Defending Bobby

BY GAV CHAMBERS

The history of the modern professional police is commonly regarded to have started with Robert (Bobby) Peel and the invention of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, based in part on the previous Bow Street Runners of Henry Fielding. Peel wanted to assure those who doubted his ambition that the force would not be an undue use of state power interfering in the liberties of citizens. He did this by enumerating a series of principles on which the newly created force would operate. This was a model based on the consent of the community and not on the bare power of the state. That model of policing has been remarkably successful in ensuring that disputes do not get out of hand and turn into a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ – the strong in the community taking advantage of the weak – and that model was geared to stop the police from abusing their position. 

Before there was a civilian police force, riots would be dealt with by the military, such as at the Peterloo massacre, and crimes would often be brought to trial from private agencies which would only be available to the well-heeled classes who were able to afford their services. Constables did exist but were unpaid and were not fully trained or centralised and were therefore insufficiently equipped to perform their duties. What the police evolved into was a force prepared to deal with crimes that befell any citizen, not just the wealthy, and one that was specifically enabled to deal with civilian issues in a proportionate manner. We can see that crime apparently decreased since the widespread adoption of the police and that riots were dealt with more peaceably, less commonly devolving into repressive solutions as occurred at Peterloo. 

It is astonishing, then, that, in the wake of the death of George Floyd during his arrest, there have been calls to disband the police, starting first in the US and working their way across the Atlantic to here. The argument goes that money spent on policing would be better served in being allocated instead to remedying social issues, and in that way crime would inevitably fall. They say this because they believe that the police are inherently corrupt and operate with racist assumptions. There might be some validity to some of this, knowing full well the failings of the police with respect to race relations in the past and the failure to live up to a consent model in full in some communities, but law-based reform is a better solution to those problems than a radical refutation of the efficacy of the police. There is a role for expunging root causes of crime, but the police will always be needed as a powerful presence to prevent and investigate crimes that inevitably happen in any society, and the heinous behaviour of some officers does not denote entirely faulty foundations of policing as a whole. 

What better way to counter their claims than to look at a place where the police no longer operate? CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, did exactly that in response to George Floyd’s death. Protesters took control of an area in a major city and forbade police from entering. Needless to say, the results were not the Utopian dream that they had been imagined would come to fruition. There was widespread theft, rape and violence, leading to residents arming themselves with firearms to try to ensure security of person and property. This violence escalated to murders. This is what Hobbes envisaged in a ‘state of nature’ without strong sovereign power: the strong taking advantage of the weak.

Ironically, it must be said, as CHAZ was supposedly designed in part to protect the vulnerable from the interference of the police, instead the strong residents in CHAZ had free reign to interfere with the rights of the vulnerable without any system of redress. In a place where there isn’t a force trained and equipped to mediate between disputatious parties, violence is often the result, with widespread reprisals and punishments meted out arbitrarily. What turned out to be the case was that CHAZ had small makeshift illegitimate police forces in the end anyway, some residents clearly realising that they needed some mechanism to deal with crime that wasn’t vigilantism. This was not successful, however, and CHAZ was disbanded. 

What should be admitted, therefore, is that the best way of ensuring citizens are safe and that crime is dealt with effectively is in having a professionalised police force. They are one link in a chain of the modern state operating under the rule of law. Legislatures pass laws creating new crimes, police apprehend suspects and gather evidence according to those laws, prosecutors decide whether to take the crimes to trial and courts interpret those laws and decide whether to allow evidence. In the more serious crimes, juries, as members of the community, decide on the ultimate guilt of the suspect. Punishment is then decided in sentencing by the judge within guidelines set by parliament. In this system, the police operate according to the law, and if they fail in that regard mechanisms exist for injured parties to find redress.

If the police existed in a vacuum their imperfections may well be more serious, but as one link in an institutional chain, they are subject to an institutional balance that stops them from unaccountable abuses. The development of any sophisticated society hinges on finding law-based solutions to problems that arise between individuals. The dismal view that critics take of the police ignores the positive developments that the justice system has taken throughout its history and fails to provide a workable alternative able to protect the public under a system of law.  

Even those who take an extreme view of social justice should concede that the stability and security provided by the police is the best way in which to bring about equitable outcomes for vulnerable groups who could well be victims of the strong  and victims of the majoritarianism of the mob that has the potential to pose a threat to minorities, the police being less likely to take a majoritarian position whilst they are under the control of the rule of law, as Peel’s fifth principle says ‘Police seek and preserve public favour not by pandering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law’. 

The model of Peel should therefore be defended. Imperfect though police behaviour may have been in some instances, the police are essentially part of a fair system and they have contributed much to the stability of society and the protection of its citizens. 

Gav Chambers (Chairman of Islwyn Conservatives) stood in Islwyn in the last GE.