Policing with prejudice

Racism and homophobia are intrinsic to the role of the police under capitalism. The experience of an individual officer fighting to challenge discrimination is the subject of a recent book, reviewed by SARAH SACHS-ELDRIDGE.

Forced Out: A detective’s story of prejudice and resilience

By Kevin Maxwell

Published by Granta Books, 2020, £14-99

Forced Out is a personal account of a black gay police officer who experienced systematic and persistent racism and homophobia within the police. Kevin Maxwell recounts the sustained and high-level attempts to silence him when he challenged discrimination. As a child he says he was “obsessed with, seduced by, the police force”. But just over a decade after joining up, his experience made him ill and he was forced to resign.

Maxwell’s is not a wholly unique experience in terms of black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) and LGBT+ police officers in Britain. In 2008, as he points out, the Secret Policeman Returns Panorama documentary found that 72% of Black Police Association (BPA) members had experienced racism at work and 60% felt their career had been hindered by their ethnicity. He says that most officers who are BAME, women and/or LGBT+ and make it to the top of the police do so by not challenging discrimination, to the extent of denying the reality of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and even hiding their sexuality.

Neither is such experience unique to black and Asian workers within the police. Far from it. A TUC survey in 2019 found that 70% of ethnic minority workers had experienced racial harassment at work in the previous five years. Around 60% had been subjected to unfair treatment by their employer because of their race. Also mirroring Maxwell’s experience, the TUC found that over 40% of those who reported a racist incident said they were either ignored, or that they had subsequently been identified as a ‘trouble maker’. More than one in ten of those who raised a complaint said that they were subsequently disciplined or forced out of their job as a result of doing so.

For most people, the existence of police racism is not a revelation either. Black Lives Matter protesters demanded ‘no racist police’. In 1999, the year of the Macpherson Report into the police investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, black and Asian people were five times more likely to be searched by the police than white people. Maxwell makes the point that things are going in the wrong direction, remarking that 20 years later “black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched”.

Maxwell correctly recognises that this is not just a question of ‘a few bad apples’ but of institutionalised and systemic racism. As the Macpherson report describes institutionalised racism is as Maxwell both experienced and witnessed it: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”.

‘Serve and protect’ who?

This personal account provides useful evidence which validates a Marxist understanding of the police. On the one hand the police are seen by most people as there to fight and solve crimes, as Maxwell was preoccupied with as a child. And it is to the police we turn for cases of missing persons, burglary, etc. But people’s experience does not match many popular depictions of ‘the boys in blue’. So, while the police maintain a relatively high level of trust in general, this falls when people are asked if they trust the police to solve specific crimes. In February new figures showed that only 7.8% of crimes in England and Wales resulted in a suspect being charged, down from 9.1% in 2019. Just one in five (22%) say they are “very” or “fairly” confident that the police would find and arrest a person who had burgled their home. Similarly low numbers of people believe that if they were the victim of mugging (24%) or identity theft (24%) that an arrest would be made. However, 46% say they would expect the police to make an arrest in the case of rape. Unfortunately the figures do not match this expectation. In the year ending March 2020, 99% of rapes reported to police in England and Wales resulted in no legal proceedings against alleged attackers. This has led some to say that rape has been ‘decriminalised’. Why are the police not carrying out their stated aim to ‘serve and protect’?

Maxwell’s experience reveals many times how combating crime isn’t the overriding concern of the police, nor of the capitalist politicians who back them. He shows how “arresting people on tenuous grounds can also line the pockets of the officers making the arrest… the trick is to simply get the detained person to touch or push you, even if only slightly. If found guilty by a court, they’d receive a criminal record for assault, and the officer would get something like £50 in compensation, and £100 if they had some visible marks”. Maxwell reveals how justice is denied to working class people. In one episode in the book, people challenging racist policing had their cases dismissed on the basis the claimants had refused to cooperate. But Maxwell himself had conducted extensive interviews. He said fear of repercussions prevented him coming forward. He often writes that fear of isolation and being ostracised stopped him speaking out, including regarding his own experiences of discrimination.

He recounts violent treatment of a “poor white” 18-year old woman to show it isn’t only black people who suffer at police hands. During it Maxwell acknowledges this: “Yes police officers learn life-saving skills, but most of what they are taught relates to dealing with those in society who pose a threat. Disrespecting the police undermined their authority, and was a threat to them, and threats needed to be neutralised”. His story indicates, including in the battle against his discrimination, that the overriding concern of the police and their Tory backers is not ultimately crime, but the threat to the system posed by mass opposition from the working class, particularly the organised labour movement.

Policing capitalism

The primary role of the police is not to ‘serve and protect’ the people but to serve and protect the existing order – ie the capitalist system. That system is based fundamentally on the exploitation of one class, the working class, who also form the majority, by another, the capitalist class. The ruling capitalist class hold nearly all the power in society. But because of its role in production, and the consciousness of its collective interests that this can generate, the working class has the potential power to replace capitalism with a socialist alternative based on democratic planning to meet the needs of all. The class oppression at the heart of class societies is inherently untenable – from which arises the need for a means of control, the state.

The police form a part of that in capitalist society – tied to the central function of the state as an instrument in the hands of the ruling class to try to maintain the exploitation of the working class. The continuation of capitalism depends ultimately on preventing the working class from realising and exercising its collective power. The institutions of the state play a critical role in that, including by reinforcing sexism, racism, homophobia and the other forms of discrimination that the ruling class uses to try to divide and therefore weaken the working class. The ultimate role of the police, the judiciary, and other agencies of the state, however, is to suppress the working class when it threatens the capitalists’ rule.

In the book, the role of the police in the ruling class’s ongoing battle to undermine working class organisation and struggle is glimpsed via some of the events Maxwell uses to illustrate his own experience. He recalls how at one point while working for Special Branch he was approached about applying to become a police spy. He did – but was not accepted. He notes how widespread the practice went, remarking that: “Many of the political groups and social movements I knew of were under the observation of undercover police”.

With the aim of disruption and discrediting them, undercover police joined political and campaigning organisations including Militant, the Socialist Party’s predecessor, and environmental and anti-racist organisations, outrageously even forming false relationships with women activists. The names of trade union activists were passed on by the police to construction company bosses who barred thousands of workers from employment, causing enormous hardship for them – but ultimately attempting to weaken the trade union movement.

Accountability and control

Racism plays a key role for the ruling class in weakening the working class through division. Maxwell exposes the limits of accountability within the police and highlights the superficiality of equalities legislation. The figures on disproportionate policing and Maxwell’s experience and of others he mentions bear this out. Going back to the sus laws and beyond, disproportionate policing of black youth in particular, at the sharp end of low pay, poverty, and bad housing, serves to reinforce the racist ideas in society. Those ideas are an obstacle to the fight for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle around a programme to end poverty and oppression for all.

Maxwell correctly states that “the police cannot change from within”. How should police racism be dealt with? Ultimately it is not possible to reform the police given the role they play in capitalist society. Part of the task of the working class fighting for power will be to overcome the capitalist state, including the police. However, the social weight of the working class, if organised with a clear programme, can restrict and control the activities of the police and impose an element of accountability.

Early on in his story Maxwell writes that Macpherson’s recommendations inspired him, including a commitment to “re-establish trust between ethnic communities and the police” including a “vigorous pursuit of openness and accountability”. Whether and how this is possible are crucial questions. Community trust and accountability require a say in how the police are organised – which comes down to the question of who controls policing.

Today working class communities don’t have any say. But it is not that local democratic control over the police never existed. In Britain, the first organised police forces in the early 19th century, after the Met Police, were under the control of local watch committees. The emerging capitalist class paid for the police which were then accountable to them through committees made up of borough representatives and local magistrates. The watch committees reflected the balance of class forces in society. This was a period of capitalist ascent, with the new energetic bourgeoisie contending with the old feudal landowning interests for dominance of the state. The watch committees had control over police regulations and pay. This arrangement largely remained until the early 20th century.

What changed then was the development of the working class as an independent political force. Labour councillors started to be elected, even Labour-controlled councils, which meant the capitalist class could no longer tolerate the police being accountable at borough level. Moves towards breaking that element of democratic control were made continuously until the 1960s when the Police Act removed many of the remaining elements of democratic oversight, and centralised power in the hands of government. The beginning of the end of the post-war boom heralded a period of class conflict in which the capitalist class required a stronger police.

To address the pattern of police violence and denial of justice Maxwell illustrates, the central demand needed at this stage is for democratic control of the police by elected bodies involving the working class through representatives from trade unions, the youth, community organisations, etc. Elected local police committees should have the power to appoint and dismiss chief constables and senior officers, and would be responsible for ‘operational questions’, ie, day-to-day policing policies, such as stop and search. Currently priorities and targets are set by central government. Working in Heathrow as part of Special Branch following the July 2005 London bombings, Maxwell exposes how government targets reinforce racism. He says, “to ensure management knew they were performing, my colleagues regularly targeted ethnic minority passengers to keep to their quota… the police believed there was always a reason to stop black and Asian people”.

Local police committees could ensure a genuinely independent complaints’ procedure, and could play a role in weeding out racist elements or fascist sympathisers within the police. These would need to be bodies that were not just ‘democratic’ in name but that reflected the organised pressure from the working class through their elected representatives, pressure that would be used to check police activities and impose limits on their methods.

Of course, the ruling class (and their political representatives, including Sir Keir Starmer) would be bitterly opposed to any such development. The building of an independent political voice for working class people is another part of how workers’ control of our safety and our access to services can be fought for.

Incubated prejudice

Maxwell joined the police in 2001 under the pro-capitalist Tony Blair New Labour government. He explains the mixed feelings Blair’s election inspired among the police – on the one hand many did not welcome the emphasis on equalities and multiculturalism. The book is littered with incidences of antipathy towards positive action and equalities training among the police.

Maxwell points out that the equalities training had the “accidental result of teaching white officers that black and Asian minorities were different and would cause trouble”. But on the other hand they were encouraged by Blair’s ‘law and order’ approach. Under Blair 3,000 new criminal offences were introduced, suspects could be detained for longer, and the anti-terror legislation was ramped up. As Maxwell puts it, “a racialized recipe for disaster was on the cards”.

Given the role the police play in capitalism it is hardly surprising that many of the most backward elements are attracted to the service. Within it those ideas are incubated through the way the police are organised – discipline, loyalty, military elements, to pit against the outside world. But there is another connection to racism. Racism is part of the fabric of British society because capitalism has consciously developed and fostered racist ideas for its own ends. The working class, because of the economic exploitation it faces, and the role it plays in the production process under capitalism, has a collective interest in ending capitalism – which is the root cause of exploitation and oppression – and has the collective power to do so.

The capitalist class, therefore, attempts to divide the working class along gender, race, religious and sexual orientation lines in order to make it easier to maintain its rule. This is not straightforward for the capitalist class. While disproportionate racist policing reinforces the racist ideas that weaken the working class, there is a danger that unchallenged racism can damage the legitimacy the police require to fulfil their roles.

Organised in whose interests

The capitalist class does not leave to chance that its ideas and values will be the dominant ideas within the bodies of its state apparatus. For example, 65% of senior judges, 57% of members of the House of Lords, 59% of civil service permanent secretaries and 52% of Foreign Office diplomats come from a private school background. The Police Federation, supposedly an organisation to support officers, is also a product of class forces. That is ultimately why Maxwell’s experience of ‘the Fed’ is so distressing to him.

In Britain, mass struggles of the working class between 1913 and 1919 gave rise to a struggle within the police for an independent trade union. The illegal Police and Prison Officers Union gradually forged links with the labour movement, and its leaders called for the democratisation of the police. Police strikes took place in 1918 and 1919 in both Britain and the US. In both countries the attempts to build independent police unions were then completely smashed. The Police Federation was then established as a tame substitute for a union, not directly and democratically led or funded by the members. This was in parallel with the moves to undermine the powers of the local watch committees and establish firm central control over local forces.

A police force that discriminates against large sections of the working class on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc, is more ready to carry out the tasks required by the capitalists in the class struggle. However, the rank and file of the police are not sealed off from the rest of the working class and therefore also have the potential to be influenced by it. On 22 July London Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick revealed that she had ordered officers not to ‘take the knee’ in solidarity with the BLM protesters. If rank-and-file officers can be impacted by wider society another avenue to weakening the police’s ability to act in the class interests of the capitalists is opened up. Without letting up on opposition to repressive policing, how can the working class build its influence on the police rank and file? The effect of generalised class struggle flows into every nook and cranny of society.

The capitalist class recognises that the police are not one, unchanging, reactionary mass. The police, too, are affected by the crisis in society – and can be influenced by the working class when it moves into action. A correct policy towards the police on the part of the labour movement, however, is a vital factor. The Socialist Party supports trade union rights for the police, from which they are currently banned. That ban is in the interest of the capitalist class not the working class. This is not an abstract question. Any hesitation or vacillation that the working class ekes out of the capitalist state forces is an advantage in the struggle for power against the capitalists. In the winning of the Russian revolution, the working class not only won over rank-and-file soldiers but correct demands meant that the reactionary Cossacks in most cases were at least neutralised by the revolution.

The question of the role of the police is not separate to the battle for jobs and education. The class inequality of capitalism, revealed ruthlessly by 2020’s health and economic crises, is bringing a new generation to the streets across the world. These protests are the early indications that the working class, especially young people, won’t tolerate the misery that capitalism has in store for them. The police presence, and their increased powers, that protesters encounter everywhere they march, represent a warning from the capitalist class that they will fight to defend the vast property and privileges they have accumulated and the system these derive from. It was a mistake by the trade union leaders, and also by Jeremy Corbyn in the last days of his Labour leadership, not to oppose the Coronavirus Act and warn how its laws can be used against workers in struggle. This was revealed starkly in the use of Ireland’s Corona laws to remove a picket line of Debenhams workers.

The working class and youth moving into struggle need a clear understanding of the nature of the police and the state in capitalist society. Crucial to the formation of a programme on the state is recognition that the primary role of the police is to protect the existing order of class oppression and inequality, and this cannot be ended other than through removing the basis of those class relations by the working class taking power and the socialist transformation of society.