This is a continuation of an earlier post on the issue of reforming the police versus its abolition.
Mr. Rosenfeld, a self-declared radical and Marxist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in an article published in the social-democratic magazine Canadian Dimension on April 20, 2020, Reform and Transform: Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking), responded to another article published on April 12 in the same magazine, written by James Wilt, Abolishing the police is the only reasonable response to Winnipeg Police killings. Wilt argues that the police cannot be reformed but must be abolished since their function is essentially repressive, and that essential function is sufficient for demanding its abolition
Mr. Rosenfeld has the following counterargument:
How can a class society such as ours, wrought by contradictions, which often manifest themselves in the form of criminal activity, and in which working class and socialist political agency are virtually non-existent, manage without some kind of policing institution? Shouldn’t that institution be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one? How can this happen if it is simply abolished, or if criminal activity such as murder and theft, that often targets working class people (yes, working class people have personal property that can be stolen), is no longer illegal or goes unprosecuted?
Mr. Rosenfeld, in his haste to oppose what he perceives to be left-wing extremism, fails to inquire whether his assumption that the police actually do engage mainly in activity that either prevents “murder and theft” or at least investigates it after the fact. I have already referred to a quite different view of the nature and function of the police (see , for example, Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One).
Mr. Rosenfeld removed himself from this blog in May 2020 (see the comments to the post Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Three, and the above post was posted in August 2019, so there is no excuse for his ignoring what I wrote in the above post. I will quote, once again, from that post, in addition to providing a couple of further references. Mr. Rosenfeld has a responsibility to workers and to community members that he failed to fulfill.
From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, pages 112-113:
Since, as we have seen, law-enforcement is merely an incidental and
derivative part of police work, and since, as Lustgarten has noted, the police
invariably under-enforce the law, the equation of policing with law enforcement
is clearly untenable.68 The police enforce the law because it falls within the scope of their larger duties of regulating order which, in an ideological loop of remarkable ingenuity, is then justified in terms of crime control and the need to ‘uphold the law’. In other words, law enforcement becomes part of police work to the same extent as anything else in which the exercise of force for the maintenance of order may have to be used, and only to that extent. Police practices are designed to conform to and prioritize not law, but order, as the judges and police have long known.69 Law-enforcement is therefore a means to an end rather than an end in itself, as witnessed by the fact that, for example, police often prefer to establish order without arrest. The assumption central to the rule of law that people should not take the law into ‘their own hands’ reminds us not only that the law is meant to be used and controlled by chosen hands, as Bauman puts it,70 but that police do in fact handle rather than enforce the law. The law is a resource for dealing with problems of disorder rather than a set of rules to be followed and enforced. The kind of police behaviour which offends the sensibilities of civil libertarians or which seems at odds
with the assumptions in the liberal democratic conception of the rule of law in fact turns out to be within the law and exercised according to the need to deal with things considered disorderly. The police follow rules, but these are police rules rather than legal rules. Thus when exercising discretion, the police are never quite using it to enforce the law, as one might be led to believe. Rather, officers decide what they want to do and then fit their legal powers around that decision. Hence the main ‘Act’ which police officers purport to enforce is the ‘Ways and Means Act’, a set of mythical powers which they use to mystify and confuse suspects, and the question of whether an officer should detain a suspect on legal grounds is displaced
by the question ‘which legal reason shall I use to justify detaining this person’. Exercised according to police criteria rather than specific legal criteria, the rules are rules for the abolition of disorder, exercised by the police and enabled by law.
“Murder and theft” form a minor part of what the police actually do. Mr. Rosenfeld’s own fears perhaps are expressed when he refers to “murder and theft.” Furthermore, given the number of murders in Canada per year is around one half the number of workers who die in Canada (with over 600,000 injuries a year)–and the police do little to address this problem–Mr. Rosenfeld’s ignoring of these facts likely expresses his own biases and fears.
Mr. Rosenfeld also ignores the fear that the police often instill among some sections of the working class–a fear that he simply ignores. How such fear can be overcome with his reforms he never says.
From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, page 113:
‘We fear the policeman’ then, as Slavoj Zizek comments, ‘insofar as he is
not just himself, a person like us, since his acts are the acts of power, that
is to say, insofar as he is experienced as the stand-in for the big Other, for
the social order.’73 And it is because the police officer is the stand-in for
social order that order is the central trope [something such as an idea, phrase, or image that is often used in a particular work] around which even the smallest
police act is conducted. As a number of ex-police officers have testified,
the police themselves are obsessed with order, being institutionalized to
achieve order at all times and in all contexts. Malcolm Young has commented
on how one folder containing a record of the Orders by a range of
senior officers reveals ‘how everything in this world had an ordained place
and could therefore be controlled, ordered, disciplined, checked, scrutinized’.
Likewise ex-police sergeant Simon Holdaway has pointed to the
way prisoners are treated as ‘visible evidence of disorder’. Needing to
detect and end disorder among citizens, the police cannot cope with ambiguity
in any way.74 In dealing with any particular situation a police officer
makes a decision about what, if anything, is out of order and then makes a
decision about how to overcome it. Because each individual officer is institutionalized to achieve order at all times the police institution must have
a strong sense of the order they are there to reproduce, reflected in the
activities they are taught to pursue, the techniques they use in pursuit, and
compounded by a unitary and absolutist view of human behaviour and
The police as the representative of “order” entails not only fear but a need for the expression of deference. From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, pages 113-114:
So for example, failure to display deference to an officer significantly increases the probability of arrest, for it is understood as a failure to display deference to an officer’s demand for order. Any hostility directed to them is treated as an attack on their authority and power to order, and thus an attack on authority and order in general, mediated by a supposed hostility to the Law. Antagonistic behaviour is a symbolic rejection of their authoritative attempt to reconstitute order out of a disorderly situation; it is this which may result in more formal (i.e. legal) methods of
control. Regardless of the legal issues pertinent to the situation, the failure to display deference is therefore likely to make one an object of the law as an arrested person as a means of reproducing order.
I have already referred to my personal experience with a social worker who was connected to the legal system through providing a written document to the court (see, for example, A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part Three). Since I did not show deference to his authority, he retaliated by, among other things, lying in his document to the court.
Another critical theorist argues that the criminal justice system fails in its overt claim to protect citizens from what really threatens them, and in so failing it actually justifies its continued existence. From Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton (2017), The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, page 31:
Ultimately, American criminal justice policy makes more sense if we look at the system as wanting to have high crime rates—there are groups for whom “crime pays” and for whom the system’s failure is a success.
This may seem paradoxical, but such is the nature of a social order characterized by the dominance of employers as a class and their corresponding economic, political and social structures and relations.
From pages 39-41:
Although many Americans are confused about whether crime rates are increasing or decreasing, the overall pattern since 1992 has been one of declining crime rates. This reduction in crime only constitutes a “success” for the criminal justice system to the extent that the system caused the decline. A review of criminal justice literature, however, shows that prisons and police played a quite limited role in the national crime decline. The drop in crime rates is better explained by non–criminal justice factors, such as the decline in use of crack, an improved economy in the 1990s and continued low inflation, and the removal of lead from gas and paint. In this section, we examine the factors linked to the declining crime rate to assess their importance. We’ll start with the criminal justice response.
POLICE Another popular theory is that police contributed substantially to the decline in crime rates. Bear in mind that we are not here talking about the effect of police arresting people and putting them in prison. (That was discussed in the previous section.) The claim to be evaluated now is that changes in the number of police or their strategies—such as policing crime “hot spots” and aggressive enforcement of gun-control laws—lowered crime rates. Strategies that temporarily suppress crime at a hot spot or that displace it into another area cannot be responsible for a long-term, geographically widespread crime decline.
The National Academy of Sciences panel on policing (quoted earlier) found weak or no evidence that standard policing or widespread variants contribute much to declining crime rates. John Conklin in his book Why Crime Rates Fell concurs that there is little evidence to support a general link between policing and crime
rates.86 A 2005 report by the General Accounting Office found that between 1993 and 2000, President Clinton’s COPS plan for 100,000 officers “amounted to about 5 percent of the overall decline.”87 The Brennan Center analysis of the crime decline suggests that the increasing number of police had a “downward
effect on crime in the 1990s, likely between 0 and 10 percent”—but the effect did not continue into the 2000s because the number of police leveled off and then declined.
It is true that there may be some evidence that the use of the police, combined with other strategies, may reduce crime. From Reiman, pages 41-42:
The National Academy of Sciences panel and more recent reviews of the literature note that policing hot spots can reduce crime when combined with a problem-solving approach that tries to change underlying conditions.89
However, there are others considerations here, from a political point of view. Firstly, who defines what actions are a crime? Mr. Rosenfeld does not even ask the question. He does not even consider the filtering process that eliminates the harmful actions of employers in various ways on our lives from consideration as a crime. Secondly, he does not factor into the account the general function of the police to maintain order–order characterized by the daily subordination, oppression and exploitation of millions of workers in Canada and billions in the world–in order to prevent “theft and murder.”
Mr. Rosenfeld’s focus on “murder and theft” expresses more his biases rather than any real analysis of the situation which members of the working class face vis-a-vis the real dangers of working for an employer, on the one hand, and the nature and functions of the police, on the other.
As for theft, let me provide a personal anecdote. In 1996, I believe, I was doing my practicum for my bachelor of education degree with the French university in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the College universitaire de Saint-Boniface. They lent me a fairly expensive video camera (with tripod) so that I could have someone film my classroom practice. At the time, I was living in the north end in Winnipeg, on Machray Street near St. John’s High School, an inner city school. The north end is relatively poor in terms of income level. My daughter at the time was around one-year old. I had her carriage and other things in the trunk and the video camera and tripod in the back seat.
I woke up early to prepare for the day. I went out to the car–and the window was broken and the video camera and tripod were gone. I phoned the police–and all they asked me was what the serial number was. They did not even bother sending a police person for further details. No one came. No one investigated further. Is this a good example of how the police deal with “personal theft?” If so, Mr. Rosenfeld’s reference to “theft” as justification for the non-abolition of the police sounds more like an expression of his own social-democratic biases rather than an analysis of the real nature of the police in a society dominated by a class of employers.
Another author provides further proof of the real nature of the police and not Mr. Rosenfeld’s social-democratic fantasy. From Alex Vitale (2017), The End of Policing:
The police exist to keep us safe, or so we are told by mainstream media and popular culture. TV shows exaggerate the amount of serious crime and the nature of what most police officers actually do all day. Crime control is a small part of policing, and it always has been.
Felony arrests of any kind are a rarity for uniformed officers, with most making no more than one a year. When a patrol officer actually apprehends a violent criminal in the act, it is a major moment in their career. The bulk of police officers work in patrol. They take reports, engage in random patrol, address parking and driving violations and noise complaints, issue tickets, and make misdemeanor arrests for drinking in public, possession of small amounts of drugs, or the vague “disorderly conduct.” Officers I’ve shadowed on patrol describe their days as “99 percent boredom and 1percent sheer terror”—and even that 1 percent is a bit of an exaggeration for most officers.
Even detectives (who make up only about 15 percent of police forces) spend most of their time taking reports of crimes that they will never solve —and in many cases will never even investigate. There is no possible way for police to investigate every reported crime. Even homicide investigations can be brought to a quick conclusion if no clear suspect is identified within two days, as the television reality show The First 48 emphasizes. Burglaries and larcenies are even less likely to be investigated thoroughly, or at all. Most crimes that are investigated are not solved
Mr. Rosenfeld, in his haste to oppose really radical proposals (such as the abolition of the police), merely asserts the liberal view of the nature of the police. It is certainly possible that many members of the working-class believe the same thing, but a Marxist has an obligation to question such an ideology. Mr. Rosenfeld, though, not only indulges such beliefs but reinforces them.
He may reply that he had pointed out in his article that
I will start with a disclaimer: I am no expert on policing, criminal justice, the sociology of Winnipeg or police and community relations. I am a 70 year-old Marxist and democratic socialist, who has lived and worked in Toronto for the past 44 years, and have been organizing, doing education and writing for and about working class politics and public transit.
I too am not an “expert on policing, criminal justice, the sociology of Winnipeg or police and community relations.” However, as a Marxist, I have an obligation to at least do some research on topics before I write about them. Besides, so-called “experts” often ignore issues that are relevant to the working class.
Mr. Rosenfeld is retired, so there is no justification for his lack of engagement in at least preliminary research concerning the abolition of the police. However, there is no evidence that Mr. Rosenfeld did any research concerning the nature and function of the police. He merely expressed his unwarranted bias. Mr. Rosenfeld, perhaps, watches too many Netflix crime movies or programs.
As a result, he panders to the prejudices of the working class rather than criticizing their views and enlightening them about the real nature of policing. This should surprise no one. The social-democratic left, in general, pander to the prejudices of the working class in various ways (by, for example, not criticizing such cliches as “fair contracts,” “fair collective agreements,” “fair wages,” “The Fight for $15 and Fairness,” “decent work” and the like.
Mr. Rosenfeld claims that we live in a liberal democracy and not in a fascist society. Since he does not elaborate on what he means by these terms, I will assume that by “liberal democracy” he means that in Canada we live by the “rule of law”:
In reality, though, bourgeois democratic institutions are not simply a façade for a bloody and murderous dictatorship over the poor and colonized. Yes, there are instances of state acts of murder and even terrorism. The liberal democratic state and institutions facilitate private capital accumulation and are structured in ways which seek to repress, diffuse and co-opt alternative political and social movements, but these are mediated by the necessities of legitimating capitalism. The relative power, political ideology and organization of the working class and colonized Indigenous peoples also affect the character of liberal democracy (and in the subordinate strata, there are forms of class differences and other contradictions that also matter). We don’t live in a fascist dictatorship.
Of course, “bourgeois democratic institutions” need to legitimate their rule, and the level of legitimization required relates, in part, to the level of “relative power, political ideology and organization of the working class and colonized indigenous peoples.” Any abolitionist can agree with this. And? Is Mr. Rosenfeld, though, implying that, since the capitalist state attempts to legitimate the rule of the class of employers that the general and essential function of the police to maintain class order is somehow unimportant? That the iron fist does not support the legitimating function of the capitalist state? Furthermore, the legitimating function of the capitalist state hides the real nature of the lives of the working class, does it not? (See the series of posts on this blog about the silence of the history curricula in various provinces in Canada concerning the nature and origin of the class of employers in Canada.. See, for example, A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees).
Mr. Rosenfeld, however, is little concerned with the legitimization function of the capitalist state in its negative aspect; his real concern is with the positive aspects of that function, such as civil liberties. By all means, let us appreciate and fight for these limited rights that we do have that protect us from the iron fist of the police–but let us not idealize them. They modify but do not negate the primary function of the police–to maintain the order of a society characterized by the dominance of the class of employers and the associated economic, social and political structures and relations.
Furthermore, Mr. Rosenfeld does not even consider the importance of the capacity of the capitalist government or state for combining the iron fist (the stick) and the carrot (reforms) in many, many different ways; this capacity to combine the two is one thing that gives the government or state dominated by employers its power and makes it very difficult to overcome. I already pointed out the following in another post:
From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, page 2:
The whole flavour of the rhetoric of justice is summed up in the idea that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly convicted. Why then the paradox that the vast majority of cases processed through a criminal justice system so geared to favouring the accused results in a finding of guilt?
For they do. According to the criminal statistics for 1978, conviction rates were as follows: 8o per cent of Scottish cases involving crimes, 95 per cent of Scottish cases involving offences, 84 per cent of English Crown Court cases, 93 per cent of indictable cases, 95 per cent of non-indictable cases, in the English magistrates’
courts. Some samples show even higher rates-a 98.5 per cent conviction rate for magistrates’ courts in Sheffield (Bottoms and McClean, 1976). Conviction depends in court on the plea or the verdict. If the accused pleads guilty to the charge against him, conviction follows as a matter of routine. If he pleads not guilty, a contested trial follows. According to Bottoms and McClean, 72 ·5 per cent of those contesting the case in magistrates’ courts, 55 per cent of those choosing jury trials, and 71 per cent of those allocated to the higher courts were convicted on some or all counts (pp. 106, 209). In the rhetoric of justice everyone is entitled to a fair trial; yet most defendants plead guilty. In the rhetoric of justice any reasonable doubt should result in acquittal; yet for the clear majority of cases the court is convinced beyond reasonable doubt, despite all the rhetorical hamstrings on police and prosecution, that the accused is guilty. Why?
One answer might be quite simply that the defendants are guilty; the case against them is too strong to be plausibly disputed; the facts speak for themselves. Sir Robert Mark has suggested indeed that the very limitations placed on police and prosecution bringing a case to court make it highly probable that only the indisputably guilty come through the process at all….
Mr. Rosenfeld probably has been indoctrinated into the ideology of law, which presents courts as areas where legal due process is dominant–whereas the opposite is the case.
From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, Page 153:
Legal policy has established two tiers of justice. One, the higher courts, is for public consumption, the arena where the ideology of justice is put on display. The other, the lower courts, deliberately structured in defiance of the ideology of justice, is concerned less with subtle ideological messages than with direct control. The latter is closeted from the public eye by the ideology of triviality, so the higher courts alone feed into the public image of what the law does and how it operates. But the higher courts deal with only 2 per cent of the cases that pass through the criminal courts. Almost all criminal law is acted out in the lower courts without traditional due
process. But of course what happens in the lower courts is not only trivial, it is not really law. So the position is turned on its head. The 98 per cent becomes the exception to the rule of ‘real law’ and the working of the law comes to be typified not by its routine nature, but by its atypical, indeed exceptional, High Court form. Between them the ideologies of triviality and legal irrelevance accomplish the remarkable feats of defining 98 per cent of court cases not only as exceptions to the rule of due process, but also as of no public interest whatsoever. The traditional ideology of justice can thus survive the contradiction that the summary courts blatantly ignore it every day-and that they were set up precisely for that purpose.
The real world of courts (and the police) needs more than “transformation”–it needs abolition since they function at the level of real law and not at the level of the rhetoric of justice. From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, pages 154-155:
The rhetoric of justice requires incriminating evidence as the basis for arrest and search; the law allows arrest and search in order to establish it. Justice requires that no-one need incriminate himself; the law refuses to control the production of confessions and allows silence as a factor in proving guilt. justice requires equality; the law discriminates against the homeless, the jobless, the disreputable. Justice requires each case be judged on its own facts; the law makes previous convictions grounds for defining behaviour as an offence and evidence against the accused. Justice places the burden of proof on the prosecutor; the law qualifies the standard and method of proof required and offers the prosecutor opportunities for making a
case which the accused is denied. Justice proclaims the right to trial by one’s peers; the legal system ensures that 91 per cent of all defendants plead guilty, and of the rest most are tried without a jury.
If, then, the process of conviction is easier than the rhetoric of justice would have us expect-and easier still the lower the status of the defendant-it is hardly surprising. A wide range of prosecution evidence can be legally produced and presented, despite the rhetoric of a system geared overwhelmingly to safeguards for the accused, precisely because legal structure, legal procedure, legal rulings, not legal rhetoric, govern the legitimate practice of criminal justice, and there is quite simply a distinct gap between the substance and the ideology of the law.
This conclusion has two direct and immediate implications. First it places the contemporary policy debate over law and order in a new light. The police demand for more powers, for the removal of the hamstrings of the right to silence, the limitations on arrest and search-and indeed the civil liberties camp’s agitated response that the legal checks of British justice must be upheld-begin to appear rather odd. Both sides of the debate are framed in terms of the ideology of civil rights, not in terms of the realities of legal procedure and case law which, as I hope this analysis has amply shown, have all too often already given the police and prosecution the very powers they are demanding. The law does not need reform to
remove hamstrings on the police: they exist largely in the unrealised rhetoric.
Second, more theoretically, this analysis has implications for the explanation of law-enforcement and its outcomes. A whole range of excellent sociological studies has pointed out situational, informal, non-legal factors in police-citizen encounters and courtroom interaction to explain who is arrested or convicted, and to explain why the system so often seems in practice to be weighted against the accused. Their answer lies essentially in the complex nature of social interaction and motivation; in the fact that people do not merely administer the law but act upon and alter it as they do so. This study offers a supplementary perspective, making the law rather than the activities of its administrators problematic. The conclusion is quite different. Given the formal procedures and rules of the law and the structure of arrest, investigation, plea and trial, one could not–even if human beings acted entirely as legal automatons–expect the outcomes to be other than they are. If the practice of criminal justice does not live up to its rhetoric one should not look only to the interactions and negotiations of those who put the law into practice but to the law itself. One should not look just to how the rhetoric of justice is subverted intentionally or otherwise by policemen bending the rules, by lawyers negotiating adversariness out of existence, by out-of-touch judges or biased magistrates: one must also look at how it is subverted in the law. Police and court officials need not abuse the law to subvert the principles of justice; they need only use it. Deviation from the rhetoric of legality and justice is institutionalised in the law itself.
Mr. Rosenfeld implies that we need the police. He asks:
Shouldn’t that institution be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one? How can this happen if it is simply abolished, or if criminal activity such as murder and theft, that often targets working class people (yes, working class people have personal property that can be stolen), is no longer illegal or goes unprosecuted?
Note the assumption that the courts and the police are somehow very effective in protecting personal property and preventing murder.
Racism exists in our society, and it certainly can serve the short-term interests of some sections of the working class by reducing or eliminating competition from other workers. Should we aim at transforming racism “by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous” social institution? Or should we aim at abolishing it?
In any case, some members of the working class do steal the personal property from other members of the working class–and they should not (although there are undoubtedly many mitigating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration here). And some do murder some members of the working class–and they should not. Do these facts legitimate the continued existence of the police as a social institution designed by its very nature to maintain the order of oppression and exploitation characteristic of the domination of employers (see Employers as Dictators, Part One)?
The police, whether armed or not, have the legal right to use force–they have a monopoly of this force. Mr. Rosenfeld assumes that the call for abolishing such a monopoly is absurd. That, however, is what a socialist society would involve–a return of the power of doing things to people in their own hands. A movement to achieve this can arise in the present and not in some distant future.
Mr. Rosenfeld denies this:
It is one thing to envision what a future socialist and decolonized society might look like in 100 years and strive to move in that direction. But to talk as if the necessary political and social conditions of such a society exist at this moment is to fly in the face of reality. And, once again, it takes the struggle to transform or democratize these institutions off the agenda.
I wonder how it would be possible to “transform and democratize” racism? Mr. Rosenfeld seems more of a defender of the police than a critic.
In any case, what kinds of alternatives to the police might arise in the present? A further post will explore this issue.
Another post will address the issue of the way in which we conceive the future and its relation to the present. Mr. Rosenfeld gives away his own social-democratic bias by referring to “what a future socialist and decolonized society might look in 100 years and strive in that direction.” The end is shifted into a distant future as something to be aimed for–in 100 years. This issue has philosophical or more general implications–and political implications as well.