24 August 2008

What are police?

The orthodox view these days is that police are the arm of the state responsible for fulfilling the state's function of preventing crime (to the extent possible).

I think that is a catastrophic error. Preventing crime, as I've written before, is not a separate activity, but is an aspect of almost everything we do - something so inherent in the human condition that we aren't really aware of the extent that it drives our behaviour.

What this means is that there's no way to draw a line around "preventing crime" and thereby delimit the scope of the police. Every issue becomes a police issue. I think that is the real meaning of a "police state" - not one where the state uses the police, but one where the police take control of the state.

If the police are not agents of the state, what are they? I think it is healthier to see them as state-funded helpers of private citizens. We all work to prevent crime, but there are some jobs that come up which we are not able to do because they take to much time or special expertise. Detection of crime is the most obvious of these.

If we take this approach, what really changes is the difference between police and public. The police do not have a separate role, they just have greater capabilities owing to their skills and available time. The most significant implication is that they do not need special legal powers. The only things they should be doing are things that members of the public could do, but don't have time for.

Another way of saying that is that police should be held to the exact same standard as anyone else. Which means that, in a case like this one, if the press reports are accurate, the issue is not about whether Mr Carter gets an apology or compensation, or about administration of police disciplinary procedures, but about why the PC in question is not facing criminal charges. The idea that it might be an internal police matter is quite incompatible with the police being assistants rather than masters of the population.

But the concept goes further. If the police are assisting the public, then whatever they are doing, it should be because someone has asked them to. Management should be a matter of which requests to prioritise, not setting an agenda independent of the public. Valid reasons for not doing something might be that it is too costly for the benefit, but might also be that people are already achieving what can be done without the police.

This is not meant to be an anti-police rant. I think we do need full-time, trained police, and I think there is a better case for them to be state-funded than there is for most branches of the state. I think many of them do a good job and I have sympathy with their difficulties. But I think it would be easier for them, and better for us, if we accepted the principles above.

And what really matters here is what people believe. I have said before that the police usurpation of the right of self defense, has, in the popular mind, actually outrun what the law really says. The police were founded on the principles I have stated, and while bad laws have been passed in the last few decades, they have generally not been controversial, because they are following rather than leading the change in attitudes - for the worse - about the role of the police.

The bad attitudes go beyond this. I was going to use as an example bin men - another arm of the state notable for actually having an important function. Bin men are not The Agents with The Responsibility for disposing of rubbish, which is something the rest of us should not need to think about. On the contrary, they take everybody's refuse to the processing centre in one go because it's a lot more efficient than having everybody chuck black bags into the boots of their cars.

I was going to say that, but even in that state function, the same error is appearing. I remembered this piece from 2004 which mentioned a man getting into trouble for collecting litter and taking it to a dump without a license. This is the real problem - not the idea that some things should be done by the state, but the idea that some things should only be done by the state.

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