Blog post

Why would feminists turn to the police?

Leah Cowan highlights the paradox of criminal legal solutions for violence.

Leah Cowan20 June 2024

Why would feminists turn to the police?

The criminal-legal system was not set up to reduce harm in society, but to protect private property and the interests of capital and ‘imperial expansion’ – the practice of a state growing its power and domination through military and colonial expeditions in other regions. The law functions as a key component of capitalism, meaning that it upholds a system where the priorities of powerful and wealthy elites are elevated above the lives of everyday people.

We see this demonstrated in the types of ‘crime’ that the law recognises, and the communities it places most frequently in its crosshairs – it is a crime to ‘steal’ formula milk you cannot afford to feed your hungry baby, but not a crime to cover high-rise buildings in highly combustible cladding.

In the 1980s, scholar and radical theorist Cedric Robinson described the dominant economic system as ‘racial capitalism’. He pointed out its reliance upon relationships of inequality between human groups. Academic Jodi Melamed fleshes out how capitalism is inherently racialised, in that it ‘creates fictions of differing human capacities’, historically along lines of race within a system of class.

This has direct implications for the formation and implementation of legal systems that are invested in keeping these fictions alive. In this context, proposing police and prisons as a solution to feminist issues constitutes – depending on your outlook – something between an ‘act of bad faith’ and a wilful attempt to preclude vast swathes of people from the possibility of safety or justice.

When Sarah Everard was murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens, some organisations working in the UK’s GBV sector (also known as the ‘women’s sector’) intensified calls to bring acts of ‘misogyny’ into the hate crime framework. The existing hate crime framework allows for the possibility of aggravated (harsher) sentences for lawbreaking which demonstrates or is motivated by hostility based on race, religion, disability, sexuality or transgender identity.

The proposal put forward by some factions of the GBV sector is to include misogyny in the hate crime framework on the basis that ‘including misogyny in hate crime law would send a message to the public and to the police that women’s safety matters’. That these organisations proposed to use law enforcement and the police to protect women from misogyny in response to a woman being murdered by a police officer begs the question: is there any problem to which these organisations would not suggest the solution of more laws and tougher sentences?

Hate crime policies fail to hold accountable those who are responsible for driving inequality and violence in society, such as governments and corporations who create and exacerbate financial crises, and who spew and whip up abusive and divisive rhetoric on mass media platforms. Calls for the expansion of hate crime frameworks are a prime example of what American sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein termed ‘carceral feminism’ in the late 2000s. The term has increasingly been used in the past decade or so to describe pro-police and prison-forward approaches to ‘feminist issues’.

Carceral feminists’ are those who seek ‘social remedies through criminal justice interventions rather than through a redistributive welfare state’, and which ‘locate social problems in deviant individuals’ rather than in the mainstream institutions that harm them. This carceral feminist approach turns away from addressing root and structural causes of harm, and towards atomising issues down to individuals who can be punished and socially abandoned, one by one.

The loudest voices in the so-called women’s sector in Britain have for many years been pushing for more prosecutions and convictions of people who perpetrate rape. Significant amounts of funding are channelled into the collection and review of data on prosecutions for sexual violence, rates of which are the lowest since records began. While the motivation for these efforts may be about improving support for survivors, many seek to create specialist police officers to take statements in rape cases, and envisage rape prosecution as being a specialist and ‘well-rewarded’ career route within the criminal-legal system.

Consequently, this campaigning around rape prosecutions directly supports the channelling of more funds and feminist energies into the police, the courts and the judiciary – a more ‘winnable’ victory in the context of a government that prioritises law and order over social care and meaningful justice. Carceral feminism also manifests as the development of partnerships – both financial and operational – between GBV services and government departments such as the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. These same government departments, in the name of gender equality, also open women’s prisons, transgender prison wings and women-only immigration detention centres.

Carceral feminism encapsulates a reliance on policing, sentencing, probation, prisons, immigration enforcement and other oppressive systems as a desirable response to gender-based harm and violence. The implicit message here is that the state and its agents can save us; that they can play a leading role in our liberated futures, if only they could be properly resourced and trained, and would step up to the plate. Carceral feminism encourages us to trust the institution of the criminal-legal system to keep watch as we march towards liberation – a logic which is divorced from reality.

Where police action on ‘crime’ is ‘successful’, the resultant prosecutions and prison sentences do little more than fuel inequality. As a grass-roots organiser explained to me, ‘There are some, like, rich white women who could put a man in jail if they got sexually assaulted, which might feel good for them. I don’t want to take that away from them, but it’s not making anyone else any safer, and the chance of them being able to do that is only [likely] if the man actually has less institutional or structural power than she does.’

Very rarely does the criminal-legal system pursue figures with economic and institutional power, such as Jimmy Savile, who used his position as a DJ and radio host to abuse hundreds of children and young people and evaded any criminal-legal punishment; or Prince Andrew, who faced allegations of involvement in sex trafficking yet did not face any criminal repercussions; or Wayne Couzens, who prior to murdering Sarah Everard was nicknamed ‘the Rapist’ by his police colleagues, who didn’t see fit to escalate their concerns. 

Most commonly, the people who face both the everyday violence of policing and the full force of the law are working-class and marginalised people who have been simultaneously targeted and abandoned by the state.

— An edited excerpt from Why Would Feminists Trust the Police? by Leah Cowan.

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Why Would Feminists Trust the Police?
Every week it seems there is a fresh scandal involving abhorrent, racist, misogynist behaviour by police officers. Yet these are the very people women are supposed to approach for help when faced w...

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