The Police as Social Change Agents? the Curious Case of Poland's Transition

By Marx, Gary T. | Social Justice, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Police as Social Change Agents? the Curious Case of Poland's Transition


Marx, Gary T., Social Justice


A VIEW HELD BY MANY SOCIAL CRITICS IS THAT POLICE ARE INVARIABLY AGENTS of those in power and will do whatever is necessary to perpetuate the regime. This is thought to be particularly true of traditional authoritarian and totalitarian governments believed to be lacking popular legitimacy, or at least offering procedural means by which that could be determined. In such societies the police, along with the military, use their monopoly on the means of violence and direct control over the means of mass communication to protect the status quo. [1]

Of course, the police role in protecting the state and in engaging in abuses is not restricted to nondemocratic governments. The original French conception of a "high police" (referring to position in the hierarchy, rather than to being "stoned") was for an absorbent police who would saturate the society in the interest of protecting the state (Brodeur, 1983). Activities such as the FBI's COINTIELPRO, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and the investigation of CISPES continue to be part of our political landscape.

However, a distinction can be made between the police role in supporting laws of the state when they are developed through democratic procedures and embody universalistic values (such as those associated with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the protection of democracy) and the police role in acting to perpetuate the rule of those in power beyond democratic procedures (e.g., Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, CISPES). In the former, dissent is not automatically labeled as crime.

In the West, over several centuries police power has been limited by constitutions, law, and policy, as well as by oversight from executive, legislative, and judicial agencies, interest groups, and the mass media. The development of permanent police bureaucracies with significant autonomy (whether formally mandated or de facto) and the rule of law formally limits what can be asked of police and offers some insulation from political pressures. The police role has also greatly broadened, offering services to citizens through maintaining order, controlling street crime (and, to a lesser degree, white collar crime), and carrying out administrative functions such as licensing and traffic management. Relative to the past, when they could operate with impunity and perceived pragmatism, police in the West have also softened their approach to political challenges, staying broadly within the confines of nonviolence (Della Porta and Reiter, 1998).

Whatever the continuing commonalties concerning the political role of the police across societies, the repressive role of police in the Soviet-dominated countries is archetypical in literature and social science. Indeed, we describe such states as "police states." [2] Yet, as a character in a David Mamet play observes, "things change." The relatively peaceful transition in Poland is documented in an important new book by Maria Los and Andrzej Zybertowicz, Privatizing the Police State (2000). It is essential reading for anyone interested in the police role. The book requires us to question the automatic equation of police with the established order and calls for a more nuanced view. Police are not automatically puppets of those in, or with, power. Police also have their own interests and resources. Given differentiation within and between police agencies, their resources may be used independently and in complex and contradictory ways, which may change over time.

In discussing commentators on the Black Muslims, Malcolm X observed, "those that know, don't say and those that say, don't know." Until the appearance of this well-argued and documented book, with its provocative thesis about the central role of the secret police in political and economic affairs, the same might have been said of many commentators on Poland's transition from a Communist to a privatized state. The study suggests that under certain conditions police may undermine rather than protect the state.

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