No Cause for Police Alarm

A. J. BAKER's article is reproduced from the Bulletin of the Libertarian Society of Sydney University, and follows recent revelations of irregularities among the New South Wales police.

STANDING ON A RAILWAY PLATFORM IN STEADY RAIN, handcuffed to two other convicts, Oscar Wilde observed to the warder: "If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her convicts, she doesn't deserve to have any." In the same vein it might be asked whether the New South Wales police force deserves to have citizens to minister to.

But those who raise the question whether the police force is worthy of the people (vis-a-vis, for example, the question whether the people are worthy of their police force) should not carelessly amalgamate their moral evaluations with programmes of reform. We should fight against the temptation to believe that just because a proposition is asserted by a policeman it must be false. For as it happens, the view of Mr. Heffron and the late J. J. Cahill that there has, of necessity, to be a police force and that the one we already have is the best of all possible police forces, seems demonstrably correct.

Those who would deny this have two traditional moves open to them: to argue for the reformation or else for the abolition of the police force.

The first view has in the recent controversy been freely canvassed in the press. According to this the police are underpaid and dehumanised by the conditions and traditions of their work. Raymond Chandler hits this off sympathetically: "It's like this with us, baby. We're coppers and everybody hates our guts … We come home so goddam tired we can't eat or sleep or even read the lies the papers print about us. So we lie awake in the dark in a cheap house on a cheap street and listen to the drunks down the block having fun … Nothing we do is right, not ever. Not once. If we get a confession, we beat it out of the guy, they say, and some shyster calls us Gestapo in court and sneers at us when we muddle our grammar. If we make a mistake they put us back in uniform on Skid Row and we spend the nice cool summer evenings picking drunks out of the gutter and being yelled at by whores and taking knives away from grease-balls in zoot suits." (The Little Sister).

The reformers' idea is that the police are to be liberalised and humanised by being much better paid and by being recruited from candidates who have to pass educational and personality tests. This, of course, is a policy likely to remain a maiden performer in political races. But apart altogether from asking how the policy could be implemented, it is just a bare assumption made by the reformer that improvement would result. The vital point is again suggested by Chandler (whose stories reveal some pre-occupation with the habits of police in the Los Angeles area); " 'A guy can't stay honest if he wants to', Hemingway said. 'That's what's the matter with this country. He gets chiselled out of his pants if he does. You gotta play the game dirty or you don't eat. A lot of bastards think all we need is ninety thousand F.B.I. men in clean collars and brief cases. Nuts. The percentage would get them just the way it does the rest of us '." (Farewell, My Lovely). We are all familiar nowadays with the idea that organisations like the F.B.I., the Untouchables, the Gestapo or the secret police can have more intelligent, more efficient members, and yet — or as a result — be all the more illiberal. The principle in question is, of course, not confined to the police. If you had been a victim in the French Revolution would you have preferred to be dispatched with aseptic efficiency by Robespierre or to be informally butchered in the September Massacres?

Long ago, in the high days of Andersonianism, D. M. McCallum pointed out that the police are the natural enemies of intellectual inquiry and political independence; to expect otherwise is to misunderstand the role of the police; to enforce what is decreed by authority. (Conflict, Sept. 1947). Censorship, interference, repression, are all in the line of police work, so in accordance with the logical principle that if an elephant is a large animal a large elephant is an even larger animal, we could expect the better paid, executive type of policeman to be even more dedicated and efficient in his work of policing. (It might also be a retrograde step if the new men were more plausible in argument; it would be regrettable, for example if we ceased to have the spectacle of police sergeants moving in circles, as when they simultaneously maintain (a) that a piece of behaviour or a work of art offends them because it is offensive and (b) that it is offensive because it offends them).

But if we can't reform it, why can't we replace the police force by something else? Here we move into the territory of advanced political theory and encounter a whole set of interesting possibilities. Thus, (1) before the war, the entire Rumanian public service, which was rather large, used to be replaced whenever the opposition got into power. If this could be applied to the police it would end the seniority system and might lead to a multiformity of approach. There is, however, the difficulty that governments never change in New South Wales. (2) It has been suggested that there should be a wholesale interchange between the New South Wales and South African police forces. This might well result in an improvement of race relations in South Africa since the law there would begin to be administered with impartiality to both blacks and whites, while in N.S.W., except for the minority of aboriginals and Asian students who might have to suffer for the general good, everyone could look forward to particularly courteous treatment.

However, each of these suggestions is a palliative rather than a genuine solution, so let us consider (3) the possibility of having no police force at all. In this case, as everyone knows, to prevent us all being murdered in our beds (though who would murder the murderers?), vigilante bands would be formed and would go about hanging the wrong people. So to avoid these perils we have to understand, as socialists and some anarchists did, that before social conditions would come about, making crime, police and repression impossible, there would first have to be a transition phase, a period, as it were, of the policemanship of the proletariat. In periods of stress just after the revolution this might lead to situations of the kind encountered in the Ukraine by Makhno who (in addition to introducing the practice of printing his banknotes "Anyone forging these notes will not be prosecuted") carried on in his time, as J. Earls has pointed out, the good work of shooting thousands of authoritarians. But when things calmed down there could be, as anarchists have suggested, a phase in which police work was done by roster, everyone taking his turn and there being no permanent police personnel to develop bad habits. An interesting consequence here might be a wide variation in the disfranchisements and restraints imposed. Many socialists and anarchists are moral to the point of being Calvinistic and are devoted to the common good, but not all of them are of this kind, and parallel, for instance, to the lumpen proletariat and lumpen intelligentsia with which we are familiar in Sydney, we might find a lumpen polizei emerging which would take its own view of its duties, when its turn came, say, to act as the licensing squad or the vice squad. There would also be the case of those libertarians in the clutches of metaphysical conceptions about authoritarianism. It might be worth coming some distance to contemplate their guilt feelings when, say, they were on point duty.

But unfortunately this inviting prospect is doubly utopian. In the first place, if the picture we can give of the present is too true to be good, the idea of a society so harmonious that it is free from the blunt instrument of the police is too good to be true. But in any case, there is the usual problem of bringing about the new society. If we, the revolutionary elite, repress our repressors, who will repress us? And the idea of the new society forming in the shell of the old is hardly plausible in the present instance. Bob Cumming, a Sydney bohemian, did on one occasion lecture to an interested audience of policemen on anarchism, but he was behind bars recovering from intoxication at the time. The evidence strongly suggests that anarchists and policemen, co-operating as equal partners in police work, would be like a band of incendiaries working with the arson squad.

We must take it, then, that the limits of evolution have already been reached; we cannot take seriously proposals to improve the police force. In this case it remains only to clear up the question of investigating the police force.

The demand is made for an independent investigation of the police. But if they are to be investigated it may be asked why their investigators should be treated as above suspicion. Why shouldn't these investigators first have to be investigated, and their investigators investigated before that, and so on, with the result that no one, not even the police, could be successfully exonerated? But Mr. Hoffron and Commissioner Allan, obviously anxious to avoid any suspicion of being entangled in a philosophical paradox, have wisely decided to take the plain man's way out: have only policemen investigating one another.

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Sep 5 2016 20:32


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