‘Police defunding’ might not make sense in a UK context, but we still need nuance

A UK Bobby and US riot police
Peter Bolton

I recently wrote an opinion piece about Keir Starmer’s comments on ‘police defunding’. Its arguments have been met with considerable hostile reaction on social media. In particular, some readers have commented that my criticism of Starmer’s position is hypocritical given that The Canary has previously attacked the Conservative government for cuts in police spending and praised Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to increase police numbers by 10,000.

I appreciate constructive feedback from readers and recognise that this article had a blindspot insofar as it did not make a distinction between the very different nature of police spending in the US and the UK. Whereas police forces in the US are often highly militarised and overfunded in order to purchase weapons and other military-style paraphernalia, in the UK the police force is even now still largely unarmed. In a UK context, therefore, ‘police reform’ is a more accurate term.

In short, the article lacked nuance. However, so did Starmer’s comments. Although I agree that the literal objective of defunding the police may not be applicable to the UK, Starmer’s position still demonstrated a lack of understanding about what motivates people in the US calling for ‘police defunding’ and how these ideas might apply in a UK context.

Is Starmer righter than the right?

On 29 June, Starmer responded to a question about ‘police defunding’ during an interview on BBC Breakfast. He described the idea as “nonsense” and said that he “would have no truck with that”. Worse still, he said that “nobody should be saying anything about defunding the police”. This appears to be a wanton call to suppress open debate about these matters.

My previous article argued that this puts him to the right of conservative commentators Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) and Peter Hitchens. This is because, although they’re generally critical of the UK criminal justice system and think that it’s currently too lenient to criminals, their positions on the police nonetheless seem to be closer to those of ‘police defunding’ advocates than that of Starmer.

Let’s look at the original quotes

The quote from Daniels’ 2006 essay in City Journal, again, is:

In Britain, we once prided ourselves—rightly—on our unarmed police force. The police were the servants of the law-abiding citizenry, nothing more and nothing less.

Recently, though, the police have become more militarised in manner and appearance. Increasingly, they look like an occupying army, festooned with the paraphernalia of repression. This is not to say that they are effective in suppressing crime, however. On the contrary: the more aggressive they look, and the more bullying they become, the less effective they grow.

The quote I included from a blog post from Peter Hitchens written in 2015 at MailOnline is:

the job of the police is not primarily to ‘catch criminals’. Robert Peel persuaded a reluctant Parliament to agree to set up a police force because it would *prevent* crime.

Each crime and each arrest represents a *failure* of the prime duty of the police, which is to prevent crime and the disorder which encourages it. The system of regular preventive patrolling was developed to create an atmosphere of safety on the streets, to deter crime and disorder.

Standing by my argument, but adding nuance

My previous article argued that because of these sentiments, Daniels and Hitchens are to the left of Starmer on policing issues. Furthermore, I argued that Blairites generally are, in some respects, on the right of the political spectrum on law and order and civil liberties issues. For example, it was the Labour-right government of Tony Blair himself that introduced antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs) and attempted to introduce identity cards. It was subsequently left to the Conservative government of David Cameron to repeal both of these disastrous policies.

I stand by these arguments. However, although the UK does itself have problems with police militarisation and would benefit from Hitchens’ idea of a more preventative model, the idea of ‘police defunding’ comes originally from the US where conditions are very different.

US police forces overfunded, saddled with social and public health problems

For one thing, spending on police in the US is much higher than in other developed countries. One recent report estimated that the US spends a total of $115bn per year on policing, which dwarfs most other countries’ military budgets, let alone police budgets. And at the same time, most US cities spend more on policing than on services such as education and housing.

As a result, in the US the police are often used as the first port of call for dealing with society’s problems. For example, the police are often tasked with responding to issues such as homelessness and violence within schools that would be better addressed by other kinds of interventions. As an article in the Atlantic puts it:

the United States has an extreme budget commitment to prisons, guns, warplanes, armoured vehicles, detention facilities, courts, jails, drones, and patrols—to law and order, meted out discriminately. It has an equally extreme budget commitment to food support, aid for teenage parents, help for the homeless, child care for working families, safe housing, and so on. It feeds the former and starves the latter.

With increasingly ridiculous effects

This disparity manifests itself in some increasingly bizarre ways. For instance, according to some estimates, US law enforcement spends over 20% of its time dealing with people suffering from mental illness.

Proponents of ‘police defunding’ in the US are not necessarily advocating for the abolition of the police altogether. Rather they suggest that local and state governments re-channel some of the funds currently spent on police to more appropriate and effective ways of dealing with social issues which police aren’t well-suited to dealing with. This could include publicly-funded treatment for people with mental health issues and programmes to transition homeless people into secure housing. As one article in the Guardian put it:

The basic principle [of police defunding] is that government budgets and “public safety” spending should prioritise housing, employment, community health, education and other vital programmes, instead of police officers.

Major principle behind ‘police defunding’ compatible with increasing police!

Therefore, as contradictory as it might seem on the surface, the central principle behind ‘police defunding’ is not incompatible with Corbyn’s proposal to increase police numbers. For starters, the UK doesn’t spend anything like as much as the US does on policing in the first place, which perhaps explains why Black Lives Matter UK remains neutral on the issue of ‘police defunding’.

Moreover, while Labour leader, Corbyn also supported heavily increasing spending on many of the above-mentioned services in addition to increasing police numbers. In fact, a Corbyn-led government would have almost certainly placed these in higher priority to his pledge to increase police numbers, which would fit the aforementioned definition from the Guardian.

Community-based police

But there is also another, more subtle, reason why Corbyn’s proposals adhered to this principle. And that’s the kind of policing that Corbyn was advocating wasn’t that far of a stretch from what ‘police defunding’ activists propose in the US. The Mirror reported in May 2019 that:

Mr Corbyn attacked the Tory cuts to police which have seen their numbers shrink by 20,000.

But he also emphasised the need for “community-based policing so we have policing by consent within the community”.

A few years earlier during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, then-shadow home secretary Diane Abbott likewise spoke of “the importance of having more community-based police officers”. Indeed, this is exactly what I argued in my original article on this subject:

[an alternative] could resemble a community-based public safety approach that works to prevent crime by, for example, settling disputes peacefully within neighbourhoods. This already forms an (albeit small) part of the UK’s law enforcement apparatus in the form of ‘community liaison officers’.

Nuance, please!

If Starmer had a more nuanced understanding of what is meant by ‘police defunding’ and how its proposals might play out in a UK context, he could have at least mentioned some of the above facts. But as I argued in my original article on this subject, and as others have argued elsewhere at The Canary, Starmer appears to want to position himself as a centre-right Blairite. Because, according to the Blairite narrative, this is the only way to be electable. And as I’ve previously argued, this forms just one part of a larger picture showing that he doesn’t have any interest in handing an olive branch to the outgoing Labour-left leadership.

To conclude, I accept and apologise for the lack of nuance in my first piece. However, I stand by my criticism of Starmer and the wider point that the UK does have something to learn from those calling for ‘police defunding’ in the US – notwithstanding the fact that police reform along these lines in the UK would not necessarily involve a literal reduction in funding.

Featured image via Wikimedia – SouthbankSteveWikimedia – KateSheets

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  • Show Comments
    1. In many ways Tony Blair’s Labour Government was more right wing than John Major’s Tory Government, especially in regards to welfare reform, PFI and the privatization of services within the NHS and Local councils.
      John Major is alleged to have said that Tony Blair got away with more than he could have in terms of Privatization.
      Taxes remained low for the very rich, with nothing done about tax havens, with a very low minimum wage.
      As Keir Starmer drifts further to the right, it is likely any Government led by him will be just as bad if not worse that the current Tories. It is also likely that the Tories will replace Johnson as a liability, possibly with some like Rishi Sunak, who has become popular with his giveaways (it would also help the Tories look less racist)
      In the first past the post electoral system, we are usually stuck with the lesser of 2 evils, but with Keir Starmer leading Labour, it is difficult to spot the “lesser of 2 evils”

      1. “will be just as bad if not worse that the current Tories”

        Tosh – the present government’s inadequacy has cost people’s lives. Nothing can be as bad as that.

        And if you can’t spot the lesser of two evils between Starmer’s Labour and Whoever’s Conservatives then you need to clean your glasses.

        That said, the leap rightward by Starmer is concerning, so I understand people’s misgivings. Like many, I hope he embraces many of the ideals of Corbyn’s Labour. But unlike some of the commentators here, I’m open to giving him a chance.

        1. There seems no way that Sirkeir could even give a nod toward the ideals of Corbyn’s Labour given his statements so far – even if he had any sympathy for those ideals. In many ways Corbyn was unique in the history of the Labour Party of the Empire (oops, sorry of Great Britain), for one thing he was a socialist and a pacifist. No other Labour leader in our history ever stood in the way of armament export and as mentioned Blair sold us down the river…

    2. The fuzz’s founding purpose was never to prevent crime or catch criminals; it was to deter industrial action by the workers, which they demonstrated unequivocally at Orgreave, Wapping, Sheerness and Grunwick. We MUST abolish the bourgeois fascist capitalist imperialist “police” and replace them with a loically recruited, worker-controlled, democratically accountable Workers’ Defence Guard, with one purpose; to defend thwe workers from the real threat to society; capitalists, bosses, yuppies, landlords, and their Daily Mail-reading running dogs, the petty bourgeoisie, or so-called “middle class”, those who think they are better than us because the wear white collars to work, sit at desks, “own” their “own” homes and (their ultimate defining characteristic) get out of the bath to pee.

      1. Yes. I suspect that the parts of the Left which think there can be a tame, community police have never been at the sharp end of them. It’s easy to imagine such teddy bears in uniform, smiling at old ladies and handing out sweets to children. But the reality is:
        1. Police in any society have one purpose only: to uphold power and the status quo.
        2. Police have one method only: the arrest.

    3. Hmm trust stammer the spammer that’s just another blairite who will damage labour more with his justice hadn’t we seen t may secretly allowing private policing around London. But then allowing them to police further afield yet we have the joking police whota laugh. put back whot was lost by the Tories police but stammer giving him any more rope he’s shown you shot he’s about and it doesn’t look good for us peasants

    4. UK Crime Rates spiked to 20 million a year in 1996 dropping to 5 million in 2019, lower than the early 80s.

      The Metropolitan Police District is 609 sq miles. Currently employing 32,000 warranted officers, and 15,000 support staff. There are at least 20 warranted officers available per square mile at any one time, including the green belt and sparsely populated areas.

      In 2000 the Met budget was £2 billion.
      25,000 warranted officers.
      1 million crimes recorded.
      Averaging 40 crimes per officer per year.

      In 2010 the Met budget was £3.7billion with 33,000 officers.

      In 2018 the Met budget was £3.3billion.
      31,000 warranted officers.
      0.8 million crimes recorded.
      Averaging 25 crimes per officer per year.

      Most assumptions about crime and policing are almost entirely false. One of the laziest is that they are ‘over-stretched’. They are in essence a vast expense supported by propaganda, innuendo and fiction.

      Police spokespeople will often say they have a difficult and dangerous job, albeit one they chose to do. The reality for the average officer, given the numbers involved, encountering a serious incident is rare and fleeting. It is much more dangerous working in bar/club security, in construction, in health, fire and rescue service etc..

      In 2019, police in England and Wales killed, or caused the deaths of 276 people, including 42 bystanders in traffic collisions and 152 “during or following police contact”.

      Since 1900, 252 police lost their lives as a direct result of performing their duties and criminal activity. This includes 25 who crashed while in pursuit, and 55 who ‘collapsed and died’ during an arrest, or in accidents while investigating incidents. This does not include officers who otherwise died while on duty.

      These numbers are obviously at the sharpest end of the wedge between police misconduct and the perceived reality. There are many thousands of daily encounters where the police cause public harm, either directly or following an incident, most will neither be reported or recorded.

      We pay huge sums in taxes to pay for jaw droppingly inept and inefficient service, that often ends up making the situation much worse for crime victims.

      The reality for officers is they’re paid well above the national average, have enormous privilege, power and benefits, are virtually invulnerable in almost every scenario, will abuse their position on a daily basis, and never held accountable by the ‘good apples’.

      The police will obfuscate, deflect, and lie, when confronted with even the mildest complaint, then have the audacity to complain about being criticised!

      Take the UK’s chief officer, Cressida Dick. In 2005, she commanded the operation that lead to Jean-Charles De Menezes being shot eight times in the head by plain clothes police. She gave the order for “code red” which may encompass authorising ‘shoot to kill’. This mercurial scenario unfolded after a tragic series of incompetent communications, coupled with a stultifying inability to locate a terror suspect or the officers following him. Command decisions seemingly relied on a complete misidentification of an innocent person described as having ‘Mongolian eyes’, information they knew formed the basis of a potential death sentence, misjudged and ordered by Cressida Dick.

      The innocent man was deemed to have acted ‘suspiciously’. At no point were multiple opportunities exploited to detain him prior to walking calmly into Stockwell station. In fact officers following him on the bus were ordered to stand down from detaining and questioning him. At no point did any officer identify themselves or present an arrest warning, effectively making this an extra judicial killing.

      Rather than accept responsibility, the Met and the press immediately put into operation disinformation tactics regarding suspicious actions of the suspect, suspicious clothing, and tried to absolve the shooters in claiming they gave ample warning which the suspect ‘failed’ to heed and approached the officers. All of which were completely contradicted by witnesses and available video evidence.

      Subsequent inquiries lead to no misconduct or any criminal charges being brought at all. On the contrary, the person most responsible for how this incident developed was promoted to the role of Deputy Assistant Commissioner a year later. Cressida Dick was later awarded the ‘Queen’s Police Medal’ for “gallantry or distinguished service”, before being promoted to Commissioner of Police, the UK’s top cop.

      The police are essentially unaccountable, a group of people holding enormous power and privilege, entirely resistant to the notion of change, and will never stop lobbying for more power and resources. The only moral position can be to disband the police entirely, barring every existing officer from further duty, and to replace the system with well trained local officers based in, and solely accountable to the communities they police.

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