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The Secret Policeman's real secret

It's hard not to be racist in the modern police service, says Don Flynn

Up until recently, an assertion that the police were racist was on a par with saying the pope was Catholic and bears relieve themselves in the woods. Prejudiced attitudes on the part of officers would not have been regarded as worthy of reprimand because they were expected to share exactly the same racist values as the property-owning segments of society. While across the towns and cities of Britain the local gentries running industry, commerce, the town hall and the magistrates' court were racist, and not ashamed to admit the fact.

The real reason why the views of officer Rob Pulling and his colleagues caused so much outrage after the broadcast of Mark Daly's undercover documentary in October last year was that Britain's modernised ruling class has evolved a degree or two beyond the crude, overt racism of the old petty bourgeois gentry who formerly called the shots on the local police committees and from the magistrates' bench. The local basis of political power has itself been eclipsed by the centralised bureaucracies who act as guardians for 'social cohesion' and who see themselves as the vanguard of a new multiculturalism.

The indignation which came on stream from the ruling clerisy came from the discovery that the plebeian storm troopers of law and order, at the level of their lower ranks, were resolutely not singing from the 'rainbow Britain' hymn-sheet. The massive post-Lawrence Inquiry investment in racial awareness courses and touchy-feely bobbying simply hasn't been paying the dividends that had been hoped for.

The 'Secret Policeman' case presented the problem as being a failure on the part of management to root out its bad apples. This is simplistic in the extreme. The really important question is why, despite the sincerity of management in wanting to tackle the issue, police racism has proven so resilient and continues to flourish throughout the ranks. The plethora of management tricks, from race awareness through to disciplinary action, and the unquestioned determination of black and Asian officers to tackle racism appears to have been of little avail. Is there anything that can be done to fight the menace of police racism?

New anti-racism

Firstly, let's set out the reasons why both the political elites and police management should want to eradicate racism from the ranks of the law enforcement agencies. The UK is no longer governed through a network of local chiefdoms which once bound chief constables to the magistrates, the town hall clerk, the chamber of commerce and other luminaries. The centralised state has displaced local authority and the hegemonic values are now those of the sleek transnational operators who rule the roost in trade, finance and the elite professions. Racism is an anachronism for most of these people, and its continued existence an embarrassment. With power bases deeply entrenched in dynamic, 'global' cities, whose connectedness with the international relays of capital has typically guaranteed an immigrant presence of between a quarter and a third of the urban population, racism, rather than an easy tactic of divide and rule, looks more like a game of Russian roulette. They want nothing to do with it.

The police chiefs themselves, an organic part of the new ruling political caste, have additional reason for wanting to see an end to crude racism. The cities where law and order is a high profile issue, and where what happens decides the trajectory of promising careers, are replete with minority ethnic communities, some of whom (but by no means all) have influence with respect to the governing powers. The statistics show that black and ethnic minority people are more likely to be the victims of crime than other groups, and at the most basic and practical level, the maintenance of law and order requires the support and commitment of these groups.

To this we have to add the complexities which arise from living in an era of human rights, where a judiciary has learned to be much more sensitive to the crass police techniques of earlier years which had secured convictions in the local magistrates' and crown courts. All of these issues, and more, were brought together in the conclusions of the stupendous Lawrence inquiry report, which can be seen as a manifesto for those representing these new forces as to what needed to change, and the urgency of doing it.

Structural imperatives

So the resilience of police racism cannot be assumed to arise from an absence of a strong compelling reason to counter it, or of a failure of will on the part of the management tops. Instead we have to look at the structural imperatives imposed on the police service which arise as a consequence of it being a force imposing law and order in a society driven by a capitalist dynamic.

A competitive market economy necessarily divides the social entity into haves and have-nots. Defenders of the system opine that this is not a problem when even the poorest segments can take their consolation in the modern equivalents of bread and circuses - MacDonald's burgers and Sky television. But that doesn't seem to be the judgment of subaltern classes, who continue to feel the material gap in wealth and culture which exists between themselves and their 'betters' as bitter grief.

A culture of antipathy and revolt is utterly predictable in these circumstances, and crime and other forms of deviance are a large part of it.

The police occupy a peculiar position in this confrontation, in that they exist to enforce the law of the ruling groups, but their professional ethic generates both empathy with the subordinate strata (they need this to do their jobs with a degree of efficiency) and contempt of their toffee-nosed rulers who won't get themselves mucky doing the dirty job they require to be done. In these circumstances, police culture is itself a version of plebeian deviance, as the better TV cop shows constantly remind us.

Sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists have offered a veritable zoo of typologies which describe the outlooks and character traits which are utilised by those on the beat as survival techniques. In-group solidarity, a professional ethos and value system, the postulates derived from functional cynicism, isolation from the rest of society, and techniques for dealing with a constant, high level of stress, are all components of the police world view. The force's bureaucratic and military structure privileges authoritarian personality traits, and the circular, self-reinforcing behaviours which using an American model, are presented as, variously, the Wyatt Earp, the John Wayne, the Doc Holliday, the Custer, the Parker, the HEW (police burnout), and the Ganzer syndromes.

The point is that the occupational hazard of policing a divided, fractionalised society, in a force necessarily granted autonomy in its roaming on the dangerous frontier between law and disorder generates a complex response from the plebeian foot soldiers caste in the role.This makes it ambivalent to exhortations to 'good' and 'virtuous' behaviour from its paymasters. Racism has taken deep root in this complexity, and is unlikely to be banished simply because the bosses have ordained it so.

The deviant, racist culture of police services seems to be a universal feature of modern urban societies, and is demonstrated with numerous examples from Europe to North American and Japan, and is seen taking root in the post-socialist and post-colonial societies in the East and South.

Policing and capitalism

This sounds like a counsel of despair, and it probably would be if we were obliged to suppose that the task of maintaining law and order is forever to be identified with preserving the structural imperatives of a society organised along the lines of capitalist market competitive divisions. Suppose this wasn't the case, and we imagined instead a type of policing which meshed with the innate preference of most human beings for order as opposed to disorder; where the protection of human rights was at least on a par with property rights; and where the crucial disputes which had to be resolved amongst citizens was the most efficient allocation of resources for the maintenance of the optimum levels of mutual benefit.

It might be supposed that authoritarian, militaristic and racist cultures would find it harder to get a foothold in such a police service.

Maybe indeed the mechanisms of policing are in need of such fundamental revision that we should talk rather of measures to reinforce the capacity of civil society for self-governance and self-policing, rather than maintain a separate force at all?