What is policing? In a recent interview with the New Left Project, Robert Reiner argues that "in practice the police are primarily an instrument for regulating the lower orders". Historically, police forces emerge as "a more urban and industrial ruling class" arises and requires "a more predictable, bureaucratic, legal and apparently universal means of maintaining order" than traditional agents of monarchy, armed forces, etc. The "apparently universal" aspect of this has been reinforced by a misleading focus on the police's role in "routine crime prevention" which obscures its role in political policing, but the net effect is to protect a particular order, one based on inequality and hierarchy. This is all very useful, and I expect readers will benefit from reading Reiner's book, Law and Order. (For those looking for a marxist approach to the British police, the late Audrey Farrell's book Crime, Class and Corruption is a must read.)
But this is merely to set up the problem. In my opinion, it still doesn't satisfactorily answer the question as to what policing is. We can agree that in a manner of speaking the police are "an instrument for regulating the lower orders", which is a part of the state's overall regulatory function in daily life. Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer's classic historical monograph on the English/British state, The Great Arch, covering its transformation from the high middle ages until the late 19th century, argues that the state is fundamentally a cultural form involved in "moral regulation": a "project of normalizing, rendering natural, taken for granted, in a word 'obvious', what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order ... Centrally, state agencies attempt to give unitary and unifying expression to what are in reality multifaceted and differential historical experiences of groups within society, denying their particularity." So, this supports two aspects of Reiner's analysis: the police in this perspective would have a regulatory function, and a unifying, apparently universalising function. Moreover, the emphasis on moral regulation specifies something particular about police conduct which is that, as repressive institutions, they are deeply involved in ideological work. The police have a role in maintaining a symbolic order, and deploy violence to that end. Still, we haven't really moved very far forward from the most general of generalities here.
I think to take this analysis further it would help to outline what would seem to be a peculiar set of circumstances. The government is introducing a series of substantial changes to policing structures and tactics in England and Wales (devolution in Northern Ireland and Scotland exclude these constituents of the UK from the reforms). First, they are introducing a system of elected commissioners, drawing to some extent from the US model. I think most police officers hate this, and the 'witnesses' before the Home Affairs Committee rejecting the idea - such as Sir Hugh Orde, Sir Paul Stephenson and numerous others - seemed to represent a big chunk of the policing establishment. Coupled with this change is the abolition of the old police authorities in which the police were run by a selected committee made up of elected councillors and 'independent' appointees. There was initially to be an elected committee that would oversee policing, but that was abandoned under pressure from police and previous committees. Instead, the oversight of commissioners will be carried out by appointed panels, with appointees drawn from 'local communities'. The government has made it clear that the main aim of these reforms is to change the relationship of police to the 'local communities' in which they operate. This is a strategic rather than tactical reform: that is, it is less about operational issues than about organising the relationship of the police to society (or rather, to social classes) in such a way as to cultivate a basis for right-wing, populist 'law and order' politics.
Second, the Tories are cutting police budgets. Contrary to my own expectations, the cuts have not been substantially revised in response to the student protests, industrial militancy, or the riots. This is one of the reasons why you will sometimes encounter low ranking officers policing demos etc, moaning that they too are public sector workers and no one cares about them. (I've witnessed this sort of exchange numerous times, and I think it reflects a real anger being expressed in the rank and file.) And it is in stark contrast to Mrs Thatcher's qualitative expansion and upgrading of police budgets, numbers, technology and legal powers, or indeed to New Labour's policy along similar lines. I had thought this must reflect the degree of the Tories' complacency about the prospects for serious social conflict arising from their deep structural adjustment programme. That certainly can't be excluded as a factor - their handling of union negotiations shows how arrogant they are. It also probably manifests their belief that the technological and organisational re-tooling of the police can make up for the shortfall in central government spending. The rationalization of the police bureaucracy - usually understood in ideological language as making it 'more responsive', filling a 'democratic deficit', 'professionalizing' the force, and so on - is consistent with the neoliberal theory of organisational efficiency in the form of 'public choice theory'. The current Met Commissioner, to whom I'll return in a moment, makes the argument that the police are like every public monopoly in having no competition: they must therefore simulate the basic structures of competitive market efficiency within themselves. But above all, the fact that the Tories are prepared to take such political risks over this - damaging their own public support, as well as their long-standing close relationship with the police - indicates that something fundamental is at stake. That something is the budget, and reducing the burden of taxation on businesses, entrepreneurs, speculators and property owners over the long-term. This is supposed to create an extremely favourable climate for investors, enabling a leaner British capitalism to remain competitive. Rationalising the police force is part of the programme, like it or not.
Thirdly, the government went for the police following the riots, attacking their response as tactically timid. Since the Police Federation had been warning the government of the likelihood of serious social unrest since its election, and since the Home Secretary dismissed these warnings as scaremongering, this was waving a red rag. It was also politically weird when irrational police fetishism was the order of the day. Then, the government announced that it was pursuing further reform along US lines, that it was bringing US 'supercop' Bill Bratton in to advise the government on 'gangs', and that it would be open to an application from him to head up a revamped Metropolitan Police, whose leadership had been taken out by Hackgate. In the end, Bratton didn't work out for them - Cameron thought he was a tough guy advocate of 'zero tolerance' policing. He isn't. But the introduction of this worn out old nostrum pissed off UK police chiefs, who actually aren't very keen on the idea at all. In the end, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who has seemed to be a tacit supporter of the government's reforms and champions something called "total policing", was appointed Commissioner of the Met and given a remit to fundamentally reform the capital's police service.
So, in a very politicised way, policing in the capital is being re-organised in a way that will presumably exert effects right throughout the chain of police authorities in the UK. It is being done in a way that makes policing more confrontational, more explicitly political, and which alienates both the rank and file coppers and a great proportion of the police leadership. Inasmuch as there will be a critical response from social democracy to these developments, it will hinge on the cuts to 'a vital public service', on the inadequacy of the reforms, and on the need to bolster the crime prevention aspect of policing. The Labour right has been most vociferous on the need to protect constabulary independence from politics (meaning, from democratic oversight). Labour's left will have something to say about the politicization of policing, and the growth of authoritarianism alongside the reduction of necessary 'community policing', just as they did under Thatcher. The limits of such an approach, however, become evident when you look at what 'total policing' involves.
"Total policing", as practiced by Hogan-Howe in Merseyside and now in London, is not necessarily "total policing" as advocated by some police experts. They argue that it entails breaking down specialization in the police force to allow a more flexible response to emergent problems, whereas Hogan-Howe is committed to retaining specialized units. But inasmuch as it does relate to that basic organizational motif, and Hogan-Howe is explicit in stating that it does, it seems to relate to a set of peculiar institutional and social problems created that arise in the context of austerity. That is, for as long as the political opposition to the Tories is so weak, they can expect the opposition to emerge in a localised, spontaneous, unpredictable manner. In this situation, having big battalions of police ready to fight on all fronts is less important than having a police force with the maximum adaptibility, able to suddenly surround an emerging confrontation and subdue it before it spreads. In practice, and this is where the experts have reservations, it also seems to mean literally having a 'total' architecture of police control in the context of protests and rallies. Rhetorically, Hogan-Howe sticks to the script about ensuring a 'balance' between rights and upholding the law, but even in his highly coded public discourse the emphasis is clearly on treating increased protest as a problem to be contained, demanding an escalated response. The TUC march on November 30th in London was subject to the most extraordinary police restrictions, including the walling off of Trafalgar Square and routes around it with steel - this on a trade union march, where it was highly unlikely that anything was going to 'kick off'.
'Total policing' also entails, of course, a 'total war' on crime, deploying a wide range of tactics - nothing illegal or aggressive, Hogan-Howe insists - to constantly frustrate criminals. Here, the new Met Commissioner's technophilia and fondness for militarised solutions comes through. Thus, instead of spending months surveilling drug gangs, just get a warrant and kick in the door, and reap some surprising rewards. Or, instead of simply going after criminals directly, impound uninsured cars on the premise that 80% of them are owned by people with a criminal conviction, thus impeding the mobility of burglars, robbers etc. (This sounds like something from a popular book expounding behavioural economics.) Technology, Hogan-Howe argues, should also be reconfigured away from 'bureaucratic' apparatuses, toward preventive technology. He contrasts computers which permit number-crunching and 'lists' - how many burglaries were committed in a given area last year - with numberplate-recognition technology which ostensibly allows one to stop crimes in progress, or before they happen.
This is a false dichotomy, since any technology could feasibly be used in the development of prevention tactics. But it illustrates the kind of thinking underpinning this 'total policing' approach. If policing as such reduces complex social phenomena to bureaucratic problems to be resolved through the targeted application of violence, 'total policing' tries to reiterate these bureaucratic problems in the language of technology. And as long as we understand 'technology' in its broad sense, as in a technical process, an ensemble of techniques related to governance, a technology of power, it makes complete sense. Contrary to what one may be tempted to assume, this is policing at its most ideological. For what has happened here is that the dominant ideology has already been materialized in the practices of the state. The dominant ideology, we may say for the sake of brevity, is that which normalizes "ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order". It is an ideology which arises directly from productive relations, from the division of labour and the labour process itself, and which constitutes a particular capitalist form of corporeality.
To elaborate. It is not that the existence of "biological individuals" necessarily generates the ideology of individualism: this is plainly not true, historically, and the concept of "biological individuals" is itself question-begging, avoiding or suppressing the matter of our natural biological dependence. It is that the capitalist mode of production presupposes the individualization of bodies. We are all, in this sense, self-sufficient units engaged in a competitive, self-interested struggle for utility maximization, which is ultimately the aggrandisement of the self. This is not simply a 'theoretical' proposition of capitalism, not a 'premise' in that sense, but a necessary material aspect of its development. We carry out labour processes in relative independence from one another - our cooperation is not enacted by prior engagement and planning, but in the context of market competition. We sell our labour power and purchase the means of its reproduction in this way. In this process, the political, ideological and juridical relations which constitute us as autonomous (rights-bearing, contract-bound, property-owning) subjects are always-already present. Every relation in the capitalist labour process presupposeses this possessive-individualism.
In the practices of the state, specifically for our purposes the legal/juridical practices of the state, these relations are materialised. In the discourses of crime, and law and order, certain social practices and the relations of dominance contained in these practices are normalized and legitimized, whereas practices which disrupt these relations of dominance are criminalized. But in materializing these relations, the state also represents itself as the unifying agent, fusing these individuals, these capitalist bodies, together in a collective national body, the popular-national state. And in so doing, it does not just normalize certain relations, but it universalises them. The ideology of crime already effects this universalisation - mark the point in Hogan-Howe's speech where he says no one benefits from ongoing crime, it is in everyone's interests to stop crime, etc. This 'naturally', in an entirely unforced way, obscures the existence of social interests seriously at odds with the dominant social order, at odds in such a way that they cannot be negotiated or resolved within the extant politico-legal framework.
It is mistaken to think that this is always necessarily effective. The whole field of social (class) relations is a field of struggle, and therefore the materialization of these relations will necessarily be riven with antagonisms. This is clear if you look at how, historically, the police have been rejected in many working class communities - a pattern that has persisted to this day, in a way never quite captured in The Bill, but obvious enough in the context of the riots. This is why the government feels the urgent need to re-organise the relationship between the police and 'local communities'. It may also be one reason why Hogan-Howe feels the need to change the police's approach to 'stop and search', about which more later.
Finally, in materializing the relations of dominance, the state also works to constitute them at every level, and this is where its practices form an ensemble of technologies of power. The technology that we are invited to focus on, to think fondly about, to imagine in thrilling action, is nothing other than the technology involved in the production of i) social relations themselves, and ii) the capitalist bodies in which those relations are inscribed.
This helps to explain why the social democratic response is necessarily limited at best. During the miners' strike, Paul Gilroy and Joe Simm published an article, brimming with embarrassing detail, which attacked certain Labour left mythologies on crime and punishment. These commonplace myths held that Thatcher's very real augmentation and militarisation of the state's repressive apparatuses was a fundamental departure from the practice of the welfare state 'golden era'. During the years of class compromise, it was held, policing was focused on clearing up crime in a civic fashion, while national bargaining institutions and parliamentary democracy resolved political differences. Gilroy and Simm demolished this fairly comprehensively, showing that from the first post-war Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, up to Merlyn Rees, Callaghan's Home Secretary, Labour administrations had always dealt with class conflict, crime, and of course political struggle in Northern Ireland, in a militarized, politicized and authoritarian fashion. The 'golden age' never was.
We will similarly have no difficulty in recalling the extraordinary authoritarianism of New Labour, from ASBOs to the threatened use of troops to break a firefighters' strike. But the point of detailing all of this was and is to indicate the limits of an analysis of policing which treats it centrally as a 'public service' in which a municipal agency delivers 'law and order' to a tax-paying community. Such was a contention not just of Labourites but of marxists such as E P Thompson. That analysis is what led many on the left to blame Thatcher for police misconduct in the 1980s, and to demand more police on the beat. In fact, and this is something I assume Cameron's reformers are well aware of, more police officers on the beat makes practically zero difference to crime rates. This is something that Home Office figures, as well as academic research, constantly indicates. By demanding more police, the left just played into Thatcher's strategy of beefing up capacity in anticipation of major social conflicts.
Policing is about something other than crime. That something else is, to put it crudely, violence and coercion. To put it less crudely, the police force contains within itself both 'legal' and 'illegal' forms of behaviour. It's not just that there is well known corruption, the beating of suspects, harrassing activists, and so on. It is that the apparent "gap between the democratic rhetoric of law and the actual practice of justice", as Gilroy and Simm put it, is expressive of the process of legality in itself. This process supposedly involves the collection, presentation and assimilation of evidence, a set of procedures designed to evaluate the objective truth of a situation: a person broke the law, or they didn't. But the process itself is constituted by power: the power of the police to determine, within limits, the laws and restraints applicable to them and their immediate relations with their subjects, to reconstruct events in a self-justifying way, to frame suspects; the power of judges to act arbitrarily, to sermonise, to unduly restrain solicitors, to (mis)instruct the jury, to inflict harsh punishments and thereby 'send a message'; the power of the media to identify crime 'scandals' or determine a person's guilt or innocence in advance; and so on. The product, 'justice', is a resolution of antagonisms and conflicts in society, generally to the advantage of the dominant classes and to the particular disadvantage of the poorest sections of the working class.
To grasp the specific role of the police in this production process, let me just return to something Hogan-Howe said. He referred to the disproportionate use of 'stop and search' powers by police against black and ethnic minorities. This was a constant flash-point of struggle with the police in the twentieth century, more explicitly racialised in the post-war era. Reducing its use would seem to be a plausible goal. However, it is important not to get too swept up in the idea that there will be a reduction in racist harrassment by police. Hogan-Howe favours a more targeted, smarter 'stop and search' policy - the technological solution again - and a more 'professional' manner of interaction between police and the subject of 'stop and search'. Now, it is notable that this does not any specific legal or even necessarily administrative restraint. Hogan-Howe mentions none, at any rate. Rather, it involves discretion in the use of police powers. And this discretion, coming under the rubric of 'professionalism', is something that actively undermines accountability, because it renders their conduct dependent on the immediate calculable variables of a given situation, for which no one can legislate or even dictate guidelines. Gilroy and Simm point out that the logic of professionalization has always been to free the police from legal accountability.
Moreover, and this is very far from the commonplace idea that the beat copper is an authentic proletarian, this freedom is one enjoyed in relation not just to suspects and courts, but principally in relation to senior officers and managers. It doesn't matter what the official line is, the culture of rank and file policing, the officers' understanding of their role, based on training, ideology, the institutional matrix, the particular kinds of cop sociality, etc. determine far more than managerial edict how crimes are dealt with on a daily basis. This is not to say that managers do not ultimately manage, that legal and political power over the police isn't ultimately centralised through a fairly inflexible hierarchy up to the executive. It is not to say that the average police officer has complete freedom of action. But the information on which policing is based, court judgements processed, and political decisions made, flows to a considerable extent up the chain from the police, giving them a degree of relative autonomy as professional managers of the social body. In the context of techniques such as 'stop and search', this increases police freedoms to define situations as ones requiring intervention and coercion. It empowers them to harrass, to brutalise, to demean, or to abstain from these if they see fit. Reports, ethnographies, research, etc. all show where this leads. The police in reality don't spend much of their time carrying out investigative work. Most of the time, they do little. They walk around, or drive around, or sit around. But when active, they engage in routine confrontation with certain subaltern social groups, pursue vendettas or indeed criminal enterprises. They work up 'results' based on certain tried and tested techniques, which may or may not coincide with actual crimes (of which they deal with a vanishingly small proportion at any rate). And they do all this within their understanding of what their role is in relation to society, formed by racist and sexist occupational sub-cultures, hatred for the 'underclass', and so on. What they're doing is exerting violence and coercion not only in defence of the legal and juridical forms of capitalist social relations, but in the defence of a moral and symbolic order, which expresses their own relationships to the dominant ideology, to the institutions they work in, the (professional middle) class they belong to, and to the social world they police. And that is what policing is.