The police exist in order to protect the rights of citizens from criminals.
Such a statement reflects either ignorance or extreme naivete. Let us be clear that the role of the police in a statist society is not to protect citizens, but to enforce the law. The fact that the police enforces the law is a known fact; that they protect citizens is an article of faith which is not supported by any observation.
There is a gigantic gulf of difference between these two assertions. The law is a product of the power elite and is constructed to serve its interests: by limiting their scope (e.g. the way murder by private individuals is prosecuted v murder by corporate negligeance or by police/military), by redefinition (e.g. taxes are not theft because we say it is, corporations are persons because we say they are), by subsidies and laws which protect corporations from competition.
But the most important way in which the law serves the interests of the power elite is in its hierarchical nature: the politicians make the laws, the police enforce them, and the citizens obey. Statists argue that citizens can influence the laws by voting, but voting has never by itself brought about positive change (unless you mean the Obama kind, which means “more of the same”). G. William Domhoff gives real-life example after real-life example that demonstrate how the elite’s policy-formation network dominates law-making, regardless of voter intent, and that when it seems that voter intent wins out, it is only with the support of a significant proportion of the power elite (moderate conservatives).
Domination by the power elite does not negate the reality of continuing conflict over government policies, but few conflicts, it has been shown, involve challenges to the rules that create privileges for the upper class and domination by the power elite. Most of the numerous battles within the interest-group process, for example, are only over specific spoils and favors; they often involve disagreements among competing business interests.
Similarly, conflicts within the policy-making process of government often involve differences between the moderate conservative and ultraconservative segments of the dominant class. At other times they involve issues in which the needs of the corporate community as a whole come into conflict with the needs of specific industries, which is what happens to a certain extent on tariff policies and also on some environmental legislation. In neither case does the nature of the conflict call into question the domination of government by the power elite.
G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America?, p287
Yes, obviously sometimes the police does end up protecting citizens. I am not denying that fact. What I am denying is the bizarre faith that this is its primary function. Like all organizations and institutions, the police is funded and supported on the basis of its continued activities, and, like how corporations cannot continue to exist without ever-increasing profits, its activities cannot continue without ever-increasing crime, or the perception of ever-increasing crime.
Arrest statistics may be the primary statistical indicator of police performance, but it is not the only important statistic used in bargaining for larger police budgets. Milakovich and Weis noted that police have a “vested interest” in keeping crime rates relatively high. If crime rates drop too much, then support for more police and larger budgets declines; and “like all bureaucracies, criminal justice agencies can hardly be expected to implement policies that would diminish their importance.” Thus, additional funding need not lead to a substantial decrease in reported crime rates, since high crime rates are clearly an important element in arguments for expanded criminal justice budgets. This reinforces the incentives police face because arrest statistics are viewed as an indicator of performance. In order to keep crime rates up and make growing numbers of arrests, for example, police have strong incentives to seek criminalization of increasing numbers of activities.
Bruce L. Benson, The Enterprise of Law, p136
Now, I just want to make clear that I do not share Benson’s bizarre belief that privatization of police and prisons will make a better and more compassionate system. In fact, since we live in a time when private prisons are widespread in the United States, we now know that the opposite is true: private prisons only make the situation worse in terms of increasing prison sentences, increasing the scope of law enforcement and increasing cruelty to prisoners. Private police would only be more of the same: same evil incentives as for public police, but with profit added to the mix. What we call corruption when done in the public sector would become commonplace policy.
Don’t take my quoting of The Enterprise of Law as a support of private police. My point in quoting this was to reiterate the concrete goal of a police force (successful arrests) and the condition for its continued funding (high crime rates). Neither of these are concordant with “protecting people,” and in fact they are often divergent goals. So even if laws and policies were written in the interest of the general population, the police as a whole would still not be a liberating institution, because it would still be predicated on hierarchy, abuse of power, and endangering people’s lives.
The police is a special class of people who are given special rights, such as having access to, and being allowed to use, firearms regardless of local laws, being free to threaten, assault and kidnap whoever they can justify, being free to use mental torture against adults and children who are deemed suspects, being free to kill innocent people if they have the slimmest justification for doing so, and so on.
These rights are not the result of abusive people but powers naturally granted by the State to a class of people who enforce State laws (there are slight exceptions, but in most of the world these powers are more or less the same). Regardless of how nice they are, and many cops are, they are necessarily traitors to the working class because that’s their job. They will always suppress popular movements for civil rights and economic justice because they serve the power elite by definition.
So why can people not look at different solutions? The first problem arises because people confuse the function of protection with the police, and therefore they believe that any rejection of the police is also a rejection of the function of protection in society; astonishingly, even some Anarchists believe this and have decided that the ideal society is one where no one does anything against aggressors, which is just silly. Realistically, few people want to live in a society where they are afforded no protection at all from crime. This leads some people to reject the Anarchist worldview on that basis alone.
Of course we should defend ourselves against crime, and do our best to mitigate it. But that doesn’t mean we need a class of people with special rights, or even a hierarchy, to do this. Actually, the very concept of a non-egalitarian justice system is a contradiction in terms. If the role of a justice system is to prevent aggression, then having an elite which permits itself to use aggression on a massive scale while preventing others from doing the same in the name of their monopoly is counter-productive.
Another problem is that people think the only alternative to our elitist, militarized police is vigilante justice, by which they understand a bunch of angry hicks hanging people from trees. Of course it’s possible to redefine the terms so much that vigilante justice is defined as the only alternative, but that’s just a bad use of words. Otherwise it’s simply false: it’s like saying that the only alternative to having schoolteachers beat up your kids is to beat your kids yourself. Surely it would be more reasonable to simply not have one’s kids beat up at all. Surely we would be better off finally introducing a little of this mythical element we call “civilization.”
So what is it we do need to protect ourselves from crime? First, we need to address the root causes of crime. We cannot even think about protecting ourselves from crime unless we actively reduce the incentive for crime, otherwise we’re just treading water. That means re-examining social institutions and how they pervert incentives for the average person. For Anarchists, this should go without saying, as we are the victims of these incentives and are all too familiar with them.
The fact that incarceration rates are highly variable (from the United States- 730 prisoners per 100,000- to Iceland- 47 prisoners per 100,000) demonstrates that incarceration rates could be dramatically cut in most countries with relatively little change. The fact that homicide rates, to take one example, are also highly variable (from 12 per 100,000 in Russia to 0.56 in Austria) tells us that crime itself is very “elastic,” because tiny differences between capital-democratic States obviously create vast differences in crime rates. So any improvement in the incentive system would be vastly beneficial for the society as a whole.
But what can be done beyond what statism has to offer? Well, for one, we can set rules in accordance with our values, not in accordance with institutional values. We can set up an institution of protection which aims primarily at the prevention of crime, not profit motive or arrest statistics.
Obviously these two points are related, but as I said before, to have an egalitarian institution of protection means more than setting laws based on human values. We also need to apply Anarchist organizational principles, such as rotation of posts, direct accountability of representatives, and a socialist organization of protection agents where every agent has a say in the way the organization is run.
Furthermore, we need to apply principles of justice. We need to hold protection agents accountable for their own crimes, that there is no substantial difference between an agent killing, assaulting or torturing an innocent person for no or little good reason, and another person doing the same thing. We need to break the omertà that currently prevails in police forces by destroying the concept of the police as a separate, higher class.
Finally, as I argued in my entry on gun control, a proportional disarmament of the population and the protection agents would provide great incentive for the protection agents to try to minimize the abuse of firearms in the general population, which would go ways towards preventing crime in general (although this is highly variable from society to society). But this would remain a palliative measure unless the underlying causes of gun violence can be addressed.
Coercion is only acceptable to prevent aggression, but the only way to ensure that only aggressing individuals are stopped is to base our justice system on truth. No system based on money or law can ensure that we are finding the truth.