The Real Function of Police: Keep Order, Not Peace

Function of police

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my penpal Lacino Hamilton and how he ended up in a Michigan correctional facility. For just over a year, Lacino and I have written numerous letters to each other, and some of his responses included full articles he wrote on a typewriter in his prison. When he gets out, Lacino wants to help people who have faced the same injustices at the hands of the criminal legal system, and writing pieces for the masses from his own perspective is one way he can accomplish this goal. I’ve previously asked him if I can share his writings on my blog and he emphatically agreed as he wants his words to reach as many people as possible (he’s been published multiple times on Truthout). This is one of the first articles he sent me about the function of police (I’ve made no edits), which he fully titled: “We Have to Come to Grips With the Real Function of Police: Which Incidentally is to Keep Order, Not Peace.” I’ll be sharing more of his writings in the upcoming months, and as he continues to send more to me!

By now, and by that I mean now that everyone is walking around with some kind of recording device in hand, police terrorism (let’s just call it what it is), is an unmistakable feature of the cultural landscape. If these words appear to severe or hyperbolic, perhaps you really need to be reading this. Police actions, referred to euphemistically as “keeping the peace,” are designed to keep tabs on, control, and punish individuals and groups who are not (or potentially not) benefiting from the economic, political and/or social structures.

I’m not going to waste time citing statistics. The official numbers are inaccurate because unless police are captured on video beating or shooting unarmed members of vulnerable populations, it does not count. Actually, even when it is goes viral it rarely counts. Police and so-called public officials have talent for telling us that we are not seeing what we are seeing, and generating non-plausible explanations for that—our eyes are lying to us.

Instead, this is about the historical appearance and conditions that shaped the emergence and enabled the success of the police. Yes, by police standards they are very successful. It is about the origins and nature of police as a coercive instrument of state power. About the economic and political community which police really serve. And it is also about how meaningfully addressing the so-called crisis of policing is going to require a deep and far-reaching strategy for social transformation.

I was about to write there is a lot of forgetting about the origins, history and functions of police, but that would imply that most people at one time knew these things, when most people do not have a clue. Given how thoroughly naturalized policing is in mainstream discourse, how enshrined police are in popular culture, there is a lot of mystifying about the police. A lot of double talk about why police have a monopoly over the so-called legitimate use of violence.

Since we were born into a society, really a world, where police play a central role in state-centered notions of order and security, it seems natural to be passive bystanders in the process. Yes, there is nothing natural about the police, it has been a long process of concentrating all that power. The process entailed a lengthy and often turbulent struggle to wrestle power away from families, away from communities, and away from numerous relatively autonomous local groups, and the gradual accumulation and concentration of how the police began to define itself as the legitimate negotiator for resolving conflict—most of which is of the state’s making.

Of course, one of the first questions usually asked when people become familiar with how the police began to define itself as the legitimate negotiator for resolving conflict, is how the family and community and local groups lost its agency to do so. I will forego the history of colonialism, though it is central to this discussion. Space and time requires me to fast forward to the early 19th century as industrialization increased, new forms of capital emerged, and economic forces saw the need to create new forms of social control. That is really what we should think of police as.

The loudest proponents of the police offer a kind of simplistic understanding of why we should believe the universe would split in half if there were no police. Rhetoric like, the London Metropolitan Police was created in 1829, as a civilian force that would be “less” oppressive than the use of the military or a militia (as if those were the only two alternatives), to ensure the maintenance of order within its territorial borders. They offer the simple understanding that policing was by consent. Everything that is illegal for individuals to do, like breaking into someone’s home, even killing someone, the public allegedly agreed it was okay for the police to do to them. So simple that it almost never gets mentioned that Sir Robert Peel was the architect of the London model, which modern day policing is modeled after.

Prior to being co-secretary and inventing the London Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Peel was in charge of the British Colonial occupation of Ireland. Why does this matter? It was there that he experimented with ways to target and remove individuals and groups int he Irish countryside marginalized by the emergence of industrialization. One of those experiments was the creation of the Police Protection Force. Its mandate was to insinuate itself in local communities under the guise of not being the military, but regular average everyday people keeping the peace. However, the primary function was spying on the community and the suppression of social movements. Once this model was perfected it was applied to the management of the new industrial working class in London.

You know how gentrification is forcefully uprooting families in Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, and elsewhere, and how coercive state power is being used to manage the social fallout (RE: gentrification-to-prison-pipeline): how gentrification (structural changes in the political economy) is throwing millions of families in crisis? Well, in a similar way 19th century industrialization caused widespread strife in London, and elsewhere throughout the world. London “needed” new tools to manage the changes. Sir Robert Pool’s Police Protection Force became the London Metropolitan Police, the model which the U.S. adopted around the same time.

In the 19th century U.S. policing was directly tied to slavery. Not plantation slavery, there were slave drivers and slave patrols for that. What is rarely wrote about or discussed is that in the waning days of slavery many slaves worked outside the plantation, on wharves, in warehouses, factories, and any place their labor could be exploited. Slave owners needed slaves to be able to pass freely through the street. So slave patrols basically morphed into police departments to spy on and keep a mobile slave population in their place.

For the people who think the battle address the so-called crisis in policing is to fight for the kinds of reforms the Obama administration put forward, they are profoundly misguided. Such reforms are not going to have any truly substantial impact on police terrorism, especially on poor people and communities of color because when the U.S. adopted Sir Robert Pool’s policing model, it was not only for the purpose of monitoring and controlling slaves leaving and returning to the plantation, but going forward to monitor and control a more mobile workforce in general.

Because of a kind of liberal fallacy about the nature of U.S. power, the nature of U.S. democracy, the nature of class and race in the U.S., most people fail to apprehend that voting for the lesser of the two evils, wages that do not keep up with the cost of living, rising child and youth poverty rates which perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty, being subject to the will of corporations, euphemistic language like “right to work,” are all forms of industrial slavery. That is why the outcry for policing reforms is yet another sleight of hand that has more to do with obscuring the problem than actually addressing it.

When people talk about things like body cameras, things like community policing and holding individual police accountable, they are attempting to restore faith in an institution that does not, and never has, served the interest of the entire community. Police serve property owners, business owners, landlords, religious leaders, people who are well established. They do not ‘for real for real’ serve vulnerable populations like people of color, women, youth, immigrants, trans people, the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, and too many others to list. So what tends to happen is this very limited idea of community empowers the kind of zero tolerance, broken windows oriented, constant harassment, physical, even deadly coercive police action. We have to come to grips with the real function of the police—which incidentally is to keep order, not the peace.

There is a problem when strategies reinforce a framework in which transformative solutions are unimaginable. Passive strategies are only capable of incurring more injury. That is why efforts to reform policing have time and again failed, in any way, to reduce the terrorism that is bound up with policing. Little by little, backed by the organized use of violence, the police started calling the shots. Families, vulnerable members of the community, and numerous relatively autonomous local groups were forced to give up their share of taking care of themselves, and this includes how they chose to respond to conflict and harm. If families really need services like day care and after school programs; if communities need livable wages, consumer protections, or safer more affordable housing to solve a conflict or crisis, the police cannot deliver any of that. What the police can and will do is stop-n-frisk young people just walking down the street, harass the mentally ill, make arrest quotas, routinely accost, and shoot until you or me have been neutralized. That is the actual terminology police use.

Those of us who strive to abolish police terrorism must dedicate ourselves to more than the illusionary pursuit of reform campaigns. Reform campaigns often center on prosecuting and harshly punishing those responsible for the most egregious and overt police terrorism. Ignoring subtle forms and masking the fact that the legal system is the consistent mechanism through which police terrorism is carried out. Ultimately adding legitimacy to the same economic and political forces which created and backs the police.

I’m not delegitimizing the call to hold police accountable, but passive strategies are only capable of incurring more injury. By positioning the state and the criminal justice system as an ally and protector we miss the opportunity to ask critical questions about the distribution of power. We miss the opportunity to ask critical questions about vulnerability and violence. We also miss the opportunity to take risk. Taking risk is not just necessary—because nothing ever changes without taking them—but taking risk dual objective is to transform people and fundamentally alter economic, political and social structures.

When we speak and act in accordance with the way things are, because we think they have always been and could be no other way, we reinforce, even if it’s just by implication, the existing policing model. On the other hand, when our words and actions become more family and community (in the broadest sense) oriented, we create opportunities for reflection and the emergence of restorative and transformative conflict management models.

Given people’s lifelong experiences internalizing the realities of the police I understand skepticism, understand any doubt that calls for structural social change like that which is briefly sketched here. However, such transformation can come about. Not spontaneous and not quickly to be sure, but through risk taking involving efforts and struggles by those most likely to be subjected to police terrorism—critical thinkers, social activists, and popular movements.

It is with this insight I’m hoping more and more people acknowledge that it makes sense that the entire community, not just property and business owners, economic and political elites, should take primary ownership over the community. Deciding what type of intervention might be suitable for resolving conflict, who is going to be involved, which values will guide the work, and devising benchmarks as part of a broader strategy for social transformation.