Police and Anti-Police

After abandoning it to spend a couple of weeks reading Tennyson, I’ve gone back and finished Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell. It has certain well-known weaknesses, but not enough to overcome my considerable sympathy for its central premise and the quality of argument. I think it a hugely underrated work as a whole, and one of real importance. Even if one found the central thesis disagreeable, there’s simply so much great insight on display, and on such a wide variety of subjects, that Power is worth anyone’s time. That comprehensiveness is perhaps the source of its weakness; Russell was much closer to fumbling in the dark than I’ve ever seen him, but there’s real pleasure to be had in watching a great intellect offer a brief treatise on a different topic every few pages. I could blog dozens of examples, as my book is now heavily annotated, but one towards the end deserves attention for being so completely remarkable. The problem he considers is an obvious one, the solution he provides…not so much:

The police system of all countries is based upon the assumption that the collection of evidence against a suspected criminal is a matter of public interest but that the collection of evidence in his favour is his private concern. It is often said to be more important that the innocent should be acquitted than that the guilty should be condemned, but everywhere it is the duty of the police to seek evidence of guilt, not of innocence. Suppose you are unjustly accused of murder, and there is a good prima facie case against you. The whole of the resources of the State are sein motion to seek out possible witnesses against you, and the ablest lawyers are employed by the State to create prejudice against you in the minds of the jury. You, meanwhile, must spend your private fortune collecting evidence of your innocence, with no public organisation to help you. If you plead poverty, you will be allotted Counsel, but probably not so able a man as the public prosecutor. If you succeed in securing an acquittal, you can only escape bankruptcy by means of the cinemas and the Sunday Press. But it is only too likely that you will be unjustly convicted.

If law-abiding citizens are to be protected against unjust persecution by the police, there must be two police forces and two Scotland Yards, one designed, as at present, to prove guilt, the other to prove innocence; and in addition to the public prosecutor there must be a public defender, of equal legal eminence. This is obvious as soon as it is admitted that the acquittal of the innocent is no less a public interest than the condemnation of the guilty. The defending police force should, moreover, become the prosecuting police force where one class of crimes is concerned, namely crimes committed by the prosecuting police in the execution of their ‘duty’. By this means, but by no other (so far as I can see), the present oppressive power of the police could be mitigated.