Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2514

You can’t change the cops

This article is over 7 years, 9 months old
Thousands of people have taken to the streets in anger at police violence and racism. Alistair Farrow argues that an institution designed to repress our class is beyond reform
Issue 2514
Police search a young man heading to Notting Hill Carnival
Police search a young man heading to Notting Hill Carnival (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the US, and Mzee Mohammed in Britain, have inspired a wave of protest.

Questions about the nature of the police and how activists must deal with them are at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain.

Socialists argue that the police cannot be reformed, not because of the individuals within it but because of the role the institution plays in society.

Whatever reasons individuals may have for joining the police, even to survive in the institution means assimilating into the police force.

This process transforms individuals, not the other way round.

If people resist they are forced out, as even high-ranking black cops have attested upon leaving the police.

Racism, sexism and a deep hatred of working class people are at the institution’s core.

It reflects and pushes bigoted and divisive ideas from the top of society.

Society is shaped by the struggle between the working and ruling classes.

In this struggle the state is not a neutral force—it is a tool in the hands of the class that rules society.

So the police use violence to put down any revolt against the system, whether this takes the form of strikes, protests or riots.

Robert Peel, home secretary from 1822 to 1830, created the Met Police in 1829. This was in response to the threat of the collective activity of the newly emerging working class.

He saw that the capitalist state needed a body of men capable of putting down civil disobedience without killing hundreds or thousands.

Workers agitating for democratic rights were massacred at Peterloo in Manchester a decade before. Afterwards, there was a surge in radical ideas.

The British ruling class could not afford acts of brutality like this to create political crises at home. Peel saw this and the need for the police as a means of protecting the ruling class and enabling their rule.

The Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 is perhaps the best recent example of this. The police invaded and occupied whole towns in Yorkshire, treating mining communities as the enemy in an open war against the working class.

But even when there is less struggle ordinary people are let down by the police.


How many people have rung the cops and, when they eventually show up, are told that there is little that can be done?

Just 28.9 percent of reported crimes are solved. The worst statistics of all are those for sexual violence and rape.

A 2013 government report found that just 15 percent of people who have suffered sexual violence report it.

A separate report found that only 5.7 percent of reported sexual attacks result in a conviction.

This tells us that the police don’t care about the crimes committed against ordinary people.

The Hillsborough disaster revealed the contempt with which working class people were treated by the police.

And it showed how the police treated the grieving relatives of the dead with disdain by ploughing resources into the cover-up.

This is also why the police is institutionally racist.

In the police’s view of the world there is a hierarchy—and the young, the working class, women, and black people sit at the bottom of it. The police promote the racist idea that black people are more likely to be criminals.

They see it as their job to keep black people “in their place”.

That’s why black people are more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.

It’s also why they’re also more likely to be victims of police violence.

Yet instances of police brutality, corruption and racism are treated as one-offs by the establishment—the media, the police and most politicians.

When police killed Mark Duggan in 2011 the Independent Police Complaints Commission and most of the press parroted the police line.


Mark was characterised as a danger to the police who had fired on cops—a bullet was found in a police officer’s radio.

But the bullet in the radio turned out to be fired from a police gun.

The police are protected from exposure to scrutiny and prosecution because they defend the interests of the ruling class.

They also defend each other.

When a cop is set to be charged with something they are told to resign, which makes it impossible to bring a criminal charge against them.

The Policing and Crime Bill is set to change this (see right).

But only off the back of decades of hard-fought campaigns by the victims of police violence and their families.

Over 1,500 people have died in police custody in Britain since 1990 and not one police officer has ever been convicted.

In 1998 John Davidson of the Met covered up the identity of Stephen Lawrence’s Nazi murderer because his father was a police informant.

His colleagues backed him up and so did the state.

This allowed the killers time to hide evidence which led to a delay of years in the family’s search for justice. The fight for justice continues today.

If people bought the idea that the state can change the police then we would not have seen the campaign behind Stephen Lawrence’s family’s fight for justice.

We would not have seen the inspiring movement on Britain’s streets over the last couple of weeks either.

Ordinary people have fought back against the police on picket lines, in riots and through the legal system since the police force began.

There have been huge struggles against police violence and racism that have threatened the rich and their grasp on power.

Let’s hope this latest movement can be one of those.

Theresa May’s new bill won’t protect us from the Old Bill

Brian Richardson is a barrister specialising in criminal law. He looks at the limitations of the “watchdogs” set up to monitor the cops

“We’ve seen different incarnations of a police watchdog over the past five decades but what has really changed? Very little.

The new Policing and Crime Bill proposes cosmetic changes.

For example, the name will be changed to the Office for Police Conduct.

But the problems people have with the police won’t go away.

The bill is a hangover from Theresa May’s time as home secretary.

She held the position for six years and that forms part of the context.

She had to apologise too often for things such as Hillsborough.

Last year she had to admit that, by the police’s own standards, more than 20 percent of stop and searches were illegal.

All of this has created a crisis of legitimacy for the police and a collapse in confidence in them.


The bill also proposes that some of the complaints will be dealt with by Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), who are elected officials.

It proposes that PCCs be given the ability to have oversight of rescue services.

That’s laughable.

No one knows who the PCC is in their area and the average turnout in the vote to elect them was just 15.1 percent.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has never been an independent body.

You can tinker round the edges and try and reform it but the fundamental problem is the role the police play in society.

The little changes that have come about are inadequate.

But they have only happened because people have fought and demanded these things.

The fundamental problem with the police is the role they play in society.

So no cosmetic changes to the watchdog will deliver the change people need or want.

We need to get rid of the IPCC and we have to find ways of using our collective strength to fight for the things we need.”

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