Policing as Crisis

Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Katy Sian (NPMP)

This article is from NPMP’s annual magazine. You can see the full magazine online, and order physical copies here.

Greater Manchester Police (GMP) have recently come under unprecedented scrutiny. In December 2020, an investigation into the force found ‘serious cause for concern’. The force was placed into special measures, and along with negative media coverage, a range of changes followed. Most notable among these was the introduction of a new Chief Constable, and the setting out of GMP’s ‘strategic delivery plan’ and ‘promises to the public’. 

GMP’s placement in special measures was the culmination of a series of concerns raised over several years. In 2016, the force was deemed to be inadequate in terms of the recording of crime. A subsequent report in 2018 found that the force still required improvement in several key areas, particularly regarding its service to ‘vulnerable victims of crime’, including the recording of rape crimes and domestic abuse (see Connelly, article five of the magazine). In 2019, concerns were again raised that the force was putting ‘victims’ and vulnerable people at risk. It was suggested that, despite needing to improve, GMP’s performance had declined further since the last inspection. It was in this context that the 2020 report found over 80,000 crimes had gone unrecorded over the latest one-year period. 

Recognition that GMP is in crisis should be welcomed, as should increased public scrutiny of police forces. However, a narrow focus on faulty computer systems and crime (under)recording practices obscures the true nature of the crisis. 

The socio-political backdrop of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, alongside the protests following the police murder of Sarah Everard, and ongoing Kill the Bill mobilisations signal a more fundamental crisis. This reframed understanding of ‘crisis’ draws our attention to endemic racism, sexism, and violence in policing. It also points to the devastating effects of the persistent criminalisation of certain communities, and to an institution that stands in the way of the pursuit of social justice. This is evident in the brutal tasering of Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara in front of his young son, in the growing number of killings following police pursuits (see Pimblott, article six of the magazine), and in the persistent efforts to undermine and thwart social movements. 

This stark contrast in definitions of ‘crisis’ is significant because it shapes proposed solutions, outcomes and implementation. GMP’s response has been to adopt a ‘tough on crime’ stance, with promises of a ‘relentless’ pursuit of ‘criminals’, more policing, and more arrests and ‘high-profile operations’. 

However, taking heed of the crisis as recognised by social movements allows us to see that rising authoritarianism and criminalisation will deepen, rather than address, the fundamental crisis of policing and the crises caused by policing. And, as the impact of the expansion of police powers under Covid attests (see Harris, article 2 of the magazine), increased and tougher policing will be felt most harshly by minoritised communities, those who historically and presently remain at the sharp end of policing. The new Chief Constable’s forceful denial of the presence of institutional racism in the force, even in the face of insurmountable evidence, suggests he and his force will be ill-equipped and unwilling to recognize and address these issues as they deepen. Indeed, the issue of institutional racism in GMP continues to be brushed aside, with superficial ad campaigns to recruit more people of colour and women. These empty gestures are merely cosmetic, unable to tackle the structural issues of embedded racism and sexism that persist.

By turning to the uprisings and cross-community mass mobilisations of recent years we can see that solutions to the fundamental crisis of policing cannot be solved by having more police on our streets, or through superficial measures that fail to address decades of discrimination and violence in the force. Rather, we need to question the logic that sees us repeatedly turn to the police to solve social problems. This is what is invoked by calls to ‘defund the police’: calls to shift power and resources away from policing and into the development of supportive social infrastructures, particularly in communities that have been most deprived by austerity and an unjust economic system. 

When we think critically about the role of the police, we see that the very ‘victims’ of crime that GMP claims to want to serve are better supported through the funding of women’s centres, youth clubs, community centres, mentoring schemes, counselling and mental health services, and community-driven and led programmes. Of course, there is a need for us to remain critical about how oppressive tendencies can (and do) manifest in these spaces too, particularly those tied to the state, but this is an ongoing task. 

The answer in tackling the police crisis lies not with more policing or diversity recruitment drives. Rather, it centres on investing in marginalised communities to empower and enrich them. For too long, these communities have been overpoliced, harassed and subjected to violence by GMP. And while we are doing the long-haul work of imagining, building and resourcing alternative institutions, we need to fight back against efforts to expand police powers via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the encroachment of police in schools and universities (see Virgo, article 11 of the magazine), and the rising militarisation of the police. We must also continue to develop our survival programmes in the form of police monitoring, collective solidarities and  community empowerment.