From George Floyd to the Piacenza scandal, the abuses committed by the police forces have now become the focus of public attention. The ensuing debate has taken two general directions: some participants insist on the integrity of the work of police officers and carabinieri, invoking the formula of “a few rotten apples.”
This position aims to make short work of a problem that otherwise comes into view as an undercurrent of Italian public life, and in many cases—to stick to recent history, from Carlo Giuliani to Riccardo Magherini—has revealed the inadequacy of the Italian police forces in cases where they have to deal with contemporary social complexity.
Others, in the wake of what happened in Minneapolis, are proposing to dismantle the police forces altogether. This position as well, regardless of its prospective validity, shows its obvious shortcomings. First of all, because it overlooks the specifics of the US context. Secondly, because cuts to the police forces, both in the UK and the US, are part of the neoliberal package. For example, since 2010, when the Tories came back to power, the cuts to the UK police forces have amounted to no less than 30%, with the ending of initiatives such as the Female Units, composed of policewomen, social workers and counselors, which offered real support for women who were victims of violence.
Within the neoliberal framework, privatizing the police means having to rely on shady groups, as happened in France and in the UK, with companies run by neo-fascists assigned to manage the detention centers and migrant hotspots. This is exactly what the Lega would like to do with its patrols in Padania.
The question of a police force that would be up to the standard of a democratic, multicultural and, if possible, inclusive society remains just as topical. The field of “Police Studies,” which has developed in Anglo-Saxon countries, shows—to paraphrase British criminologist Maurice Punch—that it’s not just a few rotten apples, but one must go and check the whole orchard. On one hand, the police forces are not insulated from the society in which they operate, but rather reflect its moods, perceptions and drives.
In other words, in a society that has made the demand for security its political focus, racism, sexism and classism show themselves as structural elements of law enforcement. On the other hand, their spirit of comradeship, their professional identity and their exercise of repressive functions make police officers slower in internalizing social changes.
This is how it was in the UK in the early 1980s, with the bobbies acting violently towards the Afro-Caribbean, on a wave of prejudice towards guest workers, without taking into account that these people were British citizens, on account of both birth and culture. And this is how it is in Italy nowadays, where the state police and the carabinieri insist on using moralizing categories such as “junkies” to brand the people of the night, which in the end leads to tragedies such as those of Federico Aldrovandi and Riccardo Magherini.
Furthermore, in the Italian case we also find the ethical pretensions typical of continental police forces, who claim to exercise moral oversight over the founding values of common life, and consequently believe themselves to be above the law. This is precisely the issue that most demands a solution: that of accountability. The gap between police practices, oriented towards restraining, and the flow of social relations can be bridged through the establishment of mechanisms and procedures that protect citizens and make the police accountable for their behavior.
For example, in the UK there is an Independent Office for Police Conduct that you can contact if you believe you have been the victim of abuse, which offers personal and legal support for those filing complaints and submits a report to Parliament every year. We would need such a body to replace the current investigation procedures on police abuses, which, in Italy, are currently internal to the particular police forces involved. The mandatory display of an officer’s badge number is the second measure that should be implemented, in order to make police officers identifiable and facilitate the start of any investigations.
Other aspects concern training and recruitment. Since the 1981 Brixton Afro-Caribbean uprising, the British police have been working to recruit members of racial minorities into their ranks, expanding the inclusive discourse towards the recruitment of LGBTQI police officers as well. These measures go hand in hand with training geared towards respect for diversity. Obviously, if power relations keep their right-wing orientation, these measures will not be enough to make a positive change in how the police forces operate. However, they would still be a step forward in a country in which nobody—not even the Lega—is open to demilitarizing the carabinieri.
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