Democratizing the Police in Europe

Discussion Paper

The discussion paper “Democratizing the Police in Europe” – with a particular emphasis on Greece –, has been comissioned in the frame of the transform! Left Strategy project in cooperation with Nicos Poulantzas Institute and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. It deals with the varieties of police organizational models, the relations of police and democracy in times of crisis, and explores possible left responses in the organizing of police. Download the publication here for free.


Executive summary

Over the past 20 years the aggressive reassertion of neoliberalism, the renewal and expansion of repressive state capacities and the effort of the establishment to contain growing popular unrest in the wake of the current financial crisis has resulted in an inevitable escalation of conflict between the Left and policing organizations throughout Europe. These developments raise serious questions about the evolving nature, direction and intensification of police coercion. The current conjuncture has also produced the very real possibility of electoral majorities by progressive Left parties on the heels of wider popular mobilizations.  This necessitates reflection on the possibility of progressive police reform as part of a strategy of the Left, whether in opposition or in government.

What complicates this task is that, despite considerable advances in Leftist and Marxist state theory, the police remain the least theorized and understood state institution among the Left. Undoubtedly, the practical experience of the police role in political struggles has forced the Left into a reactive and instrumentalist theoretical stance according to which the police merely dispense coercion on behalf of the ruling class and must therefore be challenged unambiguously on every possible occasion.  The grave political implications of this stance are not limited to a self-perpetuating a state of mutual suspicion and hostility, but they also compromise the Left’s ability to address consistently and persuasively questions of policing, law and order. In short, this stance stifles the Left’s ability to build a dialogue about the future and proffer a vision of a post-capitalist policing system that is safer and more democratic.

Various political audiences that are potentially open to the political message of the Left and are key to its electoral success are unwilling to endorse a negative view of the police role that offers no vision of order and public safety. Working-class citizens rely on the police for the performance of critical peacekeeping functions in everyday life. The irony is that the Left, by being confined to a form of permanent opposition against the practices of the really existing police end up reifying and reinforcing paramilitarised police bureaucracies and missing the connection between the bourgeois notion of police science in capitalist society that subtends the entire global economic system. We argue that the Left should interrogate and seek to replace this bourgeois understanding of police in a democratic transition to socialism.  In fact, we would argue that the Left ought to make public safety the centre of their strategy to wrest the police mechanism from the effective control of the interests of the capitalist class.

‘Police science’ as a broad vision of social order had been a key preoccupation of bourgeois intellectuals throughout the period of the emergence of capitalist social relations.  So much so, that we can say that it ought to be considered the foundational science of capitalism parallel in significance and meaning to political economy. The issue for such intellectuals as William Petty, Nicolas Delamare, Patrick Colqhoun or even Adam Smith was, from the beginning, how to forge a social order conducive to capitalist economic growth and the pacification of the newly disenfranchised and increasingly unruly subordinate populations during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. ‘Police’ in this sense had been a much wider concept, at once applying to collective welfare, an ordered political body and the forging of a productive labour force.

In short, early and classical bourgeois thought developed a police science intended to support a process of pacification within the contours of capitalist social organization. Even though the concept of police was subsequently narrowed down to denote a particular type of bureaucracy, the broader projects of fabricating a social order conducive to capitalist production and consumption still underpin the dominant discourse on security. ‘Security’ today is hegemonic precisely because it encompasses visions and strategies pertaining to the reproduction of capitalist social relations in their entirety. In the same way that bourgeois police science once fabricated a new order for the transition to capitalism, the challenge for the Left is to build a new understanding of security that represents nothing less than a police system that facilitates a transition to a new democratic social and economic order—to think through a socialist police science.

As in all complex organizations, dissent and political ruptures are present within police organizations. In the present context of austerity, fiscal constraints and privatisation an opportunity exists to undercut the historic alliance between the police and the Right, in so far as neoliberalism systematically undermines the very notion of public good which the police are employed and sworn to uphold. A prerequisite for the successful pursuit of this opportunity is to acknowledge police labour and develop strategies and policies empowering the police as worker: a successful strategy for the progressive reform of the police does not merely consist on besieging the police mechanism from outside by introducing elements of democratic oversight and control, but also to democratize the division of labour and the systems of work within the police organization.  The same applies par excellence to corporate security where, we suggest, the most precarious and alienated forms of policing labour exist today.

While we emphasize that Left strategies for policing reform will depend on the particular characteristics of the national context in each case, we propose six general tenets encompassing the prioritisation of security as public good, of social fairness, integrity and democratic control. A Left strategy for police reform should seek to:

1. Reframe public safety: the police today have an extremely wide mandate that encompasses a variety of tasks ranging from everyday peacekeeping to crime control and state security. Nevertheless, the bulk of police services depend heavily on front-line personnel and pertain to upholding the conditions of peaceful social coexistence without recourse to the use of force. At the strategic policy level, the Left must seek to instil in the police mandate the prioritization of public safety above all else – understood as a preoccupation with the minimisation of harmful outcomes in everyday life. This may entail both an intensification of police activity in certain areas of social life, and, importantly a contraction or complete withdrawal from others.

2. Redefine the police professional: the Left must pursue a break with established notions of police professionalism which have given rise to the dominant model of police organisation characterised by militarism and bureaucratism. It must force a re-envisaging of the police service bringing the qualities and abilities of police personnel at the forefront and encourage organizational designs and systems of delivery that promote social awareness, expertise, initiative and sound decision- making among police personnel. These should be supported by the development of professional knowledge and standards pertinent to community needs, and by systems of initial and career-long learning and training conforming to and nurturing such knowledge and standards.

3. Establish a dense network of external controls: a Left strategy for police reform must actively seek to establish a decentralized system of citizen consultation, oversight and control that will complement the system of legislative and judiciary controls that typically exists under conditions of liberal democracy and which will aim to enhance local responsiveness and accountability of the police. Such a system can involve the establishment of elected police boards at national and local levels. Internal police procedures should also be integrated with this system of external controls so as to offer a higher degree of protection and autonomy to individual police officers.

4. Implement democratic restructuring: democratic restructuring of the police organization should generally follow the principles of geographical and administrative decentralization. It should involve a reallocation of police resources towards front-line units responding to community needs and priorities, as well as a strengthening of the ability of front-line personnel to take initiative and formulate effective responses in consultation with communities.

5. Facilitate citizen participation: in line with the previous tenet, a Left strategy for police reform should actively explore ways to strengthen and generalize citizen participation in police decision making, and even operations. These participatory structures could involve the introduction of local meetings between police, citizens and other organizations during which formal decisions about local policing priorities should be made and subsequently reviewed. A further step may involve the introduction of part-time and auxiliary personnel which will be recruited from the local citizenry and will be integrated with police operational units as much as feasible; and,

6. Engage directly with private policing: the Left must acknowledge that even an extensive restructuring and reallocation of public police resources, this may not immediately eliminate a reliance on private security, which is an important and perhaps irreversible characteristic of contemporary policing. The Left should pursue the introduction of a regulatory regime that renders the functions of private security compatible with the principles and priorities of the public police system as they emerge from the preceding tenets—in this respect, there exists a considerable margin for intervention in the structure of private security organizations, encouraging more democratic forms of ownership such as worker-owned security cooperatives, division of labour and accountability.

In the particular case of Greece, a Left strategy for police reform must take into account certain characteristics emanating from the historical development of Hellenic policing in that country.  The police in Greece exhibit the traits of a ‘continental’, state-controlled, militarised police bureaucracy (a brief survey of different police models can be found in the Appendix), but these have been relatively hardened due to the close affiliation of the police with the political right and the explicit political role the regimes of the Right in their various manifestations (monarchy, cold war hard-line conservativism or dictatorship) have assigned to the police historically. As a result, acute militarism and bureaucratism have adversely impacted the quality of police service and the relations between the police and the public.  The weight of this institutional history continues to encumber progressive reform efforts as they tend to permeate the organization, deployment, methods and attitudes of the police.

In the present conjuncture, the rising influence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party among the Hellenic Police (as evidenced by the voting behaviour of police and instances of practical cooperation between police and Golden Dawn activists) can be best understood as a consequence of these historically-rooted characteristics of the police apparatus in Greece.

It follows that a progressive police reform strategy in Greece not only must be more gradualist and carefully formulated, so as to nurture the development of alliances between the political Left and strategic segments within the Hellenic Police, but also in some important respects it must strive to achieve goals that in other advanced liberal democracies are already taken for granted. With the prospect of a government of the Left in mind, we propose a number of steps that could initiate this process. The reform programme should aim to:

  • Establish a research and strategic unit guided by a team of experts, with extensive powers to collect, audit, report and share data on police activity and to monitor and evaluate police practice;
  • Create a comprehensive and multi-tiered personnel system and database with a view to establishing a system of regular professional development planning and review:
  • Establish an updated system of regular mandatory retraining as a distinct component of police academy training;
  • Establish an independent National Police Board and bring the Hellenic Police under its immediate control;
  • Commission a study for the restructuring and decentralisation of the Hellenic Police, in combination with a wide process of public consultation;
  • Remove all paramilitary police units from regular service in everyday policing;
  • Revise, harmonise and codify all existing primary and secondary legislation governing police powers;
  •  Review and revise the system of incentives and rewards applying to serving police personnel and relate it to the outcomes of their professional development planning; and,
  • Revise and codify all legislation regarding private security, in accordance with the regulatory principles explained above).