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Dismantlement or Reconstitution: Policing and the UK’s Criminal Justice System


Source: aitoff

If you have been paying attention to the UK’s primary media outlets in recent months, you may well have asked your self, what on earth is happening to our Criminal Justice System?

From the case of Liam Allan highlighting the crisis within the Crown Prosecution Service, to the drastic cuts to the police budgets, and the systemic overcrowding in UK prisons, it seems that many nodal points of this dendritic structure we call the Criminal Justice System are on the brink of collapse.

Therefore, it is understandable why upon initial observation, one could conclude that this network of institutions is simply withering under the pressures of 30+ years of neoliberalisation. Arguably, where such effects are most visible within the Criminal Justice System, and which will be the point of reference for this article, is that of the Police.

The specific effects of neoliberalism upon the police are not something I wish to explore here, there is a wealth of literature looking into this matter and the substance of such arguments is something I do not call into question. Rather, the issue I wish to address here, which is based upon the commonplace assumption that neoliberalism ultimately serves to roll back the state and dismantle public institutions, is the inference that opening up, in this case, the police, to the ideals of the market ultimately means this domain is increasingly ungoverned, a tabula rasa subject only to the totalizing effect of the market.

Alternatively, my argument offers an account proposing that rather than the police being dismantled by the current economic doctrine, instead, we are witnessing a reconstitution of what it means to police. Traditionally, the police have been concerned with policing the most visible forms of deviance, which combined with their purported insight into the public interest, has allowed them to define what it means to ensure public order.  A prime example of this is the treatment of football hooliganism from the 1960s as “a core public order priority”.   

Sociological study coined the term New Punitiveness to describe the measures that came into being through the Criminal Justice Systems policing of visible deviancy. Among a range of developments, this encompassed the expansion of prison populations, increasing police numbers and a notable lack of penal reform.

While this still holds true, bar a continued increase in police numbers, policing as a method of controlling visible deviancy is coming to end. As we will see, policing is now orientated around a new meta narrative of public order, which shifts concern from visible deviancy to the concern of anticipated deviancy. At the risk of being criticised for under-theorisation, anticipated deviancy should be understood as a facet of Ulrich Becks risk society, in which a novel characteristic of modern social organisation is its preoccupation with future risk.  

The prompt which led me to think about this topic was a recent Sky News interview with a former Metropolitan Police chief, Peter Kirkham. Whilst discussing a sprawl of stabbings that occurred on one single night in London, the former police chief embarked upon an impassioned rant attributing these stabbings to the loss control over ‘public space’ caused by the fiscal constraint of police forces. He went on to argue that this loss of control was not universal, but selective, with poor communities and those with a high density of ethnic minorities being most affected. Apart from Kirkham’s forgivable mistake regarding the current governments possession of institutional racism – by inferring that the conservative government heightens institutional racism, it reduces the concept to the domain of belief and attitude, and therefore product of individuals rather than structures – he was correct in his assessment of selective policing.

The pressure the police force is currently under is well documented. For instance, an analysis done by the Police and Crime Commissioners documents a dramatic restructuring effect fiscal constraint has had upon policing. This has led to a massive decrease in the number of police officers, with estimates pointing to a 20,000 reduction in the number of officers in England and Wales. Such fiscal constraint which has led to these changes is forecast to continue, with current assessments suggesting police budgets will be cut by a further 6% by 2020/21 if Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) is to be believed. Due to the prevalence of this acknowledgment, notions of what it means to uphold public order are changing out of necessity. They are becoming orientated around the policing of domains that are highly politically sensitive, and although relatively uncommon compared to ‘traditional’ acts of criminality, their impact is immediate.  

A new metanarrative of public order which is concerned with certain anticipated forms of criminality is expressed through the institutional narrative of establishing service demand. A narrative which is highly apparent in the publications cited above. The most pertinent being the HMICFRS publication on police efficiency.


Despite an explicit recognition of the effect of reduced police budgets (supply) on the nature of policing, counterposed to this, and seemingly allocated equal if not more causal weight, is that of demand as the restructuring variable in the transformation of policing. What is meant by demand is the onset of new forms of criminal activity, most notably the increasing threat of cybercrime and terror attacks.

While I in no way doubt that the contingent nature of social development produces new forms of behaviour which must be policed, delineating what is to be policed through demand only – and we must remember demand must be defined by some predetermined measure – carries with it the assumption that the effects of reducing supply can be mediated through better understanding demand. In other words, creating better methods for anticipating demand.

This brings us to the crux of the argument if policing now operates to ensure public order via the control of anticipated deviancy, what are the effects of this and what becomes of the left behind visible deviancy?

It seems to me that primary effect this is having is that the spatial domain of policing now centers upon that of the City. Large metropolitan Cities are now considered the main economic units upon which the future economic growth will be dependent upon. Combined with their symbolic relevance to national identity, they are the most vulnerable to new forms of criminality, and I am specifically thinking about terror attacks. It is because of these two elements, that the protection of cities from these crimes is of high political importance. The metanarrative of public order now means policing to ensure that, to the highest degree possible, the city is protected against anticipated deviancy.  

An interesting study documenting the effects of increased terror threats upon police organisations in Israeli shows as threats rise, the number of crimes solved decrease. It may be reasonable to assume that the reconstitution of policing around anticipated deviancy in the UK may have the same effect. If one reads further into the study, a further interesting finding is that despite fewer crimes solved, positive public attitudes towards the police increase.

Here is where the paradox of this reconstitution lies; although the transformation in policing I have been discussing would seem to suggest a decreased public confidence towards police, facilitated by the loss of control over public space and the ensuing manifestation of the Broken windows theory, public trust in the Police is still among the highest out of all professions.  



Is it the case that the population in the current historical epoch is more concerned about policing the risk of these new forms of criminality, which when strike, wound the Nation collectively as opposed to the single family in grieving the loss of their teenage son to knife crime?

It would seem to me that this is the case. The reconstitution of policing around certain forms of anticipated deviancy and of certain spatial domains functions symbolically to stand testament to the strength and quality of the UK’s police. Because if we can police organised attacks against our most iconic Cities and most substantial infrastructure, of course, we have a police capable of stopping the kid next door from getting stabbed.

But as the reconstitution discussed here continues to develop, the greater amount of public space will be lost, and the chance for those old forms of criminality which have never ceased to occur will thrive.


By Matthew Mckenna



Brogden, M., Brogden, M. and Ellison, G., 2012. Policing in an age of austerity: A postcolonial perspective. Routledge.

A, Taylor., 2016. Interpreting Hillsborough. In: Turnbull, N. ed., 2016. Interpreting Governance, High Politics, and Public Policy: Essays Commemorating Interpreting British Governance. Routledge.

Ibid, 71.

Bell, E., 2011. Criminal justice and neoliberalism. Springer.

Wallsworth, S. and Morrison, W. eds., 2005. The new punitiveness: Trends, theories, perspectives. Willan Pub..

Click to access bn208.pdf

Click to access peel-police-efficiency-2017.pdf

Click to access trust-in-professions-veracity-index-2017-slides.pdf

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