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Why skin-deep reform can’t fix the police

Marianne Colbran


The findings of the March 2023 Casey Report – a review of the standards of behaviour and internal culture of the Metropolitan Police – cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. The review was commissioned following the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met officer which, along with heavy-handed policing of the subsequent protest vigil, was just one of many scandals involving Met officers in the last few years.

The report was damning. Casey noted poor management, a lack of accountability, a lack of vetting procedures, the over-policing of black Londoners, and a tendency on the part of management to dismiss external criticism and frame all scandals as the result of a ‘few bad apples’ within the force. She observed deeply entrenched homophobia, misogyny and racism within the culture of the Met and commented that black officers were 81% more likely to be in the misconduct system than their white counterparts, without any explanation of why that might be the case.

While some of Casey’s recommendations were commendable – changes to staff vetting and misconduct proceedings, and the disbanding of some of the most problematic specialist units in the force – others were depressingly familiar. One suggestion was for greater clarity around the use of stop-and-search powers – a practice that has always disproportionately targeted black people. Another suggestion was for more resources to be poured into community policing – a recommendation first made in 1981 by Lord Scarman, following the Brixton riots, to improve relations between the Met and London’s black communities.

Why has so little changed? Why are the same problems in the Met being repeatedly identified for more than forty years? And why are the same solutions being touted, even though they have quite clearly not worked?


The role of the police – preventing crime or keeping social ‘order’?

Some commentators have suggested that one of the reasons why the reform of the police is bound to fail is that those leading the reviews are simply not asking the right questions. Criminologists Lambros Fatsis and Melayna Lamb1 argue that instead of proposing the same old solutions to the same problems – lack of diversity, lack of trust, racism, homophobia and misogyny – more fundamental questions should be asked. What do the police do? What are they for? Who do they protect? And who do they police?

Watch any television cop show or read any mainstream news article, and you would be forgiven for thinking that the primary purpose of the police was to keep us safe, to protect us from the bad guys. But, as the American political scientist and policing specialist David Bayley2 argues:

‘The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime … This is a myth.’

So, what do the police do if they do not prevent or solve crime? When I was studying policing at university, I was told that the primary purpose of the police was the maintenance of order. This could be traced back to the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. We students were taught that the signal event that showed the need for a professional police force was the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. This was initially a peaceful rally to demand political representation by more than sixty thousand people, which then turned bloody when the rally was declared illegal and cavalry charges into the crowd killed eighteen protesters and injured hundreds more. 

As Home Secretary, Peel was tasked with the job of forming the Metropolitan Police to protect property, manage riots and put down industrial strikes. In other words, the Met was formed with the purpose of social control.

What we were not taught in my classes was the imperial-colonial context of that policing. The new Metropolitan Police force and the policing of the British working class had its roots in the control of colonial or ‘surplus’ populations in the British colonies of Ireland, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. In the colonies, informal militia were tasked with patrolling, capturing and controlling fugitive slaves and colonial subjects. As Lambros Fatsis and Melayna Lamb comment, police forces started their history as ‘instruments of suppression – wielded by slaveholders and colonists to maintain a form of discrimination, dehumanisation and violent subjugation (racial slavery).’


Why police reform hasn’t worked

Once we start thinking of policing in this way, as an instrument designed to protect the ‘haves’ from the ’havenots’, it is easy to see why reform has not worked. Police reform so far has concentrated on the means and not the ends of policing. The problem is not poor training or a lack of diversity in the police force but policing itself and how, at its heart, its core mission has always been to protect some communities from others. 

We see this in the way black people are over-represented in prosecutions by the criminal justice system. We see this in the deaths of black people on both sides of the Atlantic at the hands of the police. We hear this in the words of Doreen Lawrence, saying explicitly that unless the police acknowledge racism at the core of their institution, nothing will change. However, nothing can change unless we start questioning and dismantling that core mission of the police.


What can be done?

The slogan ‘defund the police’ emerged from Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the summer of 2020. Protests began in the USA, prompted by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May, then spread across the globe.  

One response to the core problems within policing has been a growing movement for their abolition. Abolitionists call for the police to be defunded and for police budgets to be used instead in investing in violence- prevention programmes, public housing, health care and mental health services.

Community organisers in a number of cities in the USA are already making this happen. In Texas, Austin Justice Coalition has already successfully put pressure on the city council to cut the police budget significantly and transfer these funds to create new mental health crisis teams and permanent affordable housing for the city’s most vulnerable communities.

In the UK, the focus has been on holding the police to account, with organisations such as Newham CopWatch and Hackney Account aiming to help communities to protect themselves and each other from police violence.

While defunding might appear radical, advocates are found among the police themselves. The retiring Chief Constable of Merseyside, Andy Cook, told the Guardian that if he were to be given £5 billion to cut crime, he would invest £1 billion in fighting crime and the rest in trying to tackle poverty and unemployment.

However, as Alex Vitale3 notes succinctly, ‘not all police mean well’. Ascribing ongoing problems of racism, homophobia, misogyny and transphobia within the police to the actions of a ‘few bad apples means that the problems Casey identifies will continue. And officers who are not racist, homophobic or misogynistic will be too scared to speak out in an institution that continually denies it has a problem. 

The Met – and we as citizens – need to rethink the role of police in society. Approaching two hundred years since its formation, the Met’s role – and the role of policing more generally – is not about solving crime, it is about the maintenance of order, about preserving an unequal social order and about policing communities seen to be a threat to that order. Until we see that role clearly and question whether that is what we want from our police force, any reforms are likely to fail.

Photo courtesy of Weldon Kennedy



1.Fatsis, L. and Lamb, M. Policing The Pandemic (Bristol University Press, 2022)  

2.Bayley, D.H. Police for the Future (OUP, 1996)

3.Vitale, A. The End of Policing (Verso Books, 2017)