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BLOG(Gary Kinsman): Troubling Policing and ‘community policing.’

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Activist and scholar Gary Kinsman. (Photo by Larson Heinonen)
Activist and scholar Gary Kinsman. (Photo by Larson Heinonen)

Troubling the Police as a Social Institution and the Problems with ‘Community Policing.’

By Gary Kinsman

(Originally published on

This is based on my notes for a brief presentation at a critical discussion of policing in Sudbury on Jan. 21. For a general report on the discussion see the story by Scott Neigh for the Sudbury Media Co-op at: If you wish to engage in dialogue about these notes please email me at

My task tonight is to elaborate on the brief Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP) statement on policing and community policing adopted in the midst of ‘community policing’ initiatives against sex workers in the city in the fall of 2012.

“The police, as a social institution, enforce the oppression and exploitation of people living in poverty and working class people. We carry this position into all of our interactions as S-CAP with the police. We are therefore opposed to community policing as a way the police extend their surveillance and infiltration of community groups and attempt to get community groups to police themselves. – See more at:

This is not a talk about my close encounters with the police which would take too  much time to get through.

1) History and character as a social institution

There are earlier precursors of policing in the forms of sentries and guards but the emergence of the police as a distinct state institution is tied up with the emergence of capitalist class relations and colonialism. The police help to secure the legal and social conditions for capitalism and colonialism. In ‘Canada’ the police were formed against indigenous people as a central part of colonization as has already been mentioned.  The North- West Mounted Police, (then the Royal Northwest Mounted Police) and later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were major colonizing forces. In the US as has already been mentioned the origins of policing also lies in the slave patrols to defend slavery. From its beginning and at its very core the emergence of the police as a social institution was tied up with racist and colonizing practices.

At the same time policing was also very centrally directed against workers and the poor. In Europe policing as it emerged played an important part in the closing of the commons with the criminalization of the survival actions of those who become workers and the poor. With the emergence of capitalist social relations there was an explosion of property related crimes – what used to be a common right became instead a crime against private property. The police also defended relations of exploitation when workers in their workplaces or communities rebelled against them.

The police are a direct state institution mandated with the ‘legitimate’ use of force and violence — like the military. The police can legally beat, hurt and even kill people that would get others thrown in jail. Policing is based on enforcing criminal codes and other laws developed by state agencies. These serve as important rules, instructions or texts for the social organization of policing.  The police are organized along top-down para-military or militaristic lines, and are a bureaucratic, patriarchal and racist form of organization and have organizational cultures with these very same characteristics.

Laws organize the police against indigenous people, sex workers, and for a long time and still in many cases today against people who have sex with members of the same gender and trans people, workers when on strike, and against poor people – including the history of vagrancy laws, loitering charges, anti-panhandling provisions and other practices of social exclusion.

But the police are a particular kind of state institution which has some ‘relative autonomy’ from other state agencies given the ideology and practice of the ‘rule of law.’ There can be no democratic control over the police (and this is the problem with calls for ‘community control’ of the police) – since this is officially seen as biased interference into a supposedly ‘neutral’ organization that is enforcing supposedly ‘objective’ laws that do not defend capitalist, racist and hetero-patriarchal social relations.

But the police also can campaign and organize ‘public’ and ‘community’ support including through their associations — which are not unions since police are not part of the working class and actually are organized against the working class. They organize to increase their budgets, for ‘law and order,’ for campaigns against sex workers etc.

2). The problem with ‘community policing’

Some people get a bit confused when the police are not openly repressive, but when they have a smiley face and can even appear friendly and nice. This is not about the individual ‘niceness’ of police officers but about the character of the police as a social institution. ‘Community policing’ is just another side of the social organization of policing that is designed to meet exactly the same objectives as more overtly ‘repressive’ forms of policing. In Sudbury we see the combination of police practices of social exclusion against poor people, the homeless, street kids, and sex workers downtown with forms of ‘community policing’ centred on but not only in the Flour Mill/Donovan area. Rather than these being two different types of policing — reflecting two different types of cops — they have to be seen as two inter-related dimensions of the same policing strategies.

In response to the setbacks of more repressive policing by global struggles in the 1960s and early 1970s ‘community policing’ emerged as a policing strategy out of earlier forms of organizing like team policing in particular neighborhoods. Community policing is an attempt to organize the ‘community’ with and for the police. A number of critical questions need to be asked about this. First of all which community are we talking about? Usually an examination will quickly show that it is white, middle class and heterosexual/non-trans people who are the ‘community’ that is being privileged in ‘community policing.’ Some ‘communities’ are far more ‘protected’ than others, while some areas are for more policed than others. There is a major need for critical class, race and gender analysis when examining policing.

Currently there is an instance of this is the community survey the Sudbury police are doing through Oraclepoll surveys (see I ask people to examine how this survey constructs ‘crime’ and how it limits how people can respond. This is part of producing and shaping the ‘community’ for policing. I challenge people to try to do this survey while maintaining a critical approach to policing that views the police as part of the problem in our communities. It is very hard to do if not impossible.

One illustration of the use of ‘community policing’ comes from the work of Phil Scraton (see his The State of the Police in references at the end).  In response to the Brixton riots in England in the early 1980s against racism and police violence the police deployed community policing and not only more ‘repressive’ policing. This included the extension of surveillance in these communities, trying to convert more moderate groups and individuals into informers for the police, and attempts to organize the ‘community’ against activists critical of the police. The objective was to locate ‘radicals’ so they could be isolated and moved against. There was a combination here of ‘community’ with more ‘repressive’ policing. In Toronto after the mass resistance by gays and others to the bath raids in Toronto in 1981 police officials were sent to England to study the use of ‘community policing’ so they could use this more fully in the ‘Canadian’ context.

In Sudbury the police have used ‘community policing’ to infiltrate, to do surveillance work on, and to foment collaboration with the police in social agencies and community groups. Some individuals and groups have tried to resist this individually and in isolation while S-CAP has tried to resist this more publicly and openly. This ‘community policing’ expands police networks and organizes these groups for policing and against those critical of the police – isolating direct action activists, and activists who are critical of the police. The objective is to get social agencies and community groups to do police work for the police in a more ‘efficient’ network of policing. The high point of this so far in Sudbury was the organizing of Take Back the Night last September against feminists critical of the police. This is part of the re-organizing of some women’s agencies as part of broader police networks.

At the same time there is still repressive policing as we saw with the recent arrest of the S-CAP 3, simply for doing support work for a homeless person. We can see these connections between more ‘repressive’ policing and ‘community policing’ in the involvement of the same male police officer in a series of actions over the last few years. He was one of the arresting officers for the S-CAP 11, he spoke in uniform for the police at the Take Back the Night rally last September, and most recently was involved in instigating the arrests of the S-CAP 3.  These are some of the reasons why it is important not to collaborate with the police and to open up a space as we have done tonight for support, solidarity and discussion among those of us critical of the police as a social institution.

3)  Moving Against and Beyond the Police

There are many ways of organizing against the policing of our lives. This ranges from organizing against specific police injustices like the shooting death by police of Jermaine Carby in Brampton this past September, organizing to get rid of unjust laws so the police cannot use them against us, organizing a local Cop Watch group to monitor police actions, organizing for independent reviews of police actions– so the police do not get to investigate themselves, the Black Lives Matter campaign, the campaign against the violence (including police violence, racism and negligence) against missing and disappeared indigenous women, organizing to de-militarize the police, and much, much more. In this organizing we begin to get a sense of how we can together organize for social justice without police through building networks of solidarity and mutual support.

But we also need to think though more explicitly how to address problems in our communities without relying on the police as the Incite Women of Colour Against Violence Collective argues (see reference below). We have to stop thinking about the police as any sort of solution. We have to organize to address our own problems so the police do not get drawn into oppressed communities to intensify the oppression that people already face. Instead we need to get at the social roots of tensions and violence and to develop socially transformative solutions. We need grass roots community organizing that can begin to organize autonomously from state relations to address our problems without the intervention of the police and the criminal injustice systems. We need far more discussion on how to begin to do this. This is only a beginning. Putting it as a question can we not imagine a world of social justice without the police?


Some references I have found useful.

Incite! Women of Colour Against Violence, Color of Violence, the INCITE! Anthology, Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2006.

Joey L. Mogul, Andrea j. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)justice, The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

Phil Scraton, The State of the Police, London: Pluto, 1985.

Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politic and the Limits of the Law, Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2011.

Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue, Police and Power in America, Cambridge, Massachusetts; South End Press, 2007.

Lesley J. Wood, Crisis and Control, The Militarization of Protest Policing, Toronto: Pluto/Between the Lines, 2014.

[Gary Kinsman is longtime queer, anti-poverty, and anti-capitalist activist and he recently retired from his position as a professor of sociology at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. To read more of his writing, go to his website at]

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