What should Labour do about policing?

Submitted by Gemma_S on 17 July, 2018 - 1:14 Author: Carrie Evans
A Labour Party leaflet in the shape of police helmets calling for more police officers

Carrie Evans spoke at Socialism makes Sense: Ideas for Freedom 2018 on 23-24 June about Labour, crime, and policing.

Labour have positioned themselves as the party of law and order. Most notably they are calling for police funding to go back to pre-2010 levels, and promising 25,000 extra police on the streets.

In London, Sadiq Khan has promised police significant powers to ramp up stop and search, and backed something called the “Al Capone”-style task force, arresting and prosecuting suspected gang members for any crime whether gang related or not, in order to get them off the streets.

There has been an increase in violent crime in recent years. This made the news in early 2018 when a wave of knife and gun crime left many dead. Knife crime has increased by 22% in the last year alone, and homicide by 15% (this figure includes people killed in the Manchester bomb attack, which increases the homicide rate a lot). Alongside this police officer numbers have fallen by 20,000 since 2010.

So it is very tempting and easy to draw an A-to-B line between these two truths and say, “well, that means what we need is more police and police funding”. And for Labour this comes with the added bonus of being able to embarrass the Tory Party, who are traditionally seen as the law and order party. Although, it is worth pointing out that New Labour massively increased the prison population by introducing 3,600 new criminal offences during their time in office, and introduced ″indeterminate life sentences″. There are still prisoners serving time for non-violent offences, who were imprisoned under the New Labour government. New Labour also expanded the number of private, for-profit, prisons.

So what should socialists be saying about this? In short, we definitely shouldn’t be calling for more police.

As a socialist, my beef with the police is not just hostility towards some of the outward social roles they play. At their heart, the police exist to repress the working class and defend private property. Any other useful function that the police may play in society is an accidental by-product of that main function. I do not believe that the police as an institution can be reformed. This can often be hard to wrap your head around, it is at odds with everything you are taught from a young age about what the police do.
I am from an under-class, multi-ethnic, inner-city background. I was raised from a young age to deeply mistrust the police and everything they do and say – but I didn’t fully understand the nature of the police until quite recently.

The modern police force as a professional, centrally-organised force started to come about in the 1800s as a reaction to urbanisation, particularly with Robert Peel′s creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829.

Robert Peel, before becoming Home Secretary, was Chief Secretary for Ireland, and found that local magistrates were unfit to maintain law and order. He set up the Peace Preservation Force in 1814, and a system of county constabularies under the 1822 County Constabulary Act. These were invented to keep Irish people in their place. This proved to be so successful that it was taken over to England to deal with the new, unruly, urbanised working class. There was widespread moral panic about the criminal nature of the working class. Establishment figures were concerned that there was going to be some sort of workers’ uprising. So the police force proved to be an extremely popular solution to these problems. From their inception, the police were never intended to protect all people from crime, but to protect private property from the working class.

Since then, the fundamental role of policing has not dramatically changed — they’ve just got a lot better at doing PR! Whenever there is an upsurge in working-class action, the police and the criminal justice system are there to stamp it back down. We saw this during the 1984 miners’ strike and more recently in the 2011 London riots.
The police are not there to protect you from crime, but rather to protect private property, business interests and ensure the status quo prevails. A left wing Labour leader should not be calling for more money for the police.

You can anticipate the arguments, that violent crime is different, that kids are out there stabbing each other, and if the police serve any social function, surely it’s dealing with violence like this. But that is the wrong approach.

There is a whole world of cultural, society, psychological and economic issues that factor into violent crime, which makes violent crime very hard to talk about as a single phenomenon. But we do know, from youth outreach workers, from prison records, from social services case files etc. that there are a few things that link perpetrators. One of these is trauma. A majority of the prison population have been victims of sexual and/or domestic violence. They come from unstable backgrounds; they can have serious learning difficulties and/or mental health problems; many of them are dealing with addiction issues – directly or indirectly; they may have been kicked out of school; their parents may have been imprisoned; they may have grown up in poverty. When we are talking about youth crime, the children involved are being coerced by adults, and have legitimate day-to-day concerns for their own safety.

All the public gets about violent crime is the headlines, it becomes very easy to see the world as being divided into good and bad people. We stop seeing the humanity in people, especially violent criminals. The first instinct is to lock them all up. But in truth, violence is a social problem, which is created by a violent and unequal society.
Take the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old boy outside his school in Willesden in North West London in 2017 discussed on the Lockdown podcast (bit.ly/2L4Ldol). The media coverage of this, unsurprisingly, profiled the perpetrator as a ″monster″ who must be punished. One journalist, to his credit, went to find the mother of the perpetrator who reported that he had gone through a series of awful, turbulent things in his life — most notably the deportation of his father. From that point she noticed a marked decline in his mental health, he began withdrawing, and misbehaving in school. Schools excluded him and he was put into a pupil referral unit, where he was being bullied and missed out on many aspects of education.

In the end she went to a mental health service and begged them to do something for her son and her family. But this kid did not meet the threshold to be treated. The mother said: “if you don’t help this family then either my child or someone else’s will be dead in six months”. And she was not wrong. This brutal stabbing happened; another child will spend the formative period of his life in prison, and another is dead.

Labour also talks about increasing use of stop and search. A ten-year study compiled from the Metropolitan Police’s own data showed that stop and search had no impact on violent crime. A 10% increase in stop and search would see perhaps a 0.1% decrease in violent crime. And stop and search is 10 times more likely to target black and minority ethnic youth. Stop and search is often humiliating, being stopped for no apparent reason implies your very existence is a threat to civil society, that you have no place.

You often hear the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”. I think that’s true. But what you hear less of is, “if a child doesn’t have a place in a village it will burn it down to feel the warmth”. Stop and search has a very negative impact on at-risk people’s ability to form any kind of productive relationship with the state, breeding suspicion that is often extended to all state institutions including social services or schools — the parts of the state that are almost uniquely positioned to deal with things like youth violence.
More police on the streets, performing more stop and search, roughing up and further alienating more working-class and BME kids is the last thing the current situation needs.

Then there is the ″gang task″ force idea. In order to understand why this is a bad idea, we need to look at the deeply racialised nature of the word “gang”. The UK has a database called the “gang matrix”. This contains the details of 3,362 individuals who are suspected gang members. Of that number, 87% are from black or other minority ethnic groups. And how does one get into this matrix? It seems that “being in a gang” mostly boils down to “being black, enjoying drill music, having friends who have convictions, and behaving aggressively on social media″. With the exception of being black, by those standards I would qualify as a gang member. Amnesty International UK described this as “stigmatising black youngsters and violating human rights”.

Gangs exist. When young people are caught up in them they are subject to horrific abuse and exploitation. But when the police get involved, they are almost completely ineffectual at dealing with gangs, because they treat small-time expendable members as criminals, rather than as the victims they actually are: victims who need protection.
Please don’t buy into the idea that violent crime is a black problem. The majority of knife crime happens in London. The majority of perpetrators in London happen to be black; that’s because of the large population in London and the fact that there is a very high proportion of BME residents there. The BME communities who live in London also disproportionately live below the poverty line. So you can skew numbers to make this look like a black problem but it absolutely isn’t. Class plays as much of a role in violent crime as race does, especially when we look at the national picture.

Class also plays a significant role in the way communities are policed. Just look at the way that ASBOs were used to criminalise large numbers of working-class youth. We know that the Home Counties won’t be policed in the same way that poorer areas of Glasgow will be.

Tougher sentencing does nothing to combat violent crime and in fact makes it worse. According to the 1997 Knives Act, possession of a knife would get you 6 months’ imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine. But under the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act, the maximum sentence is doubled from 2 to 4 years. More people than ever have been imprisoned under these acts, but the rates of rehabilitation are heartbreaking. 44% of adults released from prison are re-convicted within a year.

This makes perfect sense. You can’t expect to remove someone from society, from their support systems, from their source of income and everything they know, for however many years, and then drop them back into a community and expect them to function.

Our criminal justice system is not designed to rehabilitate. It is designed to punish and to disappear people who we don’t know what else to do with. We lock up more people than any other western European country, and yet our knife and violent crime rates continue to increase.

20% of the prison population is BME, but BME people only make up around 14% of the wider population in the UK. Analysis conducted for the Lammy Review showed a clear association between ethnic group and the odds of receiving a custodial sentence, with black people 53%, Asian people 55%, and other minority ethnic groups 81% more likely to be sent to prison at Crown Court: even when you factor in higher not guilty pleas.

Black men are 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. But they are also 60% more likely to plead not guilty in court.

To see how class factors into the criminal justice system, look at the Lavinia Woodward case from 2017. A young, promising Oxford student was given a suspended sentence for stabbing her boyfriend. She was not imprisoned because the judge factored in the consideration that she had been experiencing emotional problems; she was suffering from drug addiction; and there were other extenuating factors at play. The judge said, it would be too harsh of me to destroy your future medical career over a mistake, a situation that spiralled out of control. She had professors writing in to the court to say that she’s a potential Nobel Prize winner and so on. This may well be the right thing to do. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that had Lavinia Woodward been a single mother in Manchester, regardless of how bright she was, that would not have been the outcome of the court case.

So what should we be saying about violent crime? If the police are no help, then what might be? First we have to have hard arguments, and accept that there is no quick and easy solution. Tackling crime often means tackling inequality: and it can take generations for that approach to bear fruit. We also need to start looking at perpetrators of crime with compassion. These aren’t evil people, demons, super-predators: most of the time, these people are disturbed, scared, angry people, who should have been helped before it got to a crisis point.

Early intervention programmes supporting disadvantaged parents with pre-school-aged children significantly reduce behavioural issues when those children reach secondary school age. Programmes working with children aged up to eight result in substantial benefits up to adulthood and see a reduction in crime. Early intervention services like those which were provided by Sure Start Centres have shown a long-lasting effectiveness in reducing violent crime. In later years, outreach work and after-school centres are also shown to have a positive effect in reducing crime, arrest rates and exclusion.

However we should not fall into the lazy argument of “if these urban youth just had a community centre to go to, maybe they wouldn’t be all out stabbing each other.” It is a lot more complicated than that. But it is true that these programmes have been proven to succeed, over and over again.

School plays an important role in crime prevention. There is a pronounced link between school exclusion and violent crime. You don’t often hear about how an obsession with exam results, teamed with the chronic underfunding of schools and a myriad of cultural and social issues lead to expulsions and relate to knife crime.
We need to get social services to the point where they can actually do family support work, and less crisis control. They need resources and funding. Mental health and trauma need to be worked on every day: these services can’t just step in only when the shit has hit the fan.

The drug trade fuels violence, but people are selling drugs because they need money. A lack of material resources and opportunities can also lead to feelings of alienation and hopelessness. That can fuel violence.

We need clean, safe social housing, we need a liveable unemployment benefit, we need a fully-functioning NHS that includes on-demand rehabilitation services. But we need to be bolder than this. It’s not just about clawing back what has been lost: we need to blaze a new trail. We seriously need to look at what is criminalised and whose benefit it is criminalised in. We should be for the legalisation of drugs. Not just because we are cool libertarians who are down with the sesh. But because until this happens, we will always be fighting a losing battle. The drug trade is violent because it is left to an unregulated black market. In the absence of normal regulatory mechanisms, violent discipline and conflict over market shares and profits become the norm. These are the kind of policy debates that we need to be having. They are a world away from the ones we’re having at the moment.

We can’t just abolish the police and the prison system overnight. It wouldn’t work. If we don’t want to plunge society into dangerous chaos, we need the right infrastructure in place first. But the mark of a progressive society should be the ability to shrink the police more and more, as we rebuild the welfare state.

But these ideas aren’t being talked about. Instead what we have is self-proclaimed socialists calling for more police at the drop of a hat as if it is the only option on the table, rather than treating the police as the last resort. This is a betrayal of the working class and the BME communities that these politicians represent.

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