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The police: force or service? June 18, 2009

Posted by Rhian E Jones in Politics, Scepticism.
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In the UK, the existence of a police force is symbiotically entwined with the growth of industrial capitalism, and one cannot be analysed without reference to the other. Put simply, the spur for the formation of the modern police force in the early nineteenth century was the desire to protect the property of corporations and private individuals. Prior to its establishment, local and national authorities had recourse to troops, local militias and government informants in their attempts to combat crime, riot and disorder. This system was unable to cope with the effects of social and economic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, which also marked the country’s transformation into a primarily capitalist economy. Calls were made for improving law and order as traditional communities broke down and formerly feudal or migrant agricultural workers settled in large numbers around the new industrialising and urbanising centres. In these areas, growing social division between employers and employed, poor living and working conditions, and the appropriation of common land by private owners, generated widespread protest and unrest, petty crime, industrial sabotage, and nascent union activity. The mass return of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, who were largely homeless, unemployed and often disabled by injuries, exacerbated civil disorder. The newly-created entrepreneurial and industrial capitalist class, anxious to defend their property, lacked the traditional feudal system upon which the landed gentry relied for protection. This was the backdrop to the founding of the UK’s first uniformed and paid police forces, charged with protecting the new suburban districts, industrial sites, mines and railways, and enforcing order in increasingly anarchic and divided communities.

As Home Secretary in Wellington’s government, Robert Peel sponsored the first successful bill creating a bureaucratic police force in England. Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829, at first applying only to London. The idea of an organised and uniformed police force faced significant resistance in and outside Parliament, with a majority of citizens viewing constables as an infringement on English social and political life. Steps were accordingly taken to differentiate the police from the tool of autocratic oppression employed by contemporary European states: notably, it was emphasised that their primary objective was to be the prevention and detection of crime, and that the authority of the English constable derived from three official sources: the crown, the law, and the consent and co-operation of the citizenry. The police’s increasing acceptance led to the peculiarly British prevailing view of the non-threatening ‘bobby’ perpetuated in fact and fiction.

The uneasy relationship between police and society is perhaps encapsulated by the dichotomy of force/service. Despite an emphasis on the concept of ‘service’ and the protection of the public from criminals, the police have historically constituted a force, based on both their function as an agency of social control and their nature as armed, uniformed citizens authorised to coerce. A materialist analysis of the police’s role reveals it as one not of protecting public safety but of safeguarding the workings of the capitalist system. The preventive tactics of the early Metropolitan police were accompanied by their explicit use against politically-motivated disorder, with, for example, their pitched battles with Chartist demonstrators in Birmingham and London proving their ability to deal with major disorders and street riots. The 1839 Royal Commission on Constabulary Forces, which recommended a national police force with the Metropolitan Police as the controlling power, initially saw the new police as a means of executing the widely-resisted New Poor Law. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the state has continued to authorise the use of the police to oppose industrial action and public protest.

The publicity given to and debate over the role of the police in April’s G20 protests has been useful in making more obvious the previously hidden aspects of the police’s function in protecting the interests of capital. This debate has however been carried out within a liberal framework which does not question the role of the police as an institution or the state’s self-granted ‘monopoly of violence’. Criticism of police operations, tactics, and behaviour, when adequately addressed, can only serve to reinforce the image of the police as the legitimate protectors of property and enforcers of law and order. The death of Ian Tomlinson and violence towards other protestors should instead be analysed as expected and logical extensions of the role of those forces of the state that exist to regulate and control the status quo.

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