Crime and community policing
ireland / britain |
crime prison and punishment |
Thursday March 03, 2005 22:13 by Gregor Kerr - WSM
The term 'community policing' has been much abused in recent times, most particularly in the North of Ireland where it has become shorthand for vicious punishment beatings and shootings. The question of what levels of real community policing would actually be possible or allowed under capitalism is looked at, and the debate about crime, anti-social behaviour and reactions to it in an anarchist society is touched on.
The term 'community policing' has been much abused in recent times, most particularly in the North of Ireland where it has become shorthand for vicious punishment beatings and shootings. Gregor Kerr takes a look at the issue of community policing - what it is and more importantly what it isn't. The question of what levels of real community policing would actually be possible or allowed under capitalism is looked at, and the debate about crime, anti-social behaviour and reactions to it in an anarchist society is touched on.
Crime, punishment & community policing
".....the man who is called 'criminal' is simply
unfortunate;....the remedy is not to flog him, to chain him up, or to
kill him on the scaffold or in prison, but to help him by the most
brotherly care, by treatment based on equality........" 
The issue of crime and anti-social behaviour and society's
responses to it is possibly one of the most pressing issues facing
many people - especially those in working class communities. While it
is true to say that the mainstream media and some politicians often -
for reasons of sensationalism and for their own political ends -
over-hype the "crime problem", it is also a fact that in many of the
poorer and more deprived housing estates in urban areas North and
South many people do live in something near a state of siege .
Housebreaking, vandalism, joyriding, alcohol and drug abuse and even
physical attacks (including muggings, rape and stabbings) are far too
often a regular feature of life in many areas.
In this context, the implementation of the 'Good Friday Agreement'
in the 6-Counties has seen the issue of policing become one of the
most contentious areas of disagreement between the political parties.
Long hours of negotiation have taken place in an attempt to establish
a police force which will be 'acceptable to both communities'. While
there is no doubt whatsoever that the RUC is a totally discredited
(something which will hardly be changed by changing its name!) and
sectarian police force and while the issues of the continued use of
plastic bullets and the failure to face up to past human rights
abuses are important, surely the debate about its replacement should
have involved more than what symbols would be worn on the caps of the
new police force and what flags would fly over their barracks.
The real issues have, in effect, been ignored by the mainstream
players - by the politicians and commentators who have been setting
the agenda. Interestingly, some of those on the fringes of the debate
have actually put forward a somewhat deeper analysis. Speaking in a
personal capacity at the 'Voice of the Lark' discussion forum in
Conway Mill, Belfast on April 3rd 2001, Billy Mitchell of the
Progressive Unionist Party (political wing of the Ulster Volunteer
"A new and effective policing service will only be
achieved through a new and effective philosophy on policing....that
rejects the traditional model of 'justice' that is rooted and
grounded in retribution.... An effective philosophy on policing must
include an effective philosophy on justice....So long as justice is
regarded as 'just desserts' rather than 'just relationships' no
amount of tinkering with the police service will serve the interests
Unfortunately, considered opinions such as these are few and far
between in the context of the Northern debate on policing. And what
has been happening on the ground in working class communities is not
alone worrying but frightening. In the name of 'community policing' -
and under the cover of there not being a police force 'acceptable to
both communities' - the number of punishment beatings and shootings
has continued to increase. Figures quoted by the "Irish Times"
earlier this year claimed a 40% increase in punishment shootings and
a 30% increase in beatings in the North over the first five months of
What this means in reality is that from January 1st to May 20th
2001, 144 people - an average of approximately one person per day -
were either beaten or shot for 'anti-social behaviour'. Even more
frighteningly, more recent figures show that a growing number of
those so targetted - by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries -
are teenagers. A report prepared by Professor Liam Kennedy of Queen's
University Belfast and published in August 2001 claims that
between 1990 and 2000, 372 teenagers were beaten and 207 shot by
paramilitaries in so-called punishment attacks. The youngest victim
of a punishment shooting was 13 years old while three other children
under 14 were assaulted.
So while Billy Mitchell's comments on policing as quoted above are
welcome, it is unfortunate that those to whom he is close politically
don't appear to be listening. Instead of developing an 'effective
philosophy on justice', his political comrades are setting themselves
up as judge, jury and executioner and doling out their own brand of
'justice' to members of their communities who they deem to be guilty
of anti-social behaviour.
Likewise we have to listen to the pathetic justifications of
politicians such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. While both of
them have in recent months said that punishment attacks 'don't work'
and are 'counter productive', Adams has been quoted as describing
"the community responding in exasperation to the
fact that there are elements who disregard any sort of acceptable
norm and who simply prey upon other members of the community"
Furthermore Adams has expressed his worry that his party would
lose votes if they weren't seen to be doing enough to combat
anti-social behaviour. Yet we don't see or hear from him or his
colleagues any considered analysis of the causes or reasons for
anti-social behaviour, but instead see a tacit - and indeed direct -
acceptance of the authoritarian behaviour of the paramilitaries.
A deafening silence
The silence of the Irish left in general on this issue is
deafening. If the RUC or the Gardai were systematically beating up
working class kids, there would be an outcry from the left and from
liberal and civil rights' groups. If the government - either North or
South - were to introduce legislation allowing for kneecapping or the
breaking of elbows as the sanction for stealing a car, they would
rightly be condemned and opposed every step of the way. Why then do
so many stand by and refuse to condemn loudly and vociferously people
who call themselves socialists and yet have effectively introduced
such laws in what they see as 'their' communities? And let there be
no doubt about it, part of the agenda at play here - maybe even the
greater part - is the marking out of territory as belonging to either
the orange or green bullyboys.
To call such behaviour 'community policing' is a complete
misnomer. 'Community policing' implies - in fact demands - that there
be fair, open and democratic procedures which would involve the
community putting in place a system of fair public trials where
evidence would be given and the defendant/accused person would be
given the chance to defend him/herself. A most important element of
this would be that suspects would be tried by properly elected
representatives of the community - not by self-appointed
'representatives'. A system of 'community policing' would also surely
involve the putting in place of procedures which would aim more at
ensuring that someone guilty of anti-social behaviour would make
reparations of some sort to the community or to the victim of his/her
crime. Surely punishment is less important than rehabilitation and
Obviously a system of community policing would involve something a
little more developed than this, but the above paragraph gives an
outline which shows just how far we currently are from such an ideal
. The question which then arises is whether or not it is possible to
put in place a proper fair and democratic system of community
policing without fundamentally altering the class nature of society.
Indeed, before this question can even be properly answered, it leads
us to ask what is crime and what are the true causes of crime?
The Governor of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, John Lonergan, has
pointed out on more than one occasion that the people sentenced to
his prison come overwhelmingly from a few areas of social
deprivation. Most recently, speaking at the Patrick McGill Summer
School in Co. Donegal on the theme of Drugs and Alcohol in Irish
society, Mr. Lonergan quoted the results of research carried out in
Mountjoy which found that 75 percent of Dublin prisoners came from
six clearly identifiable areas, or - as he described them -
"pockets of disadvantage....infested with heroin". The
percentage of prisoners who had a heroin addiction history, he
pointed out, had grown from 31 percent in 1986 to 67 percent in 1996.
He went on in the same speech to point out that heroin addiction is a
"social class addiction" and that as a society we continue to
develop communities where only "certain classes of people are
housed" and where the message given to these people by the
broader society is that they are "inferior".
To people who look at political issues on a class basis, what
Lonergan is saying is not radical or new. What is quite extraordinary
in terms of Irish society is that it is the governor of a prison -
and not the trade union movement or even the social democrats or the
liberals - who is making this analysis. It is yet another legacy of
the so-called 'social partnership' between the trade union movement,
government, employers and most of the 'voluntary sector' - the usual
expected 'voices of dissent' have been silenced, bought off by the
pretence of 'partnership'.
It is a reflection of the Irish 'Celtic Tiger' and the supposed
economic good times that the number of women in prison in the
26-County State rose to its highest in recent decades in April 2001.
Again the only voice to be heard questioning what was happening was
that of John Lonergan:
"At a time when people would be talking about a
whole lot of advantages and improvements in society, this is an
indication of something - that in 2001 we have a phenomenally high
number of women in prison....[the increase in numbers
is]....connected into feelings of isolation and loneliness and
being totally disconnected to mainstream society...."
Again this might not be extremely new or radical thinking, but at
least Lonergan's analysis attempts to look at the causes of crime
rather than taking the simplistic attitude of beating up offenders.
It says something that a prison governor can be described as more
liberal than people who claim to be socialists! What he is doing is
looking beyond the act of stealing a car or breaking into a house and
asking a simple question - why? This has got to be the starting point
for anyone who wants to develop a realistic and humane response to
crime and anti-social behaviour - Why do some people feel so
disconnected from society that their response is to engage in
behaviour which is damaging both to themselves and to their
neighbours? Or to return to the question as posed earlier in the
article - what are the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour?
The answer must be that the true cause of a lot of the crime in
our current society is actually poverty. This of course leads also to
the question of what is crime because it is interesting to note just
what capitalist society defines as crime and - perhaps more
importantly - just what is not defined as crime. For example, in
August 2000, a march of 1,000 building workers took place in Dublin
protesting about recent building site fatalities. Since the beginning
of that year, 13 people had died in the 26-Counties as a result of
construction industry accidents. But the deaths of building workers
do not appear to be taken seriously and fines levied on building
contractors for breaches of safety regulations amount to little more
than pocket money. Addressing the protestors, Eric Fleming, SIPTU 
branch secretary said that two-thirds of builders found guilty of
serious breaches of the safety regulations "walk away from court
with fines of £500 and £1,000........If there were as many
gardai being killed each year, or teachers or nurses, the Government
would build a special prison for the killers."
If someone pulls a knife on someone else in a drunken row it is
(rightly) called murder. If someone kills someone else as a result of
forcing them to work in unsafe conditions it isn't!
This is just one of the many contradictions thrown up in the way
society defines crime. Over the past few years the Irish political
system has seen a rash of 'tribunal-itis'. Investigations have been
carried out into fraud and corruption in the planning and political
process. Evidence has emerged of large scale fraud in the planning
process, in political funding, in the awarding of radio licences.
Huge amounts of tax evasion by the wealthy and big business (stealing
from the rest of us!!) have been exposed. Yet no one has spent a day
in jail as a result of these findings . On the other hand Cork
Corporation has jailed 6 members of the Householders Against Service
Charges Campaign for campaigning against double tax bin charges.
These are just two examples of the contradictions in definition of
what constitutes criminal behaviour. In the 1890s, the French
sociologist, Emile Durkheim wrote "What confers a criminal
character on an act is not the nature of the act but the definition
given it by society. We do not reprove certain behaviour because it
is criminal; it is criminal because we reprove it." In other
words, what society deems a crime is a crime.
Historically, many anarchists have put forward analyses of crime
and punishment, and have looked to suggest remedies both for the
current circumstances and for a future anarchist society.
"The constant refrain of the anarchist song is that
the system of government and law in modern States is often the cause
of, rather than the remedy for, disorder. Most laws in Western
democracies protect private property and economic inequality rather
than civil rights. An authoritarian society with a repressive
morality encourages the psychological disorders which lead to rape,
murder and assault. And punishment by its very nature tends to
alienate and embitter rather than reform or deter."
Over one hundred years ago, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin
suggested that crime can be divided into three categories :- property
related crime, government related crime and crimes against the
person. In putting forward this analysis he was arguing that if you
remove property and government - in other words if you base society
on freedom, socialism and democracy - you remove two of the biggest
causes of crime. It could also be argued that a large number of
crimes against the person (people injured in muggings, for example)
have their root in crimes against property.
This article does not intend to look in any more detail at the
nature of criminality. There is much which could be written about the
daylight robbery, for example, inherent in the very running of the
system - the legal robbery which takes place when large amounts of
wealth are diverted from much needed spending on health, education
etc. to give tax breaks to big business, the fact that a workers'
wages represent only a fraction of the value of his/her labour - with
the remainder siphoned off by the boss. This area would demand an
article in and of itself. Instead what I want to look at here is
whether or not it is possible to have any real form of community
policing under capitalism and what if any forms of policing would be
needed in an anarchist society.
Is it possible?
Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI) is an organisation
which has done extensive work in the area of community response to
anti-social behaviour, and has projects based in Belfast, Derry and
Armagh. According to their website
"The ultimate goal of restorative justice is not to
punish people but to reduce the incidence of socially harmful
activity, to promote victim-offender reconciliation and to help
create safer communities."
The work and research done by CRJI is very interesting in the
context of looking at the possibilities for alternative systems of
community policing. In an article in the Summer 2001 issue of "Spark"
(a magazine produced by Ogra Sinn Fein ), Paddy Molloy of CRJI
outlined the method by which it operates
"We believe that when a crime is committed, there
is a breach of a three cornered relationship, between the offender,
the victim and the community. Our aim is not to punish people but to
heal the breach and ensure that no further harm occurs."
To achieve this outcome, CRJI has put in place a clearly defined
process. When a case is referred to them (either by a victim or by
someone else), full details are recorded by a caseworker. The case is
then assigned to two workers who liaise with all concerned in an
attempt to establish the facts, as far as possible. This part of the
process helps to identify the needs of all involved and to come up
with proposals as to the type of support that may be necessary, what
type of mediation is possible etc. The process would then go on -
depending on the circumstances of the individual case - to indirect
mediation, formal mediation or victim-offender conferencing.
CRJI's mission statement "Through a process of empowerment to
build a restorative community that is tolerant, responsive and
inclusive" certainly does point to a possible way forward. The
central question remains however as to how effective such a system
can be while society continues to be organised in a hierarchical
manner. To what extent does this remain a laudable objective, or does
it have any real basis? Is the real local democracy that is necessary
for such a system to operate properly possible under capitalism?
The answer has to be that it is not. It is only if it operates as
a constituent part of the state's 'justice' system that it will be
tolerated. The facts of the matter are that the state cannot and will
not allow any parallel system of justice to operate, no state will
tolerate its monopoly on power being challenged by its citizens.
In the 1980s many working class Dublin communities were ravaged by
the effects of heroin abuse and the consequent anti-social crime,
with addicts needing hundreds of pounds a week to feed their habits
and wreaking havoc on their neighbourhoods - the poorest and most
deprived areas of the city. In response to what was a desperate
situation, communities began to fight back through Concerned Parents
Against Drugs (CPAD).
The CPAD movement initially met with huge success and very soon
had active groups throughout the city. The movement that emerged was
also initially open and democratic. Public meetings in the community
- open to everyone - would be held at which suspected dealers were
named. Those accused of dealing would be given the opportunity to
defend themselves. If found guilty, dealers would be ordered to cease
their activities or leave the area. Those who refused to comply were
forcibly evicted through community marches on their homes.
CPAD however before long came under pressure from two sources.
Firstly, the state (the cops) moved in to dismantle what they saw as
a threat to their power base. The sight of communities organising and
bypassing the official structures frightened the life out of the
powers that be, so they moved to crush the developing movement.
Secondly, the temptation to allow the 'hard men' to sort out those
who wouldn't co-operate became too great, and the movement tended to
descend into vigilantism.
Ultimately, however, the principal reason why CPAD - and other
similar anti-drug movements in the 1990s - failed was because of its
political limitations. While focussing on driving anti-social
elements out of the community, the bigger picture was missed - ie
looking at the causes of drug abuse. While focussing on marches on
the homes of small-time pushers living within the communities, the
big drug barons were left untouched. Also the focus on forcing the
state - health board and other agencies - to put facilities and
treatment for addicts in place was missed. Ultimately the CPAD
imploded - as a result of both its political limitations and the
state's crackdown on it - and within a short period of time, drug
abuse and anti-social behaviour was back to its previous levels.
This is not to say that the community activists who got involved
and attempted to rescue their communities were wrong, but to say that
in the absence of an overall political strategy which aims to change
the authoritarian nature of society, such initiatives are inevitably
doomed to failure. It is in fact difficult to envisage a situation in
which any real degree of community policing could operate under
capitalism. A system of community justice must - if it is to be
successful - involve such a level of democracy and local organisation
that - as already pointed out - the state will simply not allow it to
The absence of just such a political strategy is patently obvious
in the North, where - as stated earlier in the article - the very
phrase 'community policing' is much abused. What is currently being
witnessed on the ground in working class communities in the North is
certainly not community policing. Nor could it even be said to be
moving in that direction. The people involved in implementing what
they describe as community justice are not in the least bit
interested in looking at the causes of crime. Indeed their political
allies are in many cases sitting in government, propping up a system
which perpetuates economic inequality, thus ensuring that real
community policing can never become a reality. As long as these
people remain more interested in making friends in high places - be
that with the Dublin, London or Washington establishments - than in
challenging the basis of capitalism, we cannot move any closer to a
society in which the idea of communities being self-managed and
self-policed could become a reality.
After the revolution
So what about after the revolution? Firstly, there is no doubt but
that in a free, democratic society which meets everybody's basic
needs the vast majority of crime against property will immediately be
done away with. In a society in which everybody has his/her basic
needs met - and where indeed there will be many shared luxuries -
there will quite obviously be less occasion for crimes against
property. But there will still be those who - for whatever reason -
want to give society the two fingers. There will still be 'crimes of
passion' and there will still be people with mental illness who will
have to be removed from society for their own protection and that of
This in turn implies that there will have to be some form of
community forum to deal with these problems. This will however have
nothing in common with the current police force. Firstly, the 'laws'
which are being implemented will be decided upon in a democratic
manner. A free and democratic society will have very few 'laws' as
such as these won't be necessary. The vast majority of people - given
the opportunity to do so - are quite capable of living together in a
peaceful and neighbourly way without having laws and rules to tell
them what to do. People, for example, don't need police to tell them
to drive on the correct side of the road or to stop at red traffic
lights - common sense is enough.
Secondly, the community justice system (or whatever title will be
put on it) will itself be under democratic control. It is of course
impossible to state precisely what will happen, because the system
will be created by the people living in that society, not according
to blueprints that we draw up in advance, and may in any case vary
from time to time and from place to place. Suffice to say that - as
with all other aspects of decision making - maximum democracy will be
the hallmark of the anarchist society and thus no individual or group
will be given the power to make decisions relating to 'law
enforcement' by themselves.
Perhaps, for example, people will be elected as investigators when
specific anti-social behaviour needs to be investigated. In some
cases it will be necessary to have people with particular expertise
such as in forensics. But these people will be given no particular
positions of power as a result of this expertise - their function
will remain purely administrative.
The idea of 'prosecuting' an offender will be done away with.
Instead - where necessary - evidence will be presented before a
democratically elected community forum, weighed up in an open manner
with the 'accused' given every opportunity to question it (either
personally or through a representative of his/her own choosing -
there won't be any fancy lawyers or judges in silly wigs).
In addition, the idea of revenge or punishment will have no place
in the justice system but it will be more about restitution and
compensation for the victim. The aim will be to ensure that the
perpetrator of the 'crime' makes some form of recompense to the
victim, and that the behaviour is not repeated.
As has been said, we do not have a crystal ball and therefore
cannot predict with any certainty exactly what will happen in an
anarchist society. We do not claim to have all the answers but hope
that this article and others will lead to a discussion among
anarchists about how a future society should deal with anti-social
It is a complex area and the only thing which can be said with
certainty is that the only solution can be through freedom and
1 Peter Kropotkin, 'Law and Authority', Quoted in 'Demanding The
Impossible - A History of Anarchism' by Peter Marshall, Page 31
- 2 Ireland is of course by no means unique in this context
- 3 Text available on the web at
- 4 'Irish Times', Friday 25th May 2001
- 5 See 'Irish Times', Thursday August 23rd 2001
- 6 'Irish Times' Thursday August 23rd 2001
- 7 'Irish Times' Friday April 20th 2001
- 8 Services Industrial Professional Technical Union - Ireland's
largest trade union
- 9 quoted in 'Irish Times' Thursday August 30th 2001
- 10 One Fianna Fail TD, Liam Lawlor did serve a week of a
3-month sentence for failing to supply the Tribunal with full
details of his financial affairs.
- 11 The excuse of the Litter Act has been used. At the time of
writing 6 activists have had to serve sentences of three days.
More information at www.struggle.ws/wsm/bins.html
- 12 Peter Marshall: 'Demanding The Impossible - A History of
Anarchism' Page 648
- 13 http://www.restorativejusticeireland.org
- 14 The youth wing of Sinn Fein