Civilianise the police

Trying to turn a 19th Century property-protection force, organised like the army, into a 21st Century organisation, modelled on a corporation, is a mug’s game.

A group of Metropolitan Police officers, wearing hi-viz and helmets, viewed from behind
Disband, democratise, civilianise

The Met is in trouble again. An excoriating new report calls for reform and accountability. For management to credibly identify and remove bad apples and institute new, up-to-date norms in the force. Here we go again. Blah blah blah. The persistent, national collective delusion that institutions like the Met are perfectible, that some kind of purge might be effective. Reform is impossible and we can’t even imagine an alternative.

The pressure, since the grubby flying squad scandals of the seventies, since Scarman in 1981 and, in particular, since the bleak low point of the Macpherson report in 1999, has been for London’s police force to get on and conform to the evolving contemporary meritocratic model of a public organisation. To somehow identify and flush out the atavistic habits of a 200 year-old force designed to keep the peace in the era of Empire, deference and ironclad order.

Meanwhile, an accelerating cycle of crises – hideous abuse after hideous abuse – has stripped the Met of all of its once unquestioned authority and left it exposed to the demands of a new generation of administrators and legislators – literate in human rights, identity, trauma, representation and the whole spectrum of contemporary social concerns. As a result, the force has lost its immunity, can no longer claim to be above it all, aloof from the to-and-fro of social change. Change is being forced on the Met – and on the police more widely.

The problem is, though, that the Met cannot be reformed in this way. It cannot, in any meaningful way, conform to these new norms. It cannot be governed via the 21st Century disciplinary logic of the HR department or by the change management consultants or by the diversity trainers. We’re learning that you cannot translate a rigid hierarchy of rank (with uniforms and lethal weapons) into an agile, transparent, conscious, socially-liberal corporate structure. Sergeants and Inspectors and Commissioners with pips on their epaulettes and braid on their hats cannot become modern, first-name managers – much as they try.

There is no inclusive model for a police force whose role is defence of the status quo and of the owner class – only inclusive gestures. Likewise there’s no ‘lean-in’ remedy for the exclusion and marginalisation – the misogyny, racism and straightforward brutality – of much ordinary policing. Station coppers – working class men and women organised into increasingly militarised groups, equipped like Robocop, besieged from all sides by a finger-wagging liberal professional class, by a disgusted Conservative media, by cynical populist pols and by increasingly alien management orthodoxies – cannot be ‘re-educated’ or transformed to our liking.

The awful, depressing, repetitive grinding of the machinery is harrowing. As well-meaning leader after well-meaning leader arrives and tries to adapt policing to the practices of a contemporary capitalist economy – and a society governed by precarity and anxiety and inequality – to the norms of the Professional Managerial Class, to the snobbery and the fantasies of the social and media elite.

And the result, a kind of Frankenstein force that tries pointlessly to blend ‘enlightened’ liberal management practices with the essentially Victorian structures of a police force whose ingrained functions are protecting property, disciplining the urban poor and administering the bureaucracies of control, is a ghastly, mutant instrument that cannot but fail.

A utopian prescription for desperate times

Look, you’re going to laugh at me. And you’d be right to do so. As I get older I get more utopian, less patient with the status quo. So do me a favour. Everyone can see that policing is a hideous, broken, repressive mess. But also that the remedies now proposed can only fail, can only adjust the guidance, move the management around, set up two or three new taskforces. Policing is constitutionally unreformable. But, and more important, our sense of what policing is has been static for decades and we seem unable to imagine another kind of police force.

So my ridiculous utopian idea here is to give up trying to squash the police into an increasingly rarified, ‘woke’ social model, stop trying to create a hybrid nurture-discipline machine that we’re supposed to believe can mercilessly grind the faces of crims and respect diversity and wellbeing (and Pride and Mental Health Week).

The only logical response to this catastrophic bind is to civilianise the police force. Dismantle the rank-based structure, dissolve the out-of-date geographic organisation (counties and big cities) and the weak, antagonistic links with local government, dump the chain of command and move ownership and control of the police into our communities, into our town halls and community centres.

We should aim to democratise policing, put communities in direct control – not at arms-length via pointless, supine police commissioners but via routine and fine-grained democratic control. Popular sovereignty and community autonomy. Policing designed by those policed. Policing belongs in the domain of the demos, not of the rulers; management and accountability should be local and broad-based. We’re not defunding the police (a ridiculous, pretentious idea), we’re democratising the police – and, while we’re at it, lifting the dead hand of the technocratic elite.

And if this sounds a bit like a militia, or a soviet or a neighbourhood committee. Sure, that’s what it is. It’s democratically accountable, community-owned policing. It’s a utopian demand, of course. And, if we’re honest, it’s much more likely that the outcome of this fresh crisis will be to cement the malign hegemony of the HR department and the consultant. But if there’s ever been a moment when something like this could be tried, when disbanding and reforming the Plod of old on democratic lines might be feasible, when ordinary people and the social elites might be ready to accept something radical, it’s probably now, right?