It is easy to think of socially useful functions carried out by the police and every now and again media attention is aroused when police violence and criminality is made public.
Citizens are assured that rotten apples in the barrel can be removed but what if the barrel itself is rotten, not just leaking but built the wrong way and for the wrong reasons?
This is explored in the invaluable set of essays that make up “Abolishing the police”. The book’s title may seem irresponsible and provocative -readers of the right-wing press will be scared witless- but the essays are serious and carefully considered.
There will always be a need for a body of professional experts trained in particular fields of policing -from traffic control to violent crime- but what needs confronting is the nature of the police’s primary function which is to uphold public order in the interests of the prevailing economic and political system.
When the system itself is inherently unjust, this has obvious implications for the way the police conduct their work.
Their failings can be ameliorated by better recruitment and operational procedures but basic contradictions remain and they come to the surface when the nature of the police is critically examined.
One of the essays looks at how policing and border enforcement work together in raiding homes and workplaces -what happened in Glasgow last year is one instance but with a happy ending- and another essay sees links between the militarised police force that tried to quell rebellion in Ireland’s struggle for independence, the Prevent programme and the shoot to kill policies that led to the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes, Azelle Rodney, Mark Duggan, Anthony Granger and others.
Crucial to any debate around abolishing the police is what exactly the term means and to what extent is it a rhetorical marker of the need to disentangle the coercive powers of police forces from their identification with the state’s ruling class.
It is difficult to think of doing away with the institution of the police itself without an emancipative transformation of the social and political order.
This could be a long wait but in the meantime, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, abolition “is not absence, it is presence”.
One of the book’s essays, by Sarah Lamble, unpacks the idea of approaching abolition as an ongoing process and not a revolutionary moment: “Everyday abolition means undoing the cultural norms and mindsets that trap us within punitive habits and logics” and she gives examples from everyday life with work colleagues, partners and our online behaviour.
We need, she says, to stop responding to harm with punishment and, instead, foster accountability at interpersonal levels.
“Abolishing the Police” asks us to dismantle the police force that is inside our heads as a first step in abolishing the one that is outside on the streets.