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An American Police Story


Photo by Julian Wan on


Few subjects could be more topical for English speakers than Professor Mathew Zingraff’s. The recent Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has brought public protest centerstage. Voices have dared suggest defunding the police. Criminal justice reform has been an issue for some time. The U.S. leads the world in prison population with the largest per capita incarceration rate.​ Residents of some states can still be jailed for debt. For its part, the United Kingdom criminal justice system is facing unprecedented court case backlogs and record prisoner numbers. The Law Society, an independent professional body for UK solicitors, insists that the British criminal justice system is broken. Moreover, this very week, Parliament has debated legislation giving the police powers that could curb the ability of citizens to protest.


Professor Zingraff believes that one way to reach meaningful conclusions is to challenge conventional thinking. Proceeding to do so, he questioned one view of the police as summed up by the motto of a typical force: “To protect and to serve the public.” This implies neutrality, Lady Justice with her balanced scale. In practice, however, policing is anything but neutral. By arresting someone the police have already assigned guilt. By putting the arrested person in the position of needing bail they are already inflicting punishment. The bail system not only favours the moneyed but can depend on the whimsey and politics of a judge.


Protection and service as often as not create fear not confidence. It’s unsure who is being protected and serviced. Tracing the origin of policing in the U.S.,  Zingraff  noted that till about 1830 it was an affair of hired or volunteer watchmen of loosely defined duties and small competence. Thereafter something approaching organisation appeared. Merchants wanted their businesses protected. There were local variations. Where slavery prevailed, slave patrols pursued escapees and supported the commerce in human beings.  These domestic terrorists of the day evolved after the Civil War into the legitimate police forces of the South with links to the Ku Klux Klan.


Across the country the myth of a dangerous underclass took root. It was an umbrella bugaboo that soon included various immigrant groups that upset nativist sensitivities and interests. The police co-operated with the magnates of industry, making a generous use of public order arrests that amounted to strikebreaking. Language played its part. What the police called a riot could be a perfectly legal strike. Their disorder could be simply a defence of civil rights.


The “Gilded Age” of the late 19th Century would refine and embolden corruption. During the years of Prohibition,1920-33, the police made a quantum jump.  Corruption and bias weren’t new, but they now took a hand in government. Politicians in power, police higher-ups and the top dogs of organised crime met like a board of directors to divide the spoils of “the noble experiment”.


Over the years right up to the present, reform of the police has been a familiar talking point. Zingraff outlined what usually happens. Some unspeakable police action occurs, an event like the murder of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. A cry of moral outrage is raised and an investigation undertaken. A list of necessary reforms is solemnly drawn up. Feeling the pressure, politicians formulate policies which they vaunt before their voters. Action then stalls. The politicians feel they have done their job by performing for the cameras. The all-powerful police unions intervene to water down any charges. Nothing changes.


Furthermore, a law-and-order mystique can pervade a whole country preventing the public from identifying with police victims. These are always seen to be individuals unlike themselves, “other people.” Zingraff pointed out what rarely comes home to a larger public, that they too can be on the receiving end of police violence. It happened only days ago in London when women demonstrating against the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving policeman were manhandled by his colleagues policing their demonstration. The surprised look on the demonstrators’ faces as they were thrown to the pavement told a story. They were largely middle-class professional women, not seasoned protestors, and were astonished to find themselves treated like those alien “other people”.


In the United States the myth of the dangerous underclass isn’t dead. It has merely been re-costumed for the Third Millennium as Antifa, hijab wearers, refugees on the southern border or anyone with an Asian face. It was striking that when defunding the police was recently called for the very idea made even the liberal establishment shutter and look the other way.


Professor Zingraff brought us grim tidings. But anything else would have been dishonest and disrespectful to the memory of the wronged. His gift for irony didn’t sugar the pill so much as make it easier for us to swallow.


Peter Byrne

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