What is an institution? It’s more than just a building or a name or a person. An institution is a “body”.
We talk about government bodies or educational bodies. We talk about institutional “bodies” because institutions are sets of relations that both think and act. They are not just one thing. An institution is, in this sense, an established practice or way of doing things more than it is anything as physical and inert as bricks and mortar.
When we talk about the Metropolitan Police Service as being “institutionally racist”, this is what we mean. The Met thinks and acts in racist ways. It is also often sexist and classist. Why? Isn’t its very purpose to be just, to maintain law and order? Yes, but for whom? We can look in almost any corner of the law and see how it disproportionately affects or mistreats one demographic of people over another — poor over rich, women over men, black over white.
We already know this. Of course we do. We see how the police act and how they think, and it disgusts many of us. There have been mass protests over these issues, and with increasing frequency, for years now. We already understand the police as an institution — how it thinks.
Cressida Dick, however, thinks we do not.
When discussing the jobs that her officers undertake, in light of considerable recent criticism, Dick explained: “They have to make these really difficult calls and I don’t think anybody should be sitting back in an armchair and saying, ‘Well, that was done badly’ or ‘I would’ve done it differently’ without actually understanding what was going through their minds.”
But the very point of recent protests — whether for Black Lives Matter or, as was the case this past weekend, for those women mourning the murder of Sarah Everend — is that we do understand what is going through their minds. That is precisely the problem at hand. When we say the Met or the government or the media is institutionally racist or sexist or classist or transphobic, it is because we know exactly how they think.
My friend Natasha Eves was at the protest in Parliament Square last night. She sent over these pictures of the police choosing to better protect a statue of Winston Churchill — which no one present remotely gave a shit about — than the women of Clapham Common from the night before. This morning, we have seen that the thought process behind such a decision is being newly emboldened in law.
We see in very precise ways how the police think, where their priorities lie, and what influences them. We see how tactics and enforcement strategies brutalised and dehumanise, to the point that property is more worthy of respect than human life. We see how police officers are taught to think, if not by their handbooks then by the very culture they are immersed in. We watch very carefully and see what goes through their minds. It is what goes through their minds that is precisely the problem.
Then again, maybe Dick has a point. But is that any better? There is nothing more terrifying than an unpredictable copper. When a population doesn’t understand the way its police force thinks, then we have another problem. How is any institution supposed to be held to account, or maintain good relations with the public it serves, if that public does not understand how it operates? The actions of the police are frequently met with disbelief in this regard, but only because their thought processes are counter to any humane way of working. Either way, something has got to change. But what? And how?
When we talk about reforming the police, we are essentially suggesting that we should change how the police think. But how do you do that? How do you change learned behaviour at an institutional level? Do we give the police force mass CBT? Do we sit them down and have a chat? Make our case and appeal to their better nature? I’m not sure it works like that.
What do the police do when they want to reform the actions of the people they serve? Are we supposed to follow their example? Do we fine them and send them on a Police Awareness Course? Do we instead punish the police the ways they punish us? Punished police officers are treated as failed police officers. Individuals are denounced. The institution as a whole remains a problem.
This is because the police force is not an institution that understands reform. The law in this country is punitative at every level. How are we expected to reform an institution that generally doesn’t believe in reform for the rest of society? Little is done to address reoffending rates in the population. Why should we expect more from the institution that enforces punishment on those same people? We can expect adequate police reform when they provide adequate criminal reform. Which comes first?
In lieu of a stalemate, abolish the police. We know how they think. How they think is the problem. We need something new that thinks differently.