I think there is a tendency amongst those on the left to view the police and other bodies of the state as one reactionary mass. This however is a crude point of view. It neither takes into account the different strata in these organisations nor explains in any way why they are or become one reactionary mass.
It is impossible to deny that the police organised as they are at present are no real friends of the workers and socialist movements. There are countless documentations of police brutality towards working class people, protesters and strikers. Such behaviour is reactionary there is no doubt, but just because a group carries out reactionary behaviour does not mean they are reactionary through and through. Nor does it mean that all members of such a group are reactionary. Such broad generalisations are not the method of Marxists, rather they are those of the like of the capitalist media whose broad brush will take incidents and whip them up into moral panics. (Such as associating all blacks with ‘mugging’ etc.)
One of the main suggestions of why the police act thus is said to be due to their ‘canteen culture’. This idea suggests that those who join the police are integrated through their fellow officers into a pre-existing police subculture which is racist, anti-working class etc. Whilst I do not doubt that being around a group that consistently holds these attitudes will no doubt have an impact upon a person, with either some of these ideas being accepted or repulsed, I would hold that the activities police officers play a large role in shaping this too. If most of your interactions with a group of people are arresting them for vandalism or another crime, then that will impact on how you view that group (this could be an ethnic group or people from a particular area for example). The question I would put to this idea though is when is someone integrated into this subculture? Obviously such a process would take time before it embedded itself into the officers consciousness, how long would that be?
Another suggestion, that would answer the previous question too, is that those who join the police have an authoritarian personality. Such a personality pre-disposes them to want to be able to control others and hold racist and supremacist viewpoints. It is contended that the selection process favours these types of people, and naturally they fit perfectly into the canteen culture and do not really need integrating. However, we are left again with the question of where does this authoritarian personality come from? Are people born with it or what? I actually think this idea is fairly stupid, as I’ve pointed out in reality it doesn’t really explain anything as we don’t know why they hold these views, plus having met people who were joining the police at the end of my previous course I feel I’m in a good position to say that they certainly didn’t have authoritarian personalities. Which is not to say that racists etc. don’t join the police, just that all who join the police aren’t racists.
A Marxist analysis of the police would first point to the position of the police in capitalist society. The police are one of the ‘armed bodies of men’ that make up the coercive apparatus of capitalist society. Like all of the ‘armed bodies of men’, they are in the most part recruited from amongst the working class, thus one could assume that they would at time of recruitment have a similar outlook to other working class people.
The tops of state agencies however, are not composed similarly. They are drawn from the ruling layers of society, or those lower layers who have come to see life their way, in the case of senior appointments, this is done by the Home Secretary. It is those in the upper echelons who decide how and where the police are deployed, what their priorities are, control information within the force etc. Going back to our original question of what makes the police engage in the behaviours already described, although an individual officer has some degree of choice over what they do, they are put in a given situation by their superiors, they are briefed about a situation by their superiors, their objectives are assigned by their superiors and so forth.
I am not attempting to justify such behaviour, rather I am attempting to explain in general why such actions occur. I would suggest it is similar to troops carrying out atrocities in wars.
Is there anything we can do about this? I would suggest there is. In the UK at present the police are in dispute with the government over pay. There is discussion about having the right to trade unions and strike action. This is reminiscent of the 1970’s where the police were in dispute over pay again. Their consciousness touched by the other disputes of those time, they strove for trade union rights. Whilst opposing the repressive use of force, Marxists should support these demands and work to bring rank and file police into the orbit of the labour movement. In revolutionary upswings the police have refused to repress the working class (ie. France 1968) or have even gone on strike (Britain 1919), it is towards this and the ‘suspension in mid-air’ of the capitalist states coercive apparatus Marxists should work towards.