Societies have always been policed. Police officers across the world have a unique and important power: the legitimate use of force. Whether or not we agree with the laws that govern our societies, these citizens are given power over the rest and yes, this power is gendered. From the exclusion of women officers in the police force to the brutal policing of queer communities, and right back to the institutional racism that blights forces, police officers, or actually the police as an institutional system, have some answering to do. It goes without saying that not every police officer is actively out to cause harm, but officers are working within a system that does not necessarily do what it is supposed to: protect and serve.
There is no way that we can speak about the relationship between gender and the police, without acknowledging the relationship between race and police misconduct. This relationship has always been present; racist police behaviour is part of the deep legacies of racism and colonialism in Europe and the United States (US), which finds extreme expression in law enforcement. The system of policing has historically functioned to criminalise groups that threatened dominant white, patriarchal, heteronormative structures, whether this be by controlling enslaved peoples, suppressing the working class urban population, or crushing unrest and resistance in the colonies. This in no way encompasses the long history of violence within police organisations but can be considered a small explanation of how modern policing, especially racially motivated police brutality, came to be.
People of colour are both under-protected and over-policed, an issue that especially affects young Black men. In the United Kingdom (UK), Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched, 3 times more likely to be handcuffed, and 4 times more likely to be tasered. This is not because Black people are committing more crime. In London, of the 1,126 stop and searches conducted between January 2023 and June 2023, 264 (23.45%) led to an investigation, and 862 (76.55%) had no further action taken, a statistic that is mirrored across the nation. This shows that stop and search, rather than a police exercise to stop crime, is actually more often than not a racially motivated action. This over-policing leads to the issue of mass incarceration of people of colour and their further marginalisation in a mostly white society, not to mention the toll on mental health and specifically increased rates of anxiety disorders due to the exposure to police violence. Additionally, people of colour also tend to be overrepresented as victims of police shootings and police abuse. This is both a public health and safety crisis.
Whether acting in the guise of the law or not, LGBTIQ-friendly spaces and LGBTIQ communities also have long histories of falling prey to police brutality. In states criminalising diverse SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics), police forces enforce them most violently. Recalling the Stonewall rebellion also tells us that decriminalisation or mere legal tolerance does not stop the interrogations, regulations, raids, and violence. It is when police forces stormed once again the Stonewall Inn, a queer dive bar in New York, on 28 June 1969, that queer folks, led by transgender women of colour, fought back to reclaim the respect and human decency they were due. Stonewall was almost fifty years ago and yet, LGBTIQ communities across the world still have to endure police brutality and different forms of victimisation by law enforcement.
Institutional homophobia within the police force also continues to this day. For instance, the Casey report uncovered that almost 30% of LGBTIQ MET (Metropolitan Police Service of London) employees had personally experienced homophobia. As much as 52% of LGBTIQ Londoners think their community is underrepresented in the MET. Institutional homophobia coupled with a perceived lack of LGBTIQ representation in the force has led to dire consequences in criminal investigations. For instance, despite repeated concerns raised by members of the LGBTIQ community, the MET failed to rapidly realise the link between the victims of Stephen Port, a serial killer who targeted gay men in London. Homophobia coupled with assumptions about queer lifestyles can be said to play a significant role in how police forces deal with queer victims and survivors, at times failing them.
Police violence towards women reveals a similar story. The Center for Women’s Justice in the UK recorded over 600 cases of domestic abuse incidents perpetrated by police officers from 2017-2020. Out of these, 80% of police officers accused of domestic violence in the UK keep their jobs. Figures obtained by The Independent show that only 1 in 18 members of the MET accused of sexual assault are subject to formal action. The vast majority of cases in which police officers are accused do not lead to any concrete action. Impunity for those responsible may be said to fuel a breeding ground for crimes to be committed. Following the murder of Sarah Everard by police officer David Carrick in March 2021, it became clear that more needs to be done to protect women and girls in the UK, even from police officers themselves.
The Casey report, a 300-page document that states that the MET is institutionally racist, homophobic, and sexist, also uncovered that policing will attract those who wish to abuse the powers conferred by a warrant card. There is a shocking lack of specialist knowledge and training about sexual assault and domestic abuse. Survivors of gender-based violence often feel let down, disbelieved, or gaslighted by the service they receive, leading to many cases going unreported. The vetting processes for new recruits, as well as for existing officers, are not vigilant enough in identifying clear warning signs such as previous indecent exposure or domestic abuse that can point to an increased likelihood in committing similar or more serious offences.
How many abuses by police officers fly under the radar? And why did it take so long for the crimes of these police officers to be discovered? Well, the police is fundamentally a boys club. They protect their own. Police abolition activists have criticised the ‘codes of loyalty’ that enable officers to remain hidden and covered. Cops actively protect each other, making it more difficult at virtually every step to investigate a crime committed by an officer. Cops follow what’s known as “the blue wall of silence”, essentially a code in which police officers will not ‘snitch’ on each other. So who polices the police? No one.
A potential reason for the continued misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia in the police is the make-up of individual forces themselves. MET officers are 82% white and 71% cisgender men, and the majority do not live in the city they police. This is in comparison to the London census which states that only 36.8% of Londoners identify as white, and only 48.5% identify as cisgender men. While other UK-based police forces have closer matches to the demographics of their areas, very few have non-white non-cisgendered men in leadership positions. Across the world, women are also dramatically underrepresented in law enforcement: in the US, only around 13% of officers are cisgender women, in India the figure stands at around 12%, and in Portugal, the figure drops to 8.7%. If women are not included in the conversation around policing, how can their safety concerns be adequately addressed? Various studies point not only to the exclusion of women from the police force, and barriers to their promotions but also to the daily harassment and discrimination they face from their cisgender men co-workers.
Considering the position of power police officers are given, shouldn’t we be more careful about who is “protecting” our communities?
The institution of the police upholds patriarchal systems of oppression so that even the best-meaning police officers often find it challenging, if not impossible, to actually fight for justice. It is clear that the institution has systematically failed to protect women, gender-nonconforming individuals, people of colour, vulnerable people, and members of the LGBTIQ community. But what is our alternative? Some argue that abolition is the only answer, others think reform could work best.
I personally think the institution simply holds up a mirror to the kind of world we live in and tackling the bigger systemic issues is the only way the police will change.