Surely all good feminists should support defunding the police. It has been two years since a serving officer abducted, raped, and murdered 33-year-old Sarah Everard in South London, and it seems there aren’t just one or two “bad apples”. Multiple serving officers are either sexual or domestic abuse offenders. No wonder so many women want to give up on the police completely.
If only it were that simple.
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“Defund the police” has been the rallying cry of the progressive Left ever since the death of George Floyd in 2020, and has expanded into a policy about much more than race. Obviously the point many feminists make is that since many male officers are sexual and domestic abuse offenders themselves, women shouldn’t trust them. Another is that a large proportion of 999 calls relate to mental health crises — so why are they referred to law enforcement? Meanwhile, making arrests for minor and non-violent crimes — such as burglary, graffiti and low-level acts of criminal damage and public nuisance — locks citizens into a cycle of criminal justice involvement.
Hard leftists in the UK have a tendency to go further: abolish the police service entirely, is their demand, with one activist arguing recently that, “History makes clear that the police do not exist to protect any of us. They exist to have power over us, and like perpetrators, they will use that power indiscriminately to keep us in our place.” The logical conclusion to this argument would be to also abolish all state agencies – including mental health facilities, child protection, and the government itself. It would be an unmitigated disaster. It’s a nonsense, to argue, as they do, that all crime could be dealt with at a “community level” with solutions such as restorative justice.
I emphatically resist these calls. That’s not to say I support the service in its current form. Where I grew up in Darlington, the police were the enemy and rarely protected working-class, downtrodden communities from violence. I saw how the police were complicit in male violence, refusing to admonish perpetrators they related to, man to man. More recently, I’ve been horrified by Baroness Casey’s interim report, which showed that out of nearly 9,000 Metropolitan police officers and staff accused of misconduct since 2013, only 5% were dismissed from the force. Around 1,800 were accused of multiple crimes; less than 1% were sacked as a result. One officer faced 19 allegations, and another was accused of 11 counts of assault, sexual harassment, sending naked images, fraud and leaking information.
Women have every reason to distrust the police. But the defund the police argument that resources should be reallocated to mental health, homelessness and rehabilitation services makes sense only up to a point. Men do not sexually assault, rape, harass or beat up their female partners because they are homeless, drunk or mentally ill. They do it because they can. Sober, wealthy, landowning men also rape and attack women. In 2021, the chief constable of Merseyside told a reporter that, if he were given £5 billion to cut crime, he would invest only £1 billion in policing, and the rest would go to tackle poverty. But what about those middle-class, affluent, socially respectable men who commit acts of violence against women and children? If we defund the police, who arrests these men?
We know that most violence against women is carried out in the home. More than 100 women are killed every year by former or current male partners, almost always following a pattern of escalating violence and harassment. Reducing police budgets would reduce the capacity for police to respond to domestic violence call-outs and to subsequently implement enforcement measures. Nor can we be sure that funds will be redirected appropriately. In the UK, the majority of police funding comes directly from central government; would you trust our government to make sure those resources are directed to, say, mental health services?
Besides, police will still be first responders to violent incidents, and they have been trained for decades in mental health issues. They know, in theory, when to refer perpetrators to medical services rather than criminalise them. That this rarely translates into practice is because there is a systematic failure of police across the board to implement the powers and measures they have to tackle these problems, preferring, more often than not, to take the easy route.
This isn’t surprising. The force is under greater pressure than ever. We currently have fewer officers than we had in 2009. So you might say that in the UK, there has already been a de facto defunding of the police. This has not translated into improved responses to mental health crises, nor a reduction in violence perpetrated by police towards people of colour. In fact, as Home Office research shows, during 2018 to 2019, police brutality towards black people increased. As Inquest reports, black people are more likely than white people to die in police custody but, to date, not a single police officer has been held criminally responsible.
Nor has it improved policy towards officers who sexually assault. The Met didn’t seize the chance, for instance, to learn from the case of “Bastard Dave” — and the allegations against Carrick go back to as early as 2002. There are numerous things that could have been done to stop Carrick: he joined the Met despite having been a suspect in a burglary and malicious communications against a former partner a year earlier, and there was no mention of this during the vetting and recruitment process. A year later, he was accused of harassment and assault against another woman. There was no arrest and he received only “words of advice”. Had an investigation been carried out by officers from a different service, Carrick might have been stopped. Even fewer resources would have arguably made that even harder.
I have been sexually and physically assaulted because I am a woman and a lesbian. And having worked in a police station in the Nineties as a civilian supporting police officers during domestic violence call outs, I am well versed in some of their attitudes towards women. But I have reported all these crimes against me, despite being aware of the force’s shortcomings. I refuse to give up on the service. To defund the police, we would have to believe that the police are beyond reform — and I do not.
So how do we reform the police? With sanctions and consequences imposed upon those who promote misogynistic and racist attitudes or behaviour, and automatic dismissal for officers who commit crimes while serving. We also need to encourage, and properly protect whistle-blowers. Increased resourcing, better training, rigorous recruitment, and probationary periods are all essential changes that need to be made. Instead of defunding an already strapped service, we must radically reform it. And the only way to do that is to refund the police.
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