Role of police in society

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The police, along with the military, represents the coercive (forceful) arm of the state.

In ‘Australia’ the police are said to be “operationally independent” of the government. This means that although the government controls the police budget, how the police go about their duties is decided by legislation and the Chief Commissioner of Police (see Police and government: histories of policing in Australia, Finnane 1994: 31-38).

The separation of powers between the police and government is considered an important tenet of liberal democracy. It is supposed to ensure that the police are not used in a partisan political way to harass and punish political opponents and dissidents.

There is also a separation of roles and powers between the courts and the police. It is the police’s role to bring suspected offenders before the courts and the courts’ role to decide on innocence or guilt and punishment.

It is difficult to know for sure how separate the police actually are from the government and how much or how little control the government has over their operational decisions. Given that the government controls the police budget and employs those at the top of the hierarchy, it is relatively safe to assume a level of influence exists.

The police have various roles. Officially, the core functions of the police include:

  • enforcing the law,
  • keeping the peace,
  • protecting property, and
  • protecting life.

In carrying out these functions the police have a broad discretion. How police discretion is used and how the various police roles are prioritised will have an impact on the policing of political protests.

For example, strict adherence to enforcing the law at a protest might involve mass arrests for minor offences.

Such mass arrests will inevitably impact on police resources and might undermine capacity to do other police work that day.

Mass arrests can also be seen as provocative by an otherwise peaceful crowd, escalate conflict and lead to breaches of the peace that might threaten life and property.

A hard or uncompromising police attitude to protests prioritises enforcing the law – regardless of the consequences. A more accommodating attitude to protests generally prioritises keeping the peace.

When keeping the peace is prioritised at a protest, police will generally only make arrests  where the offences:

  • are more serious, or
  • risk damage to property, or
  • threaten someone’s safety. 

In democratic states, policing should:

  • comply with the law,
  • be accountable, and
  • respect human rights.

Australia does not have a “bill of rights” but the right to protest is set out in

  • the Australian Constitution,
  • the Victorian Charter of Human Rights, and
  • the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights.

The right to protest is also recognised as an important part of Australia’s social traditions and is also recognised in the ACT Human Rights Act.

The power of police and their mandate to use force against citizens is justified under the social contract vision of society. This theory views the police use of force as necessary to maintain order and maximise collective good by maintaining a safe and workable society. Under social contract theory citizens are understood to voluntarily surrender some of their power and rights and delegate them to the state and to the police force. The police are seen as a politically neutral force that uses its powers to enforce the laws within the confines of a defined set of rules.

The social contract theory of policing informs mainstream views of policing, which see police as a protective force against crime and social disorder. Given the widespread belief in the social contract theory of police and the partisan nature of media reporting, the general public is often uncritically supportive of police behaviour even where such behaviour involves high levels of force and coercion. Police violence against protesters will often be seen as legitimate even where it goes beyond the bounds of reasonable force.

As mentioned above, however, there are many examples of repressive policing of protests both in Australia and other western countries which suggest that the social contract theory is not adequate in explaining the nature of the police role in relation to political protests.

The policing of political protests is one of the most political and controversial aspects of the police role. The approach that police take to a particular protest or protest movement is likely to have a profound impact on the way the activists and the cause they represent are publicly perceived as well as the practical outcomes of the protest and the welfare of individuals involved.

One of the fundamental differences between liberal democracies and more totalitarian societies is that liberal democracies are more tolerant of dissent and protests. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, treat all dissent and protest as criminal. In totalitarian or authoritarian states the police display a consistently repressive and frequently violent approach towards dissent and protests.

In Australia the police attitude towards activists and dissent has varied markedly over time and between different protest movements and protest events. Protests regularly take place with little or no tension between police and activists. On these occasions there is likely to be liaison, communication and negotiation between police and protest organisers and police may assist in facilitating the protest by, for example, managing traffic along the route of a march.

However, there are many examples both throughout history and in contemporary times of police behaving in a repressive and violent manner towards protesters (Barry 1987; McCulloch 2001: Ch 2 McCulloch, J Lawson 2000; Finnane 1994: 52-59).

It is important for activists to understand the role of the police in relation to political protests and the type of factors that influence the response of police to particular protests and protest movements. This section describes the various functions of police in society and how these relate to the policing of political protest. It also sets out two competing perspectives on the role of police in society and how these perspectives assist in illuminating the history of policing and understanding contemporary trends in policing.

One perspective considers police as basically a politically neutral force that acts primarily to enforce the law and protect the public. The other more radical perspective considers police as a repressive force that is instrumental in the maintenance of an unjust social system. This section also sets out to explain the type of tactics police have used when policing protests and to analyse the type of factors that influence the police response to protests.

A radical analysis of the police role posits that police are primarily utilised by the government, and powerful interests, to suppress dissent, stifle protest and to help maintain the status quo (Scraton 1985; McCulloch 2001: Chp 2).

Within this framework the state is not seen as neutral or above the different powerful sectional interest groups, such as corporations, military, and business leaders. Instead the state is seen to function to preserve, maintain and extend the powers of the dominant groups in society to protect the interests of the powerful over and above those of the less powerful. Within this the police act as one of the more important institutions of social control.

The grassroots protest movements of the 1960s and the 1970s in Australia, the United States and Europe led to confrontations between the newly mobilised middle classes of western society and the police. These clashes, during the anti Vietnam war demonstrations, anti nuclear or anti uranium mining, Aboriginal land and women’s’ rights actions, prompted an unprecedented questioning of the role of police in society and demands for higher levels of police accountability that continue today (Goldsmith & Lewis 2000).

Whatever framework you bring to the understanding of the role of police in society there is no doubt that they are a powerful force. The police enjoy a high level of public legitimacy and along with the military have a virtual monopoly on legitimate force combined with an array of weapons and tactics that provide the potential for coercion and repression.

Police will inevitably be present at protests. To maximise the effectiveness of protest and avoid the negative consequences of repressive policing we need to understand the tactics that police commonly use and the factors that influence the type of police tactics and attitudes.

For more information about police powers and your rights see:

For more information about police accountability see:

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Role of police in society

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