Defining the proper role of a police force

‘To protect and serve’: the honourable motto first adopted by the Los Angeles police department in 1955 defines exactly the proper role of police forces and their justification for existence. To protect violent breaches of person and property in servitude of the public that pay them on mass via taxation. The police have responsibility dictated by these moral guidelines: how closely do modern police forces, broadly speaking, adhere to them?

Justice inspectorates observe that on the whole in England and Wales there is general satisfaction amongst crime victims with regards to the conduct of the police: between 2011 and 2016, satisfaction ratings have straddled a line between 93.9% and 94.4%.[1] These may not be the best parameters to measure by as not much room is made for subjectivity in opinion and the nature of crime committed, but the figures nevertheless describe public approval regarding the police.

Approval from the public is vital to show the functioning of a good police force. This then necessarily follows on to the main point that should be made about police forces: they work for the populace, and have a duty to uphold civil liberty.

This should be defined carefully. The proper role of the police is to respond to (not necessarily to ‘prevent’, which when reflected on is a near impossible task) aggressive crime. That is to say crime which breaches the property rights of another by force, or violates their person. In any case the police are not a body built to curtail freedom, but to conserve it.

The heavy policing of drug use and sale is symptomatic of how modern-day police forces seem warped from their proper purpose. Drug procurement, use or sale is non-aggressive and is a market functioning on a voluntary basis; however, police raid private property in order to seize drugs, using force where there was none exerted originally. There are two ways to interpret this: the state has gone too far in its perceived duty of care over citizens, or it is conducting these searches and arrests for economic reasons.

The economic reasons, if we are to take the cynical line, are as thus: the state gets no tax revenue from the underground drug market where there is VAT on say, alcohol products. To bridge this gap, they undergo the process of heavily policing drug transfer to justify higher rates of taxation for policing and prison. On the other hand is the argument that the state is genuinely a caring body, and that sits in the highest contention here: the state dictating what I can and cannot do with my own body isn’t altruistic, it is an absurd breach of freedom. Live and let live (or die).

It is high time for the argument in favour of scaling back the policing of drug use to be taken seriously, considering the strain on the public sector in the UK and the ongoing debate surrounding how to solve its problems. The government could pile any money saved into investigating/fighting aggressive crime and stop using what is arguably a façade of care to perpetuate a useless war on drugs.

There is no doubt, however, that fighting aggressive crime something the UK police are generally good at doing. An example of this is police work in tackling domestic violence: it is arguably one of the most tragic and difficult to police issues facing modern forces. The implementation of ‘Clare’s Law’ in March 2014 introduced new ways of disclosing potential cases to the police. By January 2015, 1,300 disclosures had been made.[2] Boots on the ground response to 999 calls seem in good shape, too. The average response to a grade 1 incident for North Yorkshire police in 2011 was 9 minutes and 12 seconds[3]; Nottinghamshire comes in a little slower for that year at 12 minutes[4].

In this context the Randian minarchist ideal seems appealing, particularly in the modern day state which is so far entrenched in socialised services. The argument for a police force confined to policing aggressive crime and a military used solely for defensive purposes is a strong one, as it would involve not a complete dissolution but a scaling back – a kind of realistic first stopping post for the free society.

That said, Rothbardian ideas about the possibility for effective private security are important to keep in mind. A private property society would do well to not be solely dependent on a nationwide or county-wide police force, instead employing profit-incentivised service. This would have the neat double effect of alleviating the pressure on police forces too.

So, we’ve examined briefly what the proper role of a police force could be and placed some ideas about an implementation for it within a society oriented around freedom. The last important note to make is that I am by no means looking to slander the police; I have the utmost respect for their work and I’m not in a position to criticise those braver than I. I am instead looking at the modern manifestation of the police and enquiring about their legitimacy in relation to civil liberty. This is an important role of citizenry, particularly in the light of events in Venezuela, to ensure the police and the state don’t wield an overly strong hand against its people.


[1] (Page 63)




Image: British armed police patrol London’s Leicester Square in July 2005, following the suicide bombings on the London transport system. The photo, widely published, was transmitted into the Associated Press World wide network directly from a pda using Phojo, from a nearby wifi point.This copy was sent into the Idruna FTP, via Phojo, at the same compression as the original by max nash

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