Mirrors for the State

It is believed that the earliest police system was formed in France during the Middle Ages. In Police and the State: A Comparative Perspective, Wilbur Miller notes that this policing was a product of monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and came about in response to threats to the state and its social order. Miller explains that such threats were deemed as criminal activity, and the police system was designed to combat this activity through “ordinary” and “political” policing. Ordinary policing pertains to the pursuit and apprehension of criminals, and political policing refers to the surveillance of criminals and potential threats to the state. This system of policing originated in France but was later adopted and molded by countries like England and the United States.

After looking at Miller’s review of policing in these countries it becomes clear that these systems are shaped by and mirror their respective countries. As P.J. Stead said, “Nations carve their police system in their own likeness,” and evidently, that likeness is based off of the institutional architecture, values concerning law enforcement, political desires, culture, and history of the country. For this reason, France, England, and the United States established unique forms of policing, although the major functions of the police remained the same.

The French police had the interests of its government at heart. They were highly centralized, and the government relied largely on political policing: surveillance and regulation of its people. The French police aimed to be constantly informed of the activities of their citizens and were aided by the detective branch. Although some Frenchmen viewed the cops as tools of tyranny, they conceded the importance of their investigative efforts after seeing revolutions and abortive revolutions take place in their country.

Rather than serve primarily in the interest of the state, the British police acted as agents of the legal system, and thus even the heads of state were supposed to be subject to apprehension by the police. In addition to the rule of law, personal liberty and privacy was highly valued amongst the British, so political policing was kept to a minimum initially. London police became the model for civilian urban policing and were praised for generally being impartial and effective with little violence.

In the United States, the police became agents of the local community rather than the law. They served in the interest of their community and were appointed by local elected officials.  In contrast to the British, American police were not tied to a centralized government, were poorly trained in legal norms, and were even more reluctant to engage in practices that would infringe on citizens’ liberties. And American police were shaped by the state’s desires to maintain order among the working and poorer classes: Sidney Harring said they were used for repressive “class control”, while Eric Monkkonen saw it as “class management”.

In essence, Miller’s review argues that police systems were created to combat criminal activity, and that over time, they have been shaped as extensions of their respective states. So yes, the police are protectors of their area, but at their core, they are mirrors for the values, politics, and history of their nations. This idea of police as mirrors leads me to ponder our current system and the countless police brutality cases against people of color that plague this country. Do these many cases reflect coincidental instances that appear to be racially charged, or do they reflect institutionalized racism ingrained deeply in the state’s history? I would take a page from Miller’s book and argue the latter. And naturally then comes the question, how do we change what the mirror reflects?

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