What is the police? Where did it come from?

Submitted by AWL on 10 June, 2020 - 1:27 Author: Robert Fine and others
19th century police



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What is the police? In its modern form its history can be traced back to the early 19th century in this country. It was a brain-child of a liberal reform movement and in many respects a progressive development. It represented a transfer of police functions from the personal possession of aristocracy, gentry, and merchants to the people as a while, expressing a liberal fear of “despotism from above”.

At the same time, however, it also reflected a fear of “the mob below”, i.e. the working class and the poor, and... the involvement of the people was from the beginning largely formal and has remained so ever since...

Police... salaries, open recruitment from all strata of society, and hierarchical discipline were meant to ensure that the private concerns of the police were strictly subordinated to its public duty. Bureaucracy also carried with it, however, secrecy, careerism, and separation from ordinary citizens... The police itself has become a powerful private interest in society...

At its worst, accountability has been a means of gaining public consent for the police without reciprocal influence over the police...

The socialist vision is not restricted to a restoration of... limited consensus, but extends to a program of democratising the police to a point that stretches far beyond post-1945 accommodations and reaches toward the replacement of the police as a special force above society by a new form of policing...

This democratic vista cannot be realised in isolation from the democratisation of other areas of social life, including production relations…

• From Glyn Cousin, Robert Fine, and Robert Millar, ‘The Politics of Policing’, in Policing the Miners’ Strike (1985)

• Watch or listen to What is the state? — intro in a series on “The state, crime, prisons and the police”

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