Stereotypically, only libertarians, bleeding heart liberals, and paranoiacs are concerned by excess police powers. Indeed, for many social conservatives, the real problem is that the police are too often powerless in the face of crime.
However, too many recent incidents go way beyond what could be called “being tough on crime”, and simply verge into being “vindictive displays of power”. Combatting this does not mean rejecting the legitimate roles the police can have. In fact, dealing with abuses and excesses will actually help the police to function more efficiently, as well as more humanely.
I am not talking about a small number of isolated incidents. The rates of stop-and-search are shocking, even before you factor in the abuse, discrimination, and absurdity. Legitimate non-violent protests are treated ridiculously heavy-handedly. Examples of disproportionate, and even unprovoked, violence against individuals are frighteningly common (and often receive no repercussions). The statistics for arrests and convictions of non-violent criminals are staggering. And there are the episodes that can only be described as petty and bizarre.
Several distinct (but connected) issues can be identified. First, the actual, “legitimate”, powers of the police are too extensive. Second, certain powers allow too much scope for abuse by individual “bad apples”. Third, abusive individuals are often unaccountable, in part due to corruption. Fourth, there are some cases of endemic and entrenched cultural values that are wholly unacceptable (racism for instance). Finally, the police are tasked with enforcing laws that should simply not exist.
Being appalled by these instances may require certain ideological commitments. Apparently, some people are not perturbed by arbitrary interference, discrimination, unwarranted violence, excess force, violations of individual liberty, the lack of due process, the erosion of habeas corpus, and unaccountability for public servants. However, even if you do not entertain such liberal sympathies, there remains a compelling case for reining in the police.
Few people would challenge the notion that we need a police force to protect persons and property. Obviously security from assault, theft, fraud, and rape is desirable. Social conservatives go further and see a strong and fear inducing police force as necessary for order and stability. Thus, heavy-handed force can be excused as the necessary price for security.
However, even granting this (tenuous) perspective, it should still be apparent that there are pragmatic reasons to curtail the misuse of police power. Essentially, the problems with the police are actually serving to make them less effective at performing their primary function. In addition to being unjust, excessive authoritarianism undermines security, order, and stability.
Firstly, there is the issue of wasted time and resources. Every minute spent performing stop-and-searches on teenagers, and every penny spent on looking for cannabis, could have been used to deal with real crime. The amount of resources wasted is far from trivial. This time and money is literally being taken from dealing with murder, violence, and organised crime.
Secondly, as much as the police need authority, they also need trust and respect in order to function properly. Surprisingly, being unaccountable, abusive, violent, incompetent, and prejudiced can cause you to be seen as antagonistic, alien, illegitimate, and contemptible.
If you are criminalised or victimised, you are bound to view the police negatively. Unfortunately, laws such as drug prohibition and policies like stop and search have resulted in massive numbers of people being in this category. The racial dimension only makes the situation worse. Criminalising people for no good reason is problematic. Alienating entire communities is dangerous. The UK’s 2011 riots may have had multiple causes, but the actions of the police certainly played a role.
Furthermore, for many people the police are the public manifestation of the law itself. If you have grown up mistrustful of, and antagonistic towards, the police, this can cause you to see the entire legal system as intrinsically hostile. Likewise, receiving the same treatment for drug possession as you do for assault effectively sends the message that the two are morally equivalent.
Even if authoritarian social policies were justified, they would still prove ineffective and counter productive. You do not need to be a civil libertarian to see that there extensive problems with the police as an institution and with (some of the) individual officers. Supporting police reform does not entail opposition to the legitimate functions of the police.
Simple and moderate reforms could go a long way. Stop and search could be massively curtailed. The brilliant idea of fitting all on duty officers with cameras should prevent abuse and misconduct, or at least make it easier to punish. Stamping out racism should be a given.
More ambitiously, ending the war on drugs would free up a vast amount of resources and decriminalise a large portion of the population. This is the most obvious policy shift, but possibly the most unlikely. Another ambitious, but difficult, development would be to radically change police culture. Ideally, any notions of “us and them”, and any encouragement of machismo and aggression, should be stamped out.
I do not believe that any of these suggestions are contentious, nor do I think that the severity of the problem is controversial. I trust that readers of all ideological bents will agree.