How should Labour respond to “defund the police”?

By Dr Jennifer Fleetwood and Professor John Lea

Labour’s position on policing is to reverse Tory cuts, proposing that these new officers “work collaboratively with youth workers, mental health services, schools, drug rehabilitation programmes and other public agencies.” (2019 Manifesto).

Good intentions: but what does “work collaboratively” actually mean?

Meanwhile, in 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests worldwide drew attention to the scale of police violence against black people. Sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protestors in the UK marched with banners naming those black and ethnic minority people killed by police violence: Sean Rigg, Joy Gardner, Jean Charles de Menezes, Rashan Charles – the list goes on.

A key slogan of BLM was ‘defund the police’, taking money from the police and spending it on building up welfare institutions which can better deal with social problems: housing, drug treatment, education, mental health, job creation and so on.

So, there is a contrast between Labour’s vision of police “working collaboratively” with welfare agencies (welfare plus police) and BLM’s ‘defund the police’ (welfare instead of police). Both these standpoints contain valid elements but neither is adequate on its own.

On the one hand, there are problems with trying to entirely replace police with welfare agencies. Some crime will remain and if there are no police, then individuals and communities become responsible for safety. Wealthier communities may hire private security. Indeed such services are already available.

Keir Starmer dismissed ‘defund the police’ as “just nonsense” (BBC Breakfast, 29th June, 2020). He was arguably too dismissive. The BLM position contains key insights, most importantly that other (welfare) institutions are much better than police in dealing with a whole range of problems and harms and should therefore be well resourced. This, plus the fact that crime will still need to be dealt with, steers us back to Labour’s view of police “working collaboratively with” welfare agencies.

But here the problem is how to organise and enforce such collaboration. In some localities,  police forces work well with welfare agencies. Indeed, there are statutory requirements to do so in areas such as child protection or managing offenders on licence.

The problem is that police have the autonomy to work on their own in ways that can create community resentment and undermine welfare approaches. For example, police stop and search operations may undermine welfare attempts to develop a public health approach to the problem.

If the police are the lead agency then the problem – be it for example knife crime or domestic violence – comes to be defined as a problem of crime. Welfare agencies may want to define the problem differently – as mental health or family crisis, but can be over-ruled by police.

Therefore, we need some structure to enforce collaborative work between police and welfare agencies which retains flexibility in how problems are dealt with.

Minimal policing

Our perspective, minimal policing, sees the police as a legitimate force of last resort.  Rather than acting autonomously, we think police should be limited to backing up other, welfare, agencies, or responding to public requests for help. Under our proposal for minimal policing, they would lose the power to decide themselves how to deal with problems or how far to collaborate with other agencies.

 Take the example of domestic violence. Imagine that a woman experiences a physical assault from her husband. A neighbour hears a disturbance and calls the police.

At present, police are the main agency able to respond to domestic violence. As a ‘blue light’ service they can be on the scene very quickly. Police have recourse to a number of solutions including:

  • Where they consider that a crime has occurred, they can arrest her husband and hold him in police custody pending a charging decision;
  • If they can charge him, he will be released on bail (with conditions attached);
  • Issuing a Domestic Violence Prevention Order, banning the husband from having contact with his wife for up to 28 days. But, note that breaching such an order is not a criminal offence.

The police can refer a victim for medical treatment and/or to local agencies such as Women’s Aid. But, that’s about it. And, as Women’s Aid note, prosecution does not guarantee victims’ safety or protection in the long term.

Note that, at present, police intervention depends on the police having reason to believe that a crime has occurred. Shana Grice repeatedly reported her ex-boyfriend to the police for stalking. Not only did the police fail to investigate, but she was fined for wasting police time. She was killed by her partner five months after her complaints. While the officers involved have been disciplined, it reveals the problems faced by women in getting police help. Indeed, women typically suffer abuse for 2-3 years before getting help.

In our proposed solution, police would no longer be the primary resource involved in responding to interpersonal conflicts and harms. We use these terms rather than ‘crime’ recognising that there are many harms which are not crimes.

So, let’s replay the situation under minimal policing.

The husband assaults his wife and the neighbours call the police. The police respond immediately as a blue light service.

Now, however, the police’s role is to make safe the situation. They may take the husband into custody overnight to do this. But what happens next is quite different.

Rather than making a crime report, the police instead report to someone we call the ‘Controller’ – a little like the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland. The Controller determines an appropriate response, with an initial focus on violence reduction and conflict resolution. Since funding has been diverted from policing to social services (the valid element in the BLM perspective), the Controller can draw on a wide range of resources, not limited to criminal justice. This might include:

  • Forming an intervention team, involving specialist counsellors and social workers who meet regularly with the couple to support and advise;
  • Initiating a restorative justice process, mediations or counselling;
  • Arranging for alternative housing for the husband if the woman wishes;
  • Referring to programmes for drug and alcohol problems;
  • Organising counselling and support for affected children. 

Of course, if violence recurs then the police may be recalled. But they are not the main agency. Police and criminal justice institutions have a very poor track record in responding successfully to domestic violence.

Similarly with knife crime. Not the police, but the Controller – with expert advice – will decide if the issue is one of traumatised youth in need of counselling and therapy, or of an organised criminal drugs network. The police will provide information but so will other agencies who know the area and the youth involved. The whole emphasis in our minimal policing perspective has shifted over to well-funded welfare agencies which stand a much better chance of solving complex social problems.

Dr Jennifer Fleetwood is Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Goldsmiths, University of London.  Professor John Lea is Visiting Professor, Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Image: Black Lives Matter protest, Hyde park, London, Author: Katie Crampton (WMUK), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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