In our daily lives, we are more likely to encounter police officers than any other state official. This makes the police the most visible and ubiquitous sign of the state. For many people, their encounters with the police are limited to asking for directions, having the police come with medical teams in an emergency, rescuing pets or lost children, shimming locked car doors, or other helpful actions. In addition, the police help them feel safe by catching criminals and patrolling neighborhoods. Thus for many people, the police institution seems completely benign and offer many desirable “services” to society. The police, in this view, are uber social workers and peacemakers.
For anarchists, and many other people, this picture of the police is one-sided and distorts reality. First, as the articles below detail more fully, historically and currently the police system has served mostly as a tool for the powerful in racial and class conflict. There have not always been police institutions. Before the 19th century people took care of “crime” without an institutional police force. The police arose with the rise of the nation-state and with industrialization. They served to pacify the populace in both instances. In the U.S., the police have an even more sinister origins: slave patrols (see “The Gospel or a Glock“). So the police serve interests, usually that of the more well-off in society, while the less well-off often have a very different view of the police than the popular one above. Those who see the police as relatively benign should ask themselves from what position in society they stand, chances are, they sit closer to the middle or upper classes. Second, the police in the western world are largely militarized. Many police departments in the United States, for example, have budgets and weaponry that far surpass the armies of small states. The police can react to the slightest domestic disturbance with extreme and overwhelming violence. Finally, the police represent the state’s monopoly on violence. Even if the police only carry tasers or handcuffs, they represent a collective power to overwhelm anyone who resists their authority.
No matter how good and upstanding of a person the individual police officer might be, the institution represents these problems and undercut the individual. Even a nonviolent police force is ultimately problematic under these conditions. Anyone who reads Jacques Ellul will be struck by how the police are a technique. Nonviolence in the hands of this institution merely becomes another technique for control. Nonviolent state police may very well become the most effective technique to keep the status quo in place. Thus, anarchists, and Christians, should oppose attempts to enlarge the police and find ways to take back the power of policing from the state.
Below are some articles for further consideration on the police. These particular articles deal with policing from an anarchist and Christian perspective and so are particularly relevant for this website.