' were only 4 percent of all crime in 1994--exactly the same as fraud, which is never described as a 'white crime'. The day to day existence of the police, and their job, means they are at the sharp end of upholding the institutional racism that exists in capitalist society.

There is a more fundamental reason as to why there are limits to reforming the police: the specific function that the police force, as an institution, plays in capitalist society, and its importance in perpetuating the oppression and exploitation of capitalism. To attack the police and to try and reform them for the benefit of working people is to attack an absolutely integral part of capitalist society.

One of the great myths about the police is that they are there to help ordinary people. But the police exist to protect the needs of bosses and private property--they have little interest in protecting workers, who are the ones who suffer most from crime in Britain today. The most recent British Crime Survey shows that those most at risk of being a victim of crime live on council estates and in low income areas, while those living in affluent suburban and rural areas are the least likely to be a victim of crime. Although most offences are not reported to the police (in 1995 less than one half of crimes committed were reported), only 26 percent of those that are reported are solved. So the police are no better at stopping crime than they are at clearing it up.

For all the rhetoric about the democratic accountability of the British police they are virtually impervious to any control by elected bodies, and they are adamant in remaining so. Like the army, the police operate as a force which has an enormous concentration of power at the top and is virtually answerable to no one.

Much has been made of the fact that a local authority has limited control over its police force by being able to call the police chief to account and having the ability to regulate finance. In fact these controls have no influence in the day to day running of the force. The Home Office has a veto over the appointment of a local chief constable--it has to approve a shortlist of candidates, and it can prevent a local authority sacking its police chief. The chief constable has sole responsibility for the deployment of police, so all operational matters are under his control--none of this is subject to accountability by a local authority. He also has sole responsibility for the appointment, promotion and discipline of police officers. In London the Metropolitan Police have so far been subject to no democratic control at all--they are entirely answerable to the home secretary--although local authorities are forced to pay for their upkeep. A more recent development in the police is the establishment of a national policing unit--the police claim this is used in the hunt for drug barons, football hooligans and the like, but the national crime unit has been instrumental in breaking up raves, being used against travellers, and no doubt will be instrumental in coordinating the police against any national strike action. None of this is subject to local authority scrutiny, but comes under the auspices of the Home Office.

The police disciplinary procedure is unparalleled in any other walk of life. The Police Complaints Board was set up in 1976--a part time body which effectively ended up rubberstamping police decisions. Between 1976 and 1985, out of the 50,000 cases and complaints examined, PCB members questioned the chief officers' decisions in only 210 of them--and in most of these they supported the chief officers' advice. The process was totally discredited and both the Scarman Report and a House of Commons select committee recommended an independent complaints procedure for the police--but this was rejected. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act helped establish the Police Complaints Authority--this means that any investigation of the police where the crime is death or serious injury is done by the police themselves.

There have been numerous calls for the police to he made more accountable. In the early 1980s the Labour Party called for measures 'to ensure that we have a truly accountable police force...and effective democratic control by the community through its elected representatives.' A whole number of Labour councils, such as Sheffield, Merseyside and the GLC, tried to make their police chiefs accountable through the establishment of police committees to check on such things as finance and complaints. The GLC and a number of other London boroughs also established local monitoring groups to watch over police policy. But this was fairly meaningless, as the 1984-85 miners' strike showed. The South Yorkshire police authority tried to curb its chief constable's spending on the dispute, but was stopped by a high court ruling. Since then there has been an even greater centralisation of powers and a move away from accountability.

Another black death at the hands of the police

Despite this, it is important for our rulers to have a force which is perceived to be 'neutral'. The ruling class has long realised it is not in its interest to have a force that is constantly in conflict with those they were meant to control. It was keen to have a force that would have the respect of most people. The ruling class has to persuade the great majority of the population that the state acts in their interests, even while it preserves the property of a very small minority. 'Policing by consent' has been the traditional slogan of British home secretaries and police chiefs. There has never been any hesitation to use the full forces available a times of conflict, mass demonstrations or strikes, but it has meant an attempt to present a friendly image to the rest of the population, while cracking down heavily on those who threaten property. So, for instance, there has been resistance even among the top chiefs of the police to a paramilitary force like the French CRS.

'Policing by consent' has served the ruling class well for a long period of time. In many ways it fitted with the reformism that dominated working class life throughout much of the 1950s and early 1960s when British capitalism was expanding. This began to change with the breakdown of the postwar consensus, the growing level of class struggle in the late 1960s and the emergence of economic crisis from the early 1970s. Economic crisis always breeds certain sorts of mass behaviour that are detrimental to the established order. A growth of mass unemployment increases the pool of bitter, poor and desperate people from which the minority who engage in various forms of crime tend to come. Those paid to protect property from the propertyless come to see all those who belong to this pool as potential criminals and react accordingly. That is why we see the constant harassment of working class people--and in particular blacks--by the police.

If the police are going to protect property in a society in which the lives of the propertyless are deteriorating, then they are going to have to use harder methods than in the past. That is why we have a more militarised police force than ever. Just as successful reformism becomes a dream of the past, so does successful 'policing by consent'.

The police are just one part of the state which, along with the courts and the army, is there to do one thing--protect the property of the minority who own it against the mass of the people who do not. Frederick Engels pointed out over 100 years ago, 'The state is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel.' Capitalism is a society that is based upon the accumulation of capital and therefore needs a highly efficient state machine to protect its property. The police exist because the antagonisms between classes with conflicting interests can no longer be settled directly--they therefore require a power appearing to stand above society to regulate conflicts. The state does this by ensuring that it alone possesses a monopoly of power, although it claims to operate in the name of society as a whole. In fact it operates as the instrument of one class to oppress the other, subordinate, class.

This explains one important thing--the police cannot he reformed in any fundamental way, unless there is a wholesale assault on class society. Labour governments fail to challenge the basis and power of the state because they have to choose between increasing democracy and rights for the mass of workers and protecting the interests of those who already own all the wealth. They have always come down in favour of the ruling class. So when in power Labour has used troops against strikers on many occasions, and has introduced repressive measures such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act. While Jack Straw and Tony Blair may make noises about the need for greater democracy and reform of the police, their record over law and order is as right wing as their Tory predecessors'. Labour has already shown how keen it is to protect Britain's rulers. As the tensions of class society become more acute they will be forced to back this up with increased powers to the police.

Millions of workers, on the other hand, are beginning to see that the police and the state are not neutral. The Stephen Lawrence case has opened a can of worms about police corruption and racism. Yet the solutions on offer fall far short of any fundamental reform. If an estimated 20 percent of police are racist, why are they not dismissed instantly without the generous pensions they now receive? Why are the top officers allowed to carry on without any genuine accountability? Why is there no real democratic control of the police? Even to raise these questions shows that it will take a much more fundamental struggle against class society and its racist institutions to win these demands.


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