Police Power and Disorder: Understanding Policing in the Twenty-First Century.

AuthorJackson, Will

How we understand the function of police in the twenty-first century depends in large part on how we approach our object of study. In the last two decades, the discipline of police studies has expanded exponentially, and this has had a significant influence on the academic study of policing as well as on public debates about what police do and if, and how, this could change. Criminology, the disciplinary home of police studies in the contemporary university, has continued to grow at a phenomenal rate in the twenty-first century as it has kept pace with expanding criminal justice systems around the world, providing them with both a vital source of legitimacy and a steady supply of labor. In the last twenty years though, we have seen "a dizzying expansion in the number of institutes, posts, publications, conferences, courses and academic and quasi-academic journals devoted to research and teaching in policing" (Loader 2011, 449). In the United Kingdom, universities have consolidated their position as centers for police training and this is set to continue as all police recruits in England and Wales will require a degree by 2020. Police studies here has advanced the model of criminology as industry (Hillyard et al. 2004, 384) within which academic labor is openly employed in the service of the state, helping to professionalize the institution and produce the next generation of disciplined workers.

Even if contemporary police studies is in reality just another branch of administrative criminology, its establishment as a specific discipline--marked by its own courses, departments, and journals--illustrates the further intensification of the "university-sponsored imposition of bourgeois disciplinarity" (Neocleous 2006, 19). This was already reflected in twentieth-century criminology, as it sought to isolate the study of policing from the examination of other exercises of power, but contemporary police studies pushes this separation to its end point. Here the police institution exists in glorious isolation, detached from any wider concept of policing or recognition of the exercise of power. The nature and scale of its expansion in recentyears reveals much about the enduring importance of liberal police science to the state.

Much of the work in police studies is mirror work (Manning 2005, 39) that reflects the priorities of government and "mimics rather than challenges police-centered visions of order" (Loader 2011, 451), but this is not a failing of policing scholars, as has been suggested. It is an essential function of the discipline, and the reason its expansion has been so vociferously supported by the state. Police studies supplies police with the "useable knowledge" (Bradley Sc Nixon 2009, 427) they require and an institutional framework has been constructed within and between UK universities as well as at a national level (notably through the College of Policing, a new professional body for police in England and Wales established in 2013) to help academics be more useful. Research with rather than on police (Goode Sc Lumsden 2018, 76; Jackson 2019) is prioritized and this has intensified the development of a sociology for rather than of the police (Manning 2005). Despite calls for piecemeal reform, the scholars of modern police studies are, like the original police scientists, firmly "on the side of police powers" (Neocleous 2006, 21, emphasis in original) defending the institution in scholarly and public debate.

Positioning police as co-producers of research--rather than understanding them in the achingly old-fashioned way as an object of study--has produced a discipline that is "embarrassingly eager to study any currently fashionable question without theorizing it" (Manning, cited in Loader 2011, 450). Theorizing police is not attempted in any substantive way because this is ultimately unnecessary and unhelpful to the discipline. As Foucault noted of criminology, the value of police studies to the functioning of the system relieves it of any need to seek a theoretical justification. The utility of academic research is measured by its ability to produce evidence of what works in policing; a commitment to evidence-based practice (Sherman 1998)--within which research produces evidence that subsequently guides policy and practice--has made the relationship between researchers and the institution even more important in the last twenty years. Scientific research begets scientific policing, and the positivism of police science and administrative criminology provides a vital source of legitimacy in this context.

Such research seeks, through incremental reforms, to enhance efficiency in police practice, and academic inquiry plays a key role in maintaining a facade of openness, responsiveness, and accountability. Critical examination is neither desired nor attempted; in reality, it is not possible. Just as criminology cannot deconstruct crime (Smart, cited in Hillyard et al. 2004, 374), police studies cannot deconstruct police. The priorities of police studies as a discipline (as well as its blind spots) reflect the demands of the institution. The closeness of the discipline and its object of study mean that they are largely indistinguishable; exchanges of personnel make this most explicit, with the academic-cop and the cop-academic now a growing presence in the corridors of both the university and the police station. The function of police studies is thus to reinforce the liberal concept of police and, as a result, to limit the perception of what policing is and what can be done in response to the exercise of police power.

Focusing on the United Kingdom, this article considers the implications of the disciplinary enclosure of the concept of police. The aim is to demonstrate how, as a result of this framing, limited and misleading understandings of policing continue to define our debates about what police do and what we, in our attempts to resist the exercise of police power, might do in response. By considering the policing of populations marked as disorderly in the current era, the article suggests that for those on the left seeking to understand and challenge the violence of police power around the world, replacing liberal definitions with an understanding of the general function of police is vital. To do this, the following analysis draws upon but also develops the account of police power provided by Mark Neocleous in The Fabrication of Social Order (2000), republished in 2021 as A Critical Theory of Police Power. In that book Neocleous provides a theoretical foundation from which to challenge contemporary ideas about police. By unpacking the liberal myths that underpin the orthodox history and outlining the historical continuities in the function of police, Neocleous provides us with a radically different viewpoint that challenges the vast majority of current work on policing, including much of what passes as critical in police studies and criminology.

To understand the policing of disorderly populations we have to understand the wider relationship between police and order and here Neocleous's work provides an essential guide. Perhaps because it disturbs so much of current thinking on police, the book has been given limited attention in the policing literature, but A Critical Theory of Police Police Power remains an essential guide for critical scholars and activists seeking to make sense of policing. This approach forces us to rethink many of the demands made of police, including from the left, and, as Neocleous argues in this issue, to think very differently about the question of police power. As some recent contributions have suggested (Correia & Wall 2018, Vitale 2017), this approach is vital for the left if it is to move beyond demands for better, more humaneness racist policing and start imagining a postpolice future as central to a wider project of social and political transformation.

In challenging orthodox accounts of police history, Neocleous has demonstrated that the primary emphasis of police lies with order. Dismantling the argument that police are primarily concerned with, and involved in, the response to crime, Neocleous demonstrates that the focus of the institutions of policing has, in fact, been consistently on "those who challenge the order of capital and the state" (Neocleous 2000, 115; 2021, 217). The text therefore offers us a way to make sense of policing in the twenty-first century by helping to expose the continuities that link contemporary police policy and practice with the historical function of the institution. Recognizing the central role police play in the production and reproduction of bourgeois order remains as important now as it was at the time of publication; without dismantling the liberal myths that legitimize police, our responses are inevitably limited to demands for reform that leave the central function undisturbed.

In the United Kingdom in recent years campaigns such as Black Lives Matter, Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance, Police Spies Out of Lives, United Friends and Families, along with organizations like The Network for Police Monitoring and Inquest, have opened the police institution to public criticism in a way not seen before. However, although these groups have undoubtedly exacerbated a crisis of legitimacy for police, the discussion of police in public activist and scholarly conversations rarely moves beyond specific dynamics of policing, failing to confront the general function of police under capitalism. Drawing upon Neocleous's arguments, this article seeks to offer a way to join together lines of critique through time and space, to link campaigns, and to move beyond demands for reform.

Defining Disorder

Through the work of these campaigns, much has been revealed in the U nited Kingdom in recent years about the emphasis of police on the activities of social movements. These revelations, ultimately about the nature and scale of the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT