Tensions have been building, not only this past year as a result of differing opinions on the legality and necessity of certain coronavirus restrictions, but for several decades with the slow expansion of powers of, and changing public opinion, on law enforcement. Using the example of how police as an institution struggles for legitimacy mainly as a result of their own misdeeds, argued below is the increased likelihood of a larger volume of protests that are yet to come. Of course, opposition to the police is by no means an exhaustive reason for street action, but it is one that has been recurring, the past year especially.

Struggle for legitimacy

It is hard to reject the idea that the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill of 2021, has the capacity to be hijacked for malicious purposes to control opposition and set a dangerous precedent on the exercise of power by law enforcement in regards to expression of one’s views. Moreover, highlighting the issue of police custody deaths, disproportionate responses to the events at a vigil for Sarah Everard in London, or falsifying officers’ injuries sustained in Bristol following protests against the abovementioned Bill further undermines law enforcement’s legitimacy and duty of service. Without substantial police reform, or, at least, changes to police accountability mechanisms, codes of conduct, and vetting, people’s discontent will deepen as disproportionality will increase.

The situation is much worse in the United States where this year alone, over 200 people were fatally shot by law enforcement. The heated debate on officer’s training, monopoly and necessity is one exacerbated even further by the perpetrator of George Floyd’s death being found guilty on all charges. Many have suggested partly replacing the police force with holistic and community-based approaches to serious violence which begs the question whether the police force have lost their monopoly on crime prevention as well as law enforcement beyond a level it can successfully be up kept. 

Not as bleak in comparison, but a crisis of law enforcement in Poland is rife. Where the longstanding role of the police mainly revolved around crime prevention and investigation, for the past several months, much of the work revolved around enforcing coronavirus restrictions. Though this has been the responsibility of mainly lower ranked officers, it is based on interactions with them how the public forms opinions on law enforcement. Enforcing often nonsensical rules, not only this past year, but for much longer such as the prohibition of crossing the road in non-designated places, suggests to the public that police either do not exercise their agency, or do not possess it. If it is the former, the public will think they have a moral superiority to the officers due to exercising agency and not agreeing to something contrary to their beliefs. Whereas if the latter is the case, legitimacy is still lost as law enforcement is dependent on discretion and if one has no agency, they cannot exercise discretion.

Collective minds

One does not have to look far to see the levels of engagement various movements have and the way they spread. Aside from the ‘Women’s Strike’ which is a topic to discuss on its own, the most notable example of a recent widespread movement in Poland is that of entrepreneurs and business owners. For years smaller groups lobbied for laws making business ownership easier and more straightforward. However, it was only when the possibility of profitability decreased, did the movement spread and more concrete action was taken. The point to take here is that, given the correct conditions and motivations, people will take action even if a specific issue did not impede their self-interest.

Another important point to make here is the role of collective outrage, not only in communities, but societies as a whole and its role in the efficacy of crime. When an undesired event takes place that either affects directly, or outrages most of a country’s citizens, there is bound to be a reaction. For example, the military junta in Myanmar was met with civilian resistance, but this has left nearly 1,000 dead to date. However, it must be noted that where an event, or series thereof, is met with the same response by most in society, actions previously thought excessive have been necessitated, normalised and their risk accepted. The efficacy of the drastic measures taken by Burmese military was low as civilians are still protesting risking their lives. Therefore, collective outrage can be said to have an effect on the efficacy of suppression mechanisms leading to further action being taken by those outraged.

The multifaceted struggle of police legitimacy encompasses disproportionality, agency, and outright necessity. With those issues being raised by events which draw the public eye along with the attention of foreign media (for example Women’s Strike), it is bound that more people will feel the obligation to act. Not only this, but there is a real possibility of changes in people’s disposition to accept what such action may comprise. This, unfortunately, suggests that persistence of civilians to fight for what in their eyes is right can often entail violence. Even only using the example of policing (many more reasons for discontent exist), it is clear to foresee more protests and more violence. This is especially true with lockdowns being eased across the world en masse. When, for example in Poland, protests reached their heights last October, the media and politicians tried to play into the collective solidarity and responsibility for one another claiming protesting increases infection as a means to control protestors. With this no longer being a viable option, it will be hard to convince citizens on the streets that it is in their best health interest to stay home and not raise their voice.

Tomasz Stankowski

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