The police fulfil an incredibly complex role within society. While, on the face of it, their role is to do things like uphold law and order, investigate crimes and look authoritative, I believe they hold a far more important role in society than just this. Defining a state as an organisation which holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given area, it is more or less self-evident that the police, along with several other institutions, are that force. They are the physical means through which the power of the state is exercised.
We are often told that expecting police officers to face trial when they kill people is too much, that it will stop them from performing their jobs properly. The idea is that, if a police officer is worried about the consequences of pulling a trigger, they might not pull it when they should. I am personally of the opinion that they should very rarely be pulling triggers, and that this is no bad thing. There are far better ways of resolving situations than a bullet in a chamber, and I believe that the mere fact of having a gun to hand and not having to worry much about its usage by itself encourages unnecessary usage of that gun – why go through the hassle of negotiating with people and calming a situation down when you can just pull a piece on someone?
Certainly, I would be very worried if police in the UK were to get more guns. It should inconvenience the officer in question if they pull out a gun. It’s an ugly thing to do, to threaten someone with death or serious injury if they don’t comply with your actions, and this is what controlling a situation with a gun entails. However, overall I believe that the narrative that states that officers will be unable to do their jobs properly if they are afraid of prosecution misunderstands the true role of the police within society.
As I argued earlier, the police are the physical means through which the power of the state is exercised. This means that they are, when on duty, representatives of the state. In a democratic system in which the state is ostensibly controlled by society, this means that they become, in a sense, representatives of society at large. They derive their power from the state, which derives it from society. In practice, this means that their abuses are not just their own, but the state’s and society’s. When we give officers their badges, their cars, and their truncheons we give them the authority to do what they do, and thus we take on the responsibility for what they do.
When looking at the police from this angle, I therefore believe that part of a police officer’s job is to face trial and be accountable for their actions. Part of their job is to allow their actions, as those actions are carried out on behalf of society at large, to be judged be society at large. Only by policing the actions of the police can the abuses of individuals be disowned by the state, and only by disowning those abuses and disciplining the abusers can the state retain any right to rule over those oppressed by the police. This is not merely a process which is external to (and hinders the proper functioning of) the police. Submitting to justice and being accountable is not something that stops them from doing their job properly, it is a crucial part of their job.