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The myth of a protective police force

Do the police really carry out a protective function?

Black and white image of police in riot squad gear, text overlayed in light pink which reads "PROTECT OR ANTAGONISE?"

CW: violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, drug use, police brutality

In July of 2001, members of the Italian police force conducted a raid on the Armando Diaz School, the temporary headquarters of a coalition of anti-capitalist protestors during the G8 summit. In that raid, police indiscriminately brutalised all in their wake, engaging in acts of assault, sexual misconduct and the planting of false evidence. Ultimately, their actions inflicted serious injury upon sixty-one people, placing three of them in a critical condition.

In April of 2015, almost 14 years later, the European Court of Human Rights finally ruled that Italian police had violated the European Convention on Human Rights during the Armando Diaz raid. However, the Court required compensation to be paid to only one of the numerous people harmed by police actions. That same year, all charges against the police officers responsible for placing a twenty-five-year-old African American man, Freddie Gray, into a coma were dropped, sparking protests across the United States.

Whether they are targeting queer communities in recreational spaces, attacking unassuming people of colour walking home or silencing protestors voicing dissent, violence from police tends to produce a tiring and repetitive social response. It begins with a paradoxically familiar sense of shock, as the police push the boundaries of inhumanity with their callous brutality. Some of us follow that shock with anger, which may even eventually translate into calls for reform. Those in power pretend to listen to these calls and by way of response offer a reductive reminder that there are only a few “bad apples” (if any). Suddenly a debate begins over re-training police officers, changing their attitudes towards marginalised groups, or perhaps even restricting their use of weapons. Both camps push back and forth, throwing around facts, figures and anecdotes. Meanwhile, we slowly forget the names of the victims and survivors, and the police continue to antagonise broader society on a daily basis.

For a significant proportion of society, their engagement with these debates is underpinned by an often unchallenged assumption; whether good or evil, the police are a necessary protective force. In fact, for most people, questioning the necessity of the police is incredibly unintuitive. If asked to picture a world without the police, images of unadulterated anarchy feature in their minds- windows of shops shattered by looting rapscallions, cars being set on fire, the distant sound of gunshots, and so on.

Interestingly, however, the crimes we often picture when thinking of a “police-less” world are crimes that the police rarely prevent. In the case of theft, for example, the police, at best, can transport an already detained thief to a station. More often, they will take down the details of the crime and attempt, often unsuccessfully, to find the thief. In either case, the police have done little to prevent the crime and are merely reacting to it. What then causes the false equivalency between protection and reaction in our minds?

For most rational people, if someone were to break into their house or they were to witness someone breaking into another house, their first response would be to call the police. Subsequently, an association forms within their minds between the police force, and crimes against property. Problematically, this association is often misconstrued as one of protection, where the police, like a group of wise shepherds in blue, are protecting us, their beloved livestock. However, have the police really done much to protect us from or prevent the crime?

Realistically, their presence does little to actually engage with the crime itself––they have not pre-empted a crime, nor are they likely to actually stop it from being carried out. Rather, they have merely acted as a calming force for the person reporting that crime to feel as though something is being done.

By conflating their capacity to deal with the aftermath of a crime with any genuine protective function, we’re problematically granting the police a lot more importance than they deserve. Of course, pointing this out isn’t enough to demonstrate why the police force is unnecessary. Some sort of group is still needed to catch reported criminals or transport them to a processing facility. The issue with the police force, however, arises out of the discordance between where they are required and where they act. For most of us, our most common interactions with the police force are not in reporting a crime but rather seeing them when they’re patrolling a neighbourhood. During such patrols, the police are on the lookout for crimes, supposedly performing some sort of deterrence function.

There is conflicting empirical evidence regarding whether the police force genuinely deters crimes. At best, going off studies, the police may have a marginal impact on the rate of crimes being committed in some neighbourhoods (although the methodology and accuracy of these studies are often contested). Given the inconclusive nature of such studies, we are perhaps better served by our faculties of reason when assessing the necessity of the police in these scenarios. The argument for the police force acting as a deterrent is, essentially, that the fear of being caught by the police makes an individual less likely to commit a crime. The question we must therefore  ask ourselves is: what is the true cause of these crimes, and do they have any association with a fear of being caught by the police?

Theft is usually the product of necessity imposed onto an individual by circumstances of poverty. Crimes associated with drug use generally tend to be the product of addiction. Violent altercations or threats may sometimes be the product of poor mental health issues.

Instances of domestic violence, which disproportionately affect women, are but the product of men operating within the mindset of patriarchal entitlement. The police are often the last port of call for women and families in situations of domestic violence, and it would be entirely unsound for to decry them for doing so. The critique to be made is once again levelled at the police force. In NSW, the efficacy of domestic violence liaison officers (DVLOs) is questionable, both practically and otherwise. DVLOs often pressure women to undertake apprehended violence orders (AVOs) against their perpetrators as a primary solution, without taking into account the existing situation of the woman, and in particular, her capacity to house herself elsewhere. With federal budget cuts to domestic violence services in 2018—Australia’s oldest running women’s refuge in Canberra, Beryl Women Inc, received a thirty-two per cent cut—there is incongruity as to the fate of women in situations of domestic violence after they make the 000 calls.

Realistically, it is difficult to conceive of many crimes where the cause is an absence of police oversight coupled with the criminal’s joy of committing a crime. Subsequently, it seems questionable whether a significant deterrence effect is produced by police patrols. Although, even if we were to believe that the police force does have some sort of minimal deterrence effect, we’d need to balance this against the harms wrought by police forces patrolling neighbourhoods. In many instances, such patrols result in dangerous high-speed car chases, the over-policing and harassing of minorities and the general antagonisation of the neighbourhood in question. It then begs to be asked: is some sort of minimal deterrence effect that fails to reach to the causes of these crimes really worth it?

Before disgruntled conservatives and their beloved News Corp take to their keyboards, it is necessary to note that this article does not call for the removal of all law enforcement. Rather, it calls for smaller, more targeted groups that perform law enforcement functions which are actually effective. For example, a small group that is tasked with reporting crimes and transporting criminals. Similarly, cases where first responders are required, such as terrorist threats or active shooter situations, could be dealt with by a better-trained group. This would allow us to do away with a police force that spends a significant proportion of its time on the lookout for working-class and ethnic victims and giving out jay-walking fines when their superiors tell them to get their numbers up.

Of course, many jaded progressives will recognise the validity of such arguments but point to the fact that it is unrealistic to hope for a police force to be dismantled. While tragically, this may be true, the benefits of questioning the necessity of the police aren’t singularly tied to the hope of having them removed. When we begin to question the use of the police force, we also change the way we as a society interact with them. Perhaps we start thinking twice before calling racist police forces into our neighbourhoods to deal with issues. Perhaps we begin to question whether an issue is even harmful enough to even require any intervention.

Eventually, we may even get to a state where a bloodthirsty group of thugs go from becoming a necessary evil to simply an evil.