Dr. Lambros Fatsis is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the winner of the British Society of Criminology’s ‘Blogger of the Year Award 2018’.
The news of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s killing by US police and the protests it inspired worldwide, continue to attract widespread media coverage and light the fuse for much public commentary and private discussions on police racism and what can be done to root it out. Such fatal incidents of police racism naturally shock us on a human level, but we must move beyond surprise to fully grasp the ‘mutually constitutive’ relationship between policing and racism. This blog post is written to remind us what policing and police racism are and do, followed by some suggestions on what to do to undo the problem as citizens and Criminologists alike.
What is Policing?
Policing is (stereo)typically understood as what the police do to fight crime and keep the public safe from harm. Such a definition of — or orientation towards — policing as the maintenance of law and order by the civil force of the state (=the police), implies that policing is what the police do as a neutral public institution that exists to ensure public safety and defend a harmonious social order where rules and laws that regulate human behaviour are respected and upheld. Seductive though such a view of policing might be, it is deeply flawed. Not only does it tell us little about how such rules and laws come to be — or whether it was “us” who asked for them in the first place — but it also paints a wholly inaccurate picture of what the police actually do.
The reality is bleaker than we care to admit. We don’t quite have our say in what becomes law, we never really asked for a police force, and crime-fighting is marginal to policing. Legislators make laws and while parliamentarians pass them, and we most certainly do not consent to everything they vote for on our behalf. When we vote for our elected representatives, we essentially give them a blanket agreement to act in our own interest by making judgements for us. However, some legislation — like the current Coronavirus regulations — is not even discussed in parliament and can be unlawful too.
Police forces did not emerge by public demand. On the contrary, they were perceived as intrusive by the public they were created to police; earning themselves abusive — yet colourful nicknames — such as “blue locusts”, “blue devils,” “blue plagues,” “blue idlers,” “hired mercenaries,” and “unconstitutional bravoes” by those who were policed against. As for the “crime-fighting” mission of the police, it belongs to the sphere of mythology rather than the world of empirical evidence (see here, and here). As David H. Bayley pithily put it: ‘The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth. […] Governments should either resolve the doubts about the usefulness of the police or face up to the conclusion that preventing crime requires a great deal more than pouring money into law enforcement’. What policing actually does is ‘fabricate’, ‘enforce’ and protect an unequal social order through social control. There is, therefore, nothing neutral, depoliticised or democratic about it other than in disguise or in denial about its essential function and mission as an order maintenance institution.
What is Police Racism?
Not unlike policing, police racism is also held hostage to misunderstandings and denials of its very existence. Frequently mistaken for personal prejudice, police racism —like racism itself — is rarely discussed as the form of structural inequality that it actually is. (Police) racism is not simply what somebody thinks about or does to someone who is perceived, defined, classified and understood —primarily if not exclusively — as a member of a particular (minority) racial or ethnic group. It is a socio-cultural, political, institutional mentality, worldview and ideology which assigns a negative value to biological and cultural differences that are perceived as alien, incomprehensible, and inadmissible to a (majority) white society. (Police) racism, therefore, is not just what happens as a result of discrimination against those who are racially or ethnically “different”, but the socio-cultural and political context in which such difference is created and policed against. As such it is absorbed and embedded into, as well as normalised and legitimised within mainstream social, cultural and political institutions. In fact, police racism doesn’t even require police officers to be racist for policing to be racist. It is a systemic feature of a criminal justice institution that is shaped by an exclusionary worldview, which draws boundaries and establishes hierarchies on the basis of physiological or cultural traits. Police racism can therefore be understood as racism in uniform — armed with a truncheon— but it is also a tautology given that racism and policing share the same history and function as ideologies (racism) and tools (policing) of social control.
Contrary to conventional wisdom and mainstream criminological historiography, policing as a modern institution — in the US and the UK — was not immaculately conceived in 19th century New York and London but founded during colonialism and slavery. Both in the US and the UK, the models and styles of policing that emerged in the metropole derive from pre-professional, informal militias that were formed to patrol, capture and control fugitive slaves and colonial subjects in the American South and Britain’s overseas “possessions” (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The antecedents of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, therefore, exist not just in the Royal Irish Constabulary in the former British colony of Ireland — both founded by the Conservative party’s founder Sir Robert Peel — but in the plantations of the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent too. As such, police forces start their life as instruments of suppression —wielded by slaveholders and colonisers to maintain a form of discrimination and dehumanisation —before evolving into professional institutions that serve and protect the state from those who are seen as undeserving of its protection. Originally designed as they were to brutalise and terrorise slaves and colonial subjects, police forces seamlessly transitioned into policing — and sometimes killing — Black and Brown people today.
What to Do?
Having offered only the sketchiest overview of what policing and police racism are and do, setting out a plan of action nevertheless seems inevitable given the palpable urgency of the current moment. None of what follows is therefore intended as a paternalistic finger-wagging exercise but as an invitation to undo policing and its racism intellectually, culturally and politically by killing that cop inside our heads. In the interest of brevity, these suggestions will be presented as a bullet point list, or notes to self, in the hope that firing them off in this manner with not compromise their critical content but open up a frank discussion about the issue.
- Read extensively about policing and police racism to gain a deeper, and more critical, insight into both. These recommendations are a good place to start.
- Don’t vote for political parties that promise more powers or more money to the police. Or at least challenge them about it.
- Learn about, join, and support campaigns against police violence (I, II, III IV)
- Think beyond policing when thinking about how to design public safety. Think about what can we do to be safe without the police (e.g. I, II)
- Don’t call the police, if possible. Think about alternative sources of help and support that can actually keep us safe
- Teach policing and the history of policing differently to illustrate how the legacy of colonialism and slavery is still alive as an ideology and practice of racial discrimination
- Do research on, not for the police
The list could go on, yet the message is simple: defunding, disarming, disbanding and disempowering the police should become a priority. Such calls are becoming mainstream, yet the Criminological mainstream retreats to feel-good bromides about reforming, working (together) with, or being “critical friends” to the police. Objective, sensible, cool-headed, reasoned and respectably “professional” though such stuttering timidity may sound, it simply creates the illusion of problem-solving without addressing what “the problem” is, where it comes from and how to address it; beyond cosmetic changes that repair the reputational damage of policing without reducing its impact on those who are harmed by its discriminatory nature and lethal outcomes. Criminologists may not have the monopoly over such knowledge or be singlehandedly responsible for producing and disseminating it, but it is still our duty to ensure that our thinking, our writing, our teaching and our actions move beyond ‘dangerous myths and comfortable untruths’ that empower law enforcement at the expense of social justice.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.
Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton
Images: courtesy of the author and Pexels