What are the police for?

Back when I lived in Nigeria it was fun on slow afternoons to browse the news reports online. A lot of them were unintentionally amusing (see here, for example), but some gave an idea as to the regularity with which vigilante mob-justice is seen in the country. It was not uncommon for a newspaper report into some alleged crime to end with words to the effect of:

A mob formed, and the miscreant was beaten to a pulp.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, consider this report:

A police corporal, Olufemi Ajayi, was yesterday set ablaze in Ayete, Ibarapa North Local Government Area of Oyo State, by an irate mob, after he allegedly shot and killed a commercial driver at a checkpoint.

Ajayi, who is attached to Igboora Police Station, allegedly shot the victim, Mr. Emiola Kolade, after a minor argument.

Kolade died in a hospital in Igboora.

An eyewitness, Alhaji Salau Adele, said: “It all started at one of the many illegal checkpoints on Idere-Ayete road, when the corporal flagged down the driver and demanded a bribe. The driver gave him N100, but the policeman said the money was too small and refused to accept it.

“This led to an argument between the two. We heard a gunshot later and the driver was found injured on the ground. The policeman tried to escape, but he was caught.”

It was learnt that the policeman was beaten and set ablaze by the mob.

Let me take a step back from Nigeria for a minute. Back in early November I wrote a post on the matter of Swedish policemen resigning by the lorryload in which I wondered to whom Hillary Clinton would turn to enforce the law in American cities should she be elected (now a redundant question, thankfully). In the comments underneath “Duffy” made the following remark, which hitherto had never occurred to me:

Here’s what many people often seem to forget. Police are there to protect us from criminals. But they are also there to protect the criminals from mob justice.

When I thought about this comment later on, I realised that in the absence of a justice system that is seen to be working, the mob steps in. Then last week I came across this article:

We have often suggested that, if we wish to know what is coming politically, socially, and economically in jurisdictions such as the EU and US, we might have a look at countries like Argentina and Venezuela, as they are in a similar state of near-collapse (for the very same reasons as the EU and US) but are a bit further along in the historical pattern.

Such a bellwether was seen in Argentina recently. Although the event in question is a very minor one, it is an illustration of the social tipping point—the manner in which a government loses control over its people.

Briefly, the events were as follows: Two men on a motorbike cruised a posh neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, seeking opportunities for purse-snatching. The pillion rider dismounted and snatched a purse from a woman. Bystanders saw the act, ran down the thief before he could re-mount the motorbike, and knocked him to the ground. Other onlookers (very possibly fed up with street crime caused by economic hardships) joined in. In a fury, they beat the thief senseless.

A policewoman managed to calm the group and handcuff the thief. Twenty minutes later, police assistance and an ambulance arrived.

Furious neighbours complained bitterly that the police had protected the thief but are generally doing little to protect law-abiding citizens.

It’s not quite Nigeria, but it’s heading in that direction. The entire article is worth reading, particularly its description of the 6-point process which leads to such incidents occurring.

Around the same time we had this comment thread at Mr Worstall’s in relation to the UK:

The State’s “legal protection” benefits the middle classes and prosperous working classes far more than the wealthiest.

In the absence of a State the wealthiest could easily afford to hire whatever protection they needed – they did, after all, do this for centuries and even millennia before “States” started to appear with their “legal protection”.


Police forces are relatively modern. Under Good Queen Bess, for example, if you were wealthy your only chance of getting around London without being set upon by pickpockets and cutpurses was to surround yourself with an armed retinue. State protection came in maybe under Robert Peel but it’s not the wealthy who benefit most from it. The very rich still have bodyguards. The police drink tea in their huge office buildings.


The rich would sort out their own guards if the State left the scene. It’s the low income communities which most benefit from the Rule of Law. Bring in effectively policing to a pit village in Durham and kick out disruptive children from schools and those who want to get on in life have a chance. Take the State away and a local strongman and his gang will take over.


In my experience of a few years living in a village with lots of City fat-cats, they get better policing because they hire private security instead of relying on the public sector police who exist primarily to protect criminals from their victims.

My point in all of this, in case you were wondering, is that for policing to work a critical mass of ordinary, law-abiding people across both the middle classes and working classes must see them as being on their side against the criminals. Not necessarily on their side per se, just on their side against the criminals. It doesn’t really matter what the rich think, they can hire their own security and/or lobby government to have the police look after their interests as first priority. It is the masses that need to be kept on side.

Clearly this has failed in Nigeria. It has failed in Argentina, and the results in either case weren’t pretty. When London descended into rioting in 2011, the police stood by idly as property got trashed and businesses destroyed. When I saw this happening I wondered who the police were actually serving, because it sure as hell wasn’t the ordinary citizen. The comments at Tim Worstall’s, although perhaps not representative of Britain as a whole, suggests there is some disagreement as to whom the police actually serve. If this attitude is reflected in the broader population there could be trouble brewing.

It’s worth keeping this in mind when looking at the United States, too. Over the past few years there has been an increase in rioting: firstly that connected with the shooting of black folk by policemen, later the election of Donald Trump, and more recently people with unpopular opinions speaking at universities. More and more often the police are standing by idly as property gets destroyed and people’s lives put at risk.

If the police in Britain and the USA want to remain relevant, they had better make up their minds whose side they are on and inform the law-abiding masses of their decision, preferably via demonstration rather than empty speeches. The criminals might want to urge them to get on with it, because the mob is probably closer than they think.


18 thoughts on “What are the police for?

  1. The police in the UK appear to be happier with low risk work. Understandable, but not really what we need them for.

    Cowering behind hedges with speed cameras to extract fines and patrolling Twitter for white people daring to express an opinion isn’t my idea of protecting the public.

    A few years back some yobs were cutting fuel lines under cars where I lived. The police were called, didn’t even turn up. An ex-squaddie got a group of us together to scare them off (no violence involved from our part). Probably lucky the cops didn’t turn up, as they’d more likely have gone after us for threatening behaviour or some other such vegetarian crap. The fire brigade put in an appearance, at least.

    Same part of town, a mate of mine called them because someone was having the living shit beaten out of them outside his home. They came round about 45 mins later, when it was safely all over. The cop shop was less than a mile away.

    Same part of town again, I saw some kids playing with a car trailer in the middle of the road. Both an obstruction and some poor sod would likely want it back (it had a numberplate). Again, when they finally come round it’s a few hours later. They tell me the trailer’s gone. They drive off. I leave the house, walk about 15 yards and turn a corner. The trailer’s in the middle of a different road, right in front of me. Eagle eyed, the boys in blue. They’d have to have driven round it either coming or going!

    Last off, a place I worked had a laptop stolen. We told them who did it, what he took and where he lived. That apparently wasn’t enough for the Poirots to go on, so he got away with it – really, how much more did we need to give them? When I checked his email (obviously he never came back to work), I found he spent a lot of time chatting over email with someone using a police account.

    All anecdata, but I don’t have respect for them, based on the value for money I’ve been getting.

  2. I am sure everyone has lots of stories about how the police operate, but the idea of police protecting criminals from the public reminded me of a neighbour when I lived on a small development of new houses with one-road access. Some local lunatic loved tearing round the one road at high speed so my neighbour, who owned a massive 4×4 simply blocked the road to stop the lout driving off. Cue arguments, but the kid backed down when told very forcefully that as children played outside on the otherwise quiet square of roads he would be in real trouble. He drove off sheepishly when the Jeep was moved.

    However the local bobby heard about this and came to see my neighbour, and told him he was lucky he wasn’t being arrested for ‘false imprisonment.’ More important it would seem to protect the rights of kids without driving licences and insurance from haring round.

  3. Watcher

    Well that’ll be them protecting their jobs. Can’t have you doing it. And better.

  4. “The police in the UK appear to be happier with low risk work. Understandable, but not really what we need them for.

    Cowering behind hedges with speed cameras to extract fines and patrolling Twitter for white people daring to express an opinion isn’t my idea of protecting the public.”

    I recall the Scottish police having an entire floor of coppers surfing Facebook for people with photos of themselves with a knife in a public place, and hunting them down for prosecution.

    I struggled to see what it achieved, other than to provide employment for many police-people to surf Facebook all day.

  5. “Vigilante justice is bad, but it’s better than no justice at all.” This saying originated in the American West (probably San Francisco) about 150 years ago, and many people still agree with the sentiment. You are correct; mob violence is not that far under the surface. Today’s young Progressives have forgotten that or, most likely, never knew it. They will be unpleasantly surprised when their antics piss off too many people.

  6. Somewhere you will find a description of the duties of the police attributed to Peel. (Apparently it’s a combination of things he said on different occasions.) It stands up pretty well. UPDATE: it’s on ruddy WKPD.

    The nine principles were as follows:

    To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

    To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

    To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

    To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

    To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

    To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

    To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

    To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary, of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

    To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them

  7. The nine principles were as follows:

    In which case, the modern British police are an utter, complete failure on every measure.

  8. Excellent.


    Don’t you have some way the reader can easily share good posts?

    I just installed a plugin: should have done this ages ago.

  9. Having moved from Nigeria to the U.K. One of my favorite things about England was the trust people had in the police. If that is declining then bad things are happening. Also i found your article on Nigeria very hilarious and truthful. Hopefully,the online mob didn’t cause you too much trouble

  10. It’s a strange one. Omasan. The UK cops seem to have gone out of their way to piss of their natural supporters these last few years. Why they’ve done it, I don’t know. Might be one of those “march through the institutions” things, where the leftists have decided to infiltrate and corrupt a “conservative” system.

  11. Hopefully,the online mob didn’t cause you too much trouble

    They did. The offline mob, which were actually not Nigerians, caused me a great deal more.

  12. Same part of town, a mate of mine called them because someone was having the living shit beaten out of them outside his home. They came round about 45 mins later, when it was safely all over. The cop shop was less than a mile away.

    Exactly the same thing happened with me in Manchester in 2000.

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