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Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

Ok, the fight sequences are pretty silly. But, 15 years on, Minority Report feels more relevant than ever — and that’s amusing, of course, in that the film is premised on the possibility of accurately predicting the future. Set in 2054, and based on a 1956 Philip K. Dick story of the same name, the film follows policeman John Anderton’s fight to save the Precrime Division that he leads. “Precrime”? Basically, a sci-fied model of criminal profiling (using the talents of the ethically-nightmarish seer “precogs”) that allows Anderton and his guys to (literally) swoop in and catch “murderers”, when they’re murderers in intent alone.

Now, we could talk all day about the rise of AI and the latest advances in police profiling programmes. But, at the moment, Minority Report’s strongest relevance (thankfully) remains less literal: its message resonates with the growing need for a proper examination of the limits of policing.

Extreme events abroad regularly remind us of this — whether it’s riots alleging systemic racism in St Louis, officers dragging old women from ballot boxes in Catalonia, or people being “disappeared” in Bangladesh (don’t ask Tulip Siddiq) or Kenya. But there have been serious exploitations of police power in the UK, too — Hillsborough being the most obvious example.

Lately, offences of varying degrees have been accumulating, here. On Monday morning, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Scottish Police Authority had denied it was “in crisis”, following “a series of very public controversies, including resignations, suspensions and call centre failures, with allegations of bullying and gross misconduct against senior officers”.

Then there was Sunday night’s tweet from the Police Service of Northern Ireland — the one they later deleted, which read: “If you bump into that special someone under the mistletoe tonight, remember that without consent it is rape”. The tweet’s alarming misunderstanding of “rape” was compounded by the almost unthinkably inappropriate hashtag that followed: “#SeasonsGreetings”. And a quick look at the Twitter accounts of UK regional police forces shows that decent attempts to extend the digital parameters of law enforcement are all too often tainted by an uneasy mix of banter and trophyism. Yes, we shouldn’t take Twitter too seriously. But, regardless of the platform they’re using, we should always take everything the police do and say extremely seriously.

Then we come to Damian Green. It seems clear that police officers (in this case, retired) have, again, acted badly. As the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, put it, they did something “quite wrong” by revealing confidential information about the Green case. Michael Howard expressed it well in explaining that, “Policing in this country is based on trust between the police and the public. If we have retired officers leaking information of that kind, it will be very damaging to that trust.””

It seems important to note at this point that even the most minimal-state libertarians see the police as an essential part of society. In his 1974 classic, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, American philosopher Robert Nozick exemplifies this by pointing out why it makes sense for humans to abandon the ultimate freedom of chaos, and band together for the sake of gaining the basic security we all need. The laissez-faire approach he takes with regards to the state’s ideal role in its citizens’ lives is famously painted as a nightwatchman system emerging from government-monopolised defence contractors, threatened only by the occasional free rider, who is paid off through enforced, albeit supposedly mutually beneficial, compensation. But those monopolised defence contractors? Yes, essentially, they’re the police.

Sure, there are some quasi-anarchists out there who think they’d rather live in a police-free world — have a look at www.aworldwithoutpolice.org for some tips on “disempowering, disarming, and disbanding”, alongside a helpful reading list and some essay questions (a valuable way to while away your time in a holding cell, presumably). But I’m pretty sure they’re the exception.

Yet just because it’s difficult to see the police as anything but essential to society doesn’t entail they should have free reign. Indeed, that doesn’t tell us very much at all about what the limits of their power should be. Sure, policing in the UK is celebratedly “by consent” — a response itself to the hardcore post-revolutionary French Fouché brand that had made Britons reticent about the loss of liberty that would come with the establishment of a professional police force here. (As it happens, apparently, the first registered Met recruit was sacked, on his first shift, for drunkenness.) And, sure, all officers still swear an oath to “faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality”.

But Michael Howard is right: what we face is a serious problem about trust. Yes, the police technically hold our society together, and — through many individual and collective acts of great courage and goodness — constantly protect us all, directly and indirectly. But that is what they have committed to; that is what we require from them. We put our trust in them for that very reason — because, as even Nozick recognised, we do indeed need them. That trust is essential, but it is not unconditional. And thanks to a lack of personal responsibility on behalf of certain police officers, it has become frayed.

Improving the situation means not only holding the police to greater account, however. If we don’t also choose to behave more responsibly ourselves, then we play into the hands of those calling for greater official — and potentially unchecked — control over us. The benefits we gain as members of society are predicated on our playing by the basic rules; those in positions of power have an extra need to behave responsibly. In the wake of the Westminster scandal, this is something our politicians would do particularly well to recognise. Yes, the alleged instances currently being investigated range from potentially criminal offences to simple dickishness; yes, Richard Henriques is right to suggest that the accused should not be suspended from their political positions until those investigations have been completed. But failing to police one’s own behaviour gives ammunition to calls for others to do it for you: calls for more CCTV, for more official giving of consent, for more recorded writing of reports and affidavits.

We might well find those calls wrong in principle. But, as people wanting to live in a free and fair society, we should behave well not simply because the law tells us to, but because we recognise that that is the right thing to do. We don’t eschew bearbaiting because it’s illegal, but because it’s clearly wrong. And we should avoid behaving in exploitative and unkind ways for the same reason. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should; just because it’s right to fight for the right not to be prevented from doing something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right choice to do that thing.

The over-legalisation and over-policing of society is dangerous, not least because it can dilute our recognition of the need to choose to behave responsibly. The police should know better. But so should we.

10 comments for: Rebecca Lowe Coulson: Why over-policing undermines the police themselves – and civil society

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