From the July 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
Tough law and order policies are a great vote catcher for politicians, who whip up fears among workers that crime and violence are on the increase and then use those same fears to justify increased powers for the police, the building of more prisons and more expenditure on sophisticated technology with which to control and monitor workers' lives.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act. 1984 will come into effect in January 1986 and is the product of this kind of thinking. This legislation will give the police a whole range of new powers, or rather it will legalise what has long been police practice although officially proscribed. Sir David McNee, former Metropolitan police commissioner. said when giving evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure: "Many police officers have, early in their careers, learned to use methods bordering on trickery or stealth in their investigations". Translated into plain English this means that many policemen broke the law in the course of their duties. The new police bill will mean that they can continue with their old practices but do so within the law.
The Act euphemistically refers to police road-blocks as "road-checks" and empowers the police to set up random checks for up to seven days (although this can be extended without limit) if a senior officer thinks that a serious crime has been, or is likely to be. committed in a particular area. Given that “serious crimes" are fairly routine occurrences in most towns and cities there is no reason why the police should not be able to set up road blocks on a more or less permanent basis in such areas.
During the recent miners’ strike, police road blocks were set up, not to prevent crime (although they were justified in the High Court as preventing likely breaches of the peace) but to obstruct the freedom of movement of trade unionists. They were also used to collect intelligence about strikers. their movements and activities which was undoubtedly added to the already large store of information held on the Police National Computer. There is no reason to suppose that once the police have formal powers to set up such road blocks they will be any more scrupulous in their use of them.
Stop and search
Remember the old "sus" laws that were used routinely to harass young black people in the inner cities? Those laws were repealed but under the Act the police will have new powers to stop and search people and vehicles if they have "reasonable grounds for suspicion" that a person is carrying stolen goods, house-breaking tools, offensive weapons or articles used to carry out a theft or steal a car. "Offensive weapons" may include such everyday items as umbrellas, keys, credit cards and combs. And what constitutes "reasonable grounds for suspicion"? Why, the policeman's own perception of what is reasonable! The only safeguard offered to the public is that the police are obliged to give a reason for the stop and to record it as soon as is practicable. But, if they think a person might be too stupid to understand the reason then it need not be given.
If you are young, black, unemployed or homeless then you may very well fit the policeman s stereotype of a criminal and the police will have full powers to harass you in the streets by stopping you, asking you questions, and even searching you.
Under the Act the police will be permitted to enter any premises, including people's homes, without a warrant, and using force if they have "reasonable belief" that in doing so they will find a person who has committed an arrestable offence or who is suspected of having committed a breach of the peace or any number of other offences. In addition, if the police obtain a magistrate's warrant (and they are rarely refused) they will be empowered to enter any building to look for evidence of a "serious arrestable offence".
These new powers are so sweeping that the police will now. quite lawfully, be able to go on "fishing expeditions" for evidence in anyone’s home, place of work or any other building and be able to use "reasonable force" in order to gain entry.
The police can arrest people without a warrant if they are "reasonably suspected" of having committed a "serious arrestable offence" or an "arrestable offence". The serious offence category covers not only crimes such as murder, rape, arson, and firearms and explosives offences, but also offences deemed to be threats to the security of the state or public order. It also covers any offence which involves serious financial loss to anyone. This includes all sorts of petty thefts since serious financial loss is defined as "serious for the person who suffers it". If the police suspect you of having committed any such serious offence they can detain you at a police station for up to four days subject to a magistrate's review.
If a policeman suspects that any offence has been committed, no matter how trivial, then a person may be arrested without warrant if certain conditions apply: if the person does not give the police their name and address, or if the police believe that the details given are false; if it is believed that the person might harm themselves or someone else, damage property, obstruct the highway or cause an affront to public decency. If you are arrested under these circumstances the police can hold you at a police station without charge for up to 24 hours.
After 24 hours the arrested person must either be charged or released. If, however, a person has been arrested for a "serious offence" then they must be brought before a magistrate after 24 hours and only at this point will they be able to talk to a lawyer. The magistrate only has to be satisfied that the person is suspected of a "serious offence", that it is necessary that they be detained in order to secure or preserve evidence and that the investigation is being carried out diligently and swiftly, for the police to be allowed to detain a suspect for a further period of up to four days.
Research into the effects of detention in police custody, including that carried out by the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. shows that after a very short time most people, kept in isolation in a police cell and subjected to interrogation (not to mention the threats and physical and verbal abuse which frequently occur), are unable to keep silent regardless of their guilt or innocence. For this reason the Royal Commission concluded that no confession made by a person in this way could ever be regarded as purely "voluntary". And yet such confessions and other evidence obtained in a similar manner will be admissible in court. Is this really so far removed from the "confessions" that are extracted from dissidents by the totalitarian regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe, whose abuses are so regularly deplored by the so-called liberal regimes of the West?
The Act also empowers the police to carry out body searches, including strip searches by a constable of the same sex as the suspected person. "Intimate" body searches will also be permitted, again by force if necessary, despite objections by the British Medical Association that there was a risk of injury. Fingerprints may also be forcibly taken from a detained person if a criminal offence is suspected.
All these measures are justified by the claim that the police need new powers to deal with the rising tide of crime and uphold the rule of law. There is an underlying assumption that given the right laws and a strong police force, together with the appropriate (tough) sanctions, crime can be eradicated or at least reduced to a minimum.
This analysis totally fails to look at the kinds of crime most widely committed and the motives behind them.
Despite the popular impression gained from the media and politicians most crime is not violent but rather consists of minor property offences. Criminals are much more likely to be shop-lifters than murderers or rapists. Such crimes must be seen in the context of a society which defends the acquisition of property so long as people play the game according to the rules. So, for example, it is quite lawful for the capitalist class systematically to rob the working class of the fruits of its labour through the form of exploitation called employment. Indeed, the greater the wealth that can be extracted from the workers the greater the praise and rewards. But if workers break the rules and try to grab a small slice of the cake by helping themselves from shops or banks, then they will feel the full force of the state against them.
A good example of the way in which workers are criminalised in this way occurred during the miners' strike. Many strikers were attempting to heat their homes using coal "picked" (at great personal risk) from slag heaps. This low quality coal had been mined by them and was of little use to the Coal Board, and yet many miners were prosecuted and charged with the theft of Coal Board property. To add further insult to injury a number of miners convicted of this type of "theft" were then sacked.
Besides the institution of private property itself, one cannot ignore the kinds of anti-social behaviour which capitalism induces through the ethic which places personal gain above that of the community. Is it any wonder that the ruthless and competitive quest for personal wealth is carried over to other areas of life?
Capitalism needs a police force to protect its central institution of private property and look after the interests of the owning class in a more general sense, for example to suppress certain kinds of dissent, justified on the grounds that certain acts constitute a threat to Public Order or National Security. (The recently published Government White Paper on Public Order Law represents a move in the direction of much tighter controls on the freedom of assembly.) The liberal values of impartial justice and the rule of law are mere rhetoric when governments, acting on behalf of the capitalist class, can constantly increase police powers to harass and control workers' lives still further. The "civil rights" of the working class, at best only tenuous, look set to suffer still further erosion.
What is needed is not to make the police more accountable, or to fight this particular piece of legislation or that police practice, but to challenge the whole basis of a society which gives rise to crime and the need for prisons and police forces.