State, Police, and Justified Violence

Didier Fassin writes in his ethnography of urban policing in France:

“Expressing surprise at the existence of police violence could be considered as remarkable in itself. From a sociological point of view-and thus beyond the specific situation in France, violence is in fact constitutive of the very role of law enforcement. In modern societies, it is to the police that the state delegates its “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence,” in the terms of Max Weber’s classic definition. Beyond this general sociological principle, theoreticians of public force, particularly in North America, have made their own Egon Bittner’s dictum, that the “use of force is the essence of the police role.” In other words, above and beyond the diversity of tasks entrusted to the police whether arresting a wrongdoer, containing a demonstration, preventing a domestic dispute from degenerating, giving verbal warnings to careless drivers or providing first aid to an injured person what distinguishes them from other professional groups and even from other citizens is the possibility, if they judge it necessary, of using force to resolve the problem, and also the fact that everyone is aware of this, and behaves accordingly.”

Hence, the modern state has institutionalized justified violence via the police force. However, as Fassin has mentioned, such an institutional form, which the state morphs itself into, surely raises questions regarding the fundamental ideas which have given birth to the modern democratic liberal nation states. How “democratic” is the police?, and how “liberal” is it to have the police force?

Let’s start with the question regarding the democratic side of the modern state and the place of police institutions. If we base the idea of modern democracies to Rousseau’s ‘social contract’, which is the view that citizens’ moral and political obligations are dependent upon an agreement among them to form the society in which they live, then we would have to assume that modern state institutions are a part of the public’s general will and that the actions of such institutions are for the people, not against their collective will (let’s leave aside the weakness of the notion for now). On the other hand, when the public protests against the state policies, the first obstacle they face is the police force, who are legally able to exert power using weaponry (chemical at times). In such scenarios, the police force is used as a means to silence the public will and guarantee its own power. In fact, it is via the police force in which the state physically presents itself to the public and polarizes itself against the citizens, instead of co-operating with the people, who should, theoretically, be the ones forming the general will and who are the reason for the existence of the state.

We can further question the notion of ‘liberalism’ in this tension between the liberal state and the existence of justified violence of the police force. I believe that the tension emerges with the dual identity the policemen/policewomen are able to possess. Since every human being is a vehicle of personal views and tendencies, the subjectivity in police decisions makes one question the so-called equally distributed rights to the citizens, especially when a citizen in a police uniform can justifiably exert power to another citizen based on individual tendencies and views. The case is very well explained by Fassin in his ethnography which re-creates how the French police establish different forms of hierarchies between people based on their ethnicity, education level, and gender. Such hierarchies are established through unnecessary police checks, amount of violence exerted during arrests, and the verbal abuse by the police, in which none of such acts are to be questioned by the state, in order to ‘keep the country in order’, whilst claiming that “freedom” is the basic universal human right of every individual.

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