“We Are Peaceful – What Are You?”: The Myth of Policing by Consent

Lauren Davison discusses the myth of policing by consent and why the Left need to get serious about police reform.

Many of us have recoiled in horror at the ugly scenes coming out of Bristol and other cities over the last few weeks. Police using disproportionate force and brutality against largely peaceful groups of protestors is nothing new - but it doesn’t make seeing it any less shocking. 

What began in Clapham after the tragic murder of Sarah Everard has catapulted policing reform back into the spotlight - and rightly so. But it should not take a tragedy for us to question the role power and consent plays in modern policing. How often do we hear the term “policing by consent” bandied around? What does it actually mean? Is consent to be policed even sought anymore?

Well, it’s meant to be. When Sir Robert Peel created the first Police force in London in the 19th century, he did so by setting out a list of ethical principles in order to ensure legitimacy of the police using power. Essentially, the police have the power they hold because of collective consent granted to them by the public, who see them as legitimate and co-operate with them. 

However, by the Government’s own admission, the definition of consent used is...not actually that consensual. 

It should be noted that it refers to the power of the police coming from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. It does not mean the consent of an individual. No individual can choose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law.

Consent, is surely only consent, if it can be withdrawn? If that’s not the case, then it is merely a fluffy term used by those who defend the encroachment of civil liberties at the hands of the police. In actuality, it is not an accurate descriptor of the relationship between the public and those who police them. 

If consent cannot be withdrawn by an individual, that would imply that a group of individuals of some size could collectively legitimately withdraw consent - but again, the size of said group is never quantified. Arguably, the protests in Bristol could be seen through a lens of consent withdrawal, yet, such dissent is cracked down upon with brute force. This shows even more starkly that the right to withdraw consent is merely an illusion. 

The Chair of the Gloucestershire Police Federation took to Twitter to suggest that policing by consent is merely a guideline, not a duty. This is true, although it should be a duty. When you give a group of people unchecked power, uniforms and then the ability to act with impunity, history tells us it rarely ends well. And abuse of power is what we see play out on our streets - especially impacting marginalised communities. 

Although speaking about democracy, Tony Benn’s 5 questions of power ring true when discussing the police and can be a meaningful springboard to start asking serious questions of the police: 

  • What power have you got?
  • Where did you get it from?
  • In whose interests do you exercise it?
  • To whom are you accountable?
  • How can we get rid of you?

Question 3, 4 and 5 are arguably the most salient here. As entrenched in the upcoming Policing Bill, which sees longer sentences for damaging a statue than raping a person, the argument that the police serve only to uphold capitalist priorities of property, rather than human life could be arguably exemplified. 

Again, Question 4 is of interest, because accountability for police misconduct is lacking. When a serving officer can, whilst off-duty, attack a woman in the street and walk free from court, resigning from the police before facing any recourse, it shows there is a problem. To many, the answer to question 5 is the most obvious - we can’t. Abolitionists would argue otherwise - but obviously that’s a discussion for another day. 

We’ve seen the same arguments about the integrity and conduct of the police play out time and time again. Be it at Orgreave, the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes, Mark Duggan, Ian Tomlinson, and Hillsborough. There are many examples - not all of them high profile. Many people use buzzwords around reforming the police for a week, and then forget about it until the next incident. We can’t afford to do that this time. Especially not with the upcoming draconian Policing Bill, which criminalises peaceful protests. 

If we’re serious about fundamental and widespread change in policing in this country, we need to start having these conversations on the Left. The stakes are too high, not just for the marginalized communities worst affected by disproportionate policing, but for our democracy and civil liberties for years to come. 


Lauren Davison is a Criminologist with a specialist interest in researching prisons, social harm, and inequality in the Justice System. She is a co-founder of the newly created Young Fabians Criminal Justice Network, and is the Co-Chair of Open Labour's Justice Reform working group! She Tweets at @l_d1995x

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