In the End, Everyone Will Have a Mugshot: On the Birth of the Police
The Police Came Into Being to Answer a Single Question:
Who Owns What?
Can we imagine a world without Police?
The degree to which we consider Police indispensable is the degree to which Police can be said to be effective.
The earliest written record of the term πτόλις (polis) is in Hesiod,c.750 BCE. For the Greeks it referred to the city-state, or sometimes more specifically to the city’s core, the citadel, around which the city developed. The Romans latinized the cognate πολιτεία (politeia), “citizenship, administration, civil polity” into politia, which was adopted into Middle French as police, which in the early 15th century came into English as a direct borrowing, la police, a fashionable, gourmet version of “policy” or “public order.”
The word did not take on its current meaning as a collective noun until 1797 when a group of London merchants pooled funds to hire a band of hooligans to prevent theft of their inventory from the docks, mostly by their own employees. They armed the group with clubs and called them The Police. This metonymy would have sounded a lot like “The Policy” would sound to us now, perhaps even with the same tinge of dark humor. This initial band of 50 men saved the merchants hundreds of thousands in theft prevention, and in 1800 the City of London transformed them from a private to a public organization. The Thames River Police is now the oldest public police organization in the world.
Benefits of the new policy spread rapidly along the trade routes of the British empire. Police traveled everywhere the English language did, and soon became the lingua franca of the docks in New York, Dublin, Sydney, Glasgow, etc. Despite a few incidences of trepidation and even revolt, Police came to be the gold standard of governance, world- wide, in only about 50 years. The spread mirrored the rise of English as the language of international trade.
Between the jus imperium of ancient Rome and the Thames River Police there were knights and church orders, volunteer constables and mercenary bounty hunters, hastily organized posses and stately royal guards, vigilante groups and elected citizenry. There were railroad guards, bridge tenders, tax collectors, ship captains, landlords, field bosses, priests, chiefs, fire brigades and, when things really got out of hand, the cavalry.
Where there had been hundreds of methods there was suddenly only one, and all the others became instantly antique. Henceforth constables would monitor street lamps. Posses and bounty hunters became nostalgic figures of romance. Royal guards became skeuomorphs, architectural decoration. Vigilante and citizen groups began to be considered as rebels themselves, and the host of lower-level monitors and bosses became bureaucrats and record-keepers.
The adoption of French words into English to suggest refinement or class distinction probably dates to the Norman Conquest, that brief period, 1066-1150, when French was the language of the English court. This era of clear linguistic distinction between conquerors and conquered, between the ruling and indentured classes, is apparent in English even today in pairings like cook/chef or fashion/couture. Just as, today, restaurants up their star ratings by giving their cooks clean uniforms, toque blanches, and a French job description, so, in 1800, London stripped the dock roughnecks of their overalls and gave them elegant blue uniforms with matching spiked helmets. Tree limbs and broken oar handles were replaced with fine hardwood clubs produced on lathes to a standard size and polished to a high and uniform gloss. Beards were trimmed and faces washed. The men were arranged in rows, tallest in back, and their elegance recorded for posterity in the brand-new medium of photography.
Police comes into being to answer a single question: who owns what. The docks are an unruly place where goods belonging to people and entities increasingly removed from the actual location of these goods are being transferred to other owners equally distant. Goods belonging to one factory or farm are commingled with goods from others that are destined for the same port, and this commingling and reordering is done by impoverished dock workers whose interest in the goods they handle is not always abstract. A tear in a bag of flour can become a family’s bread that night. A bit off the end of a bolt of cloth might yield a child something to wear to her job at the factory the next day.
The question of who is stealing what from whom can sometimes be answered by visual clues, as when one actually witnesses a worker pocketing a bit of grain or opening a box he is supposed to be merely transporting. But the workers are clever. Sometimes they transfer the goods with stealth rather than clumsy force. A frugal worker might actually accumulate enough wealth to acquire by legal means a watch or a new pair of breeches. So increasingly Police must rely on less concrete evidence of ownership. They must be literate and mathematically proficient. They must be able to check inventories and read bills of lading. They must be able, at least to a limited degree, to write similar documents themselves. The night officer must make a record of the evening’s movements of people and goods to hand to the day officer in the morning, and these records must be formalized and consistent, so that if one officer misses a shift due to illness or drunkenness or some other necessity, another can assume that position with no loss of continuity.
Likewise, the Police must know who they are policing. They must know the workers from the bosses and the bosses from the owners. They must know who is actually a worker and who is a thief merely posing as a worker. Hundreds of people come and go on the busy docks; no officer can determine their roles from memory or appearance alone. The way to solve this problem is to assume illegitimacy, to pass this aspect of policing on to the worker himself. Each worker must prove that he is indeed a worker. A boss must vouch for him, and since the bosses cannot be everywhere at once, each worker must carry a token or sign of the boss’s approval.
Police created the modern concept of Identity through this assumption of universal guilt among the working class. One is a thief unless one can prove otherwise. Thievery is not merely punished; it is prevented by this pragmatic measure. Have your identity card or go to gaol.
Simultaneously with Police is born the notion of Crime. Like the obverse face of the same coin, negative linguistic pole required to reify the original term, Crime rises into Western consciousness as an urgent necessity, the raison d’être of Police.
Crime is the reason for Police, but Police is also the reason for Crime. Just as Police introduces into the diverse and disorderly practices of the protection of the gentry’s property a single unified force of suppression, so Crime comes to organize and define the various unseemly activities of the working class rabble. Each is the not of the Other, and together they create a social and political knot, a “bootstrap” structure of continually escalating friction, a tangle that widens and gradually ensnares the entire culture.
The tautology itself is perhaps not remarkable, as it merely exemplifies the normal linguistic function of definition by opposition that Saussure and every linguist who came after him observed. But this particular tautology rises with stunning historical rapidity to the status of a central if not universal structure. The moment Police and its obverse are created, they have always existed. Every trace of the historical time before is erased.
Photography has held, from its beginnings in the early 19th century, a special place in the arsenal of Police weaponry. As a kind of public relations tool, the Police and the military were among the first to use it to put forth their public face, archival representation of order and symmetry. Carefully posed, uniforms immaculate, not a hair out of place, arrayed in order of rank and seniority, the Police placed itself at the beginning of history by placing itself at the beginning of the new technology that will, henceforth, record it.
But public relations was not the only utility Police found in the new medium. Just as Crime is the obverse of the Police itself, the mugshot is the flip side of the PR photo. Unposed and unadorned, fresh from interrogation or clubbing, filth of the street still apparent and without benefit of tonsorial detailing, the Criminal, too, is recorded into the archive. The mugshot is placed in the file, stapled to the record of the life: name or names, place of residence, date and place of birth, employment history, spouse(s), children, parents, siblings, and of course the record of criminal activities and arrests.
The mugshot itself—with its backdrop of chipped plaster and peeling paint, with its messy hair, its small chalkboard with an identification number and a list of crimes—is proof of the subject’s criminality. If, in the past, a citizen’s infractions against property owners or the state were treated as activities requiring this or that mode of redress, after the institution of the Police, Crime becomes a matter of Identity, a genetic code that belongs to the person as opposed to the act, and remains in the front of the file no matter the further course of the Subject’s life. “Crime” is no longer an action but a proclivity, a “personality trait,” a disease. The mother doesn’t resort to theft or prostitution because her children are starving but because of the Crime she carries within herself, within her body.
Increasingly, the new science of Psychology and the ancient arts of Medicine will be called upon to address Crime. The new surgical technique of lobotomy is created as an attempt to excise Crime from the worker’s body surgically. Criminals are sterilized to prevent them from passing Crime on to future generations. The new and epistemologically rigorous “science” of Criminology is created to study and classify the various forms of the disease.
The Police system, originally formulated as a protection for factory owners and merchants, spread with the Industrial Revolution. As the bosses’ muscle, it became an essential part of the mass production scenario and an emblem of British efficiency and colonial domination. Patrick Colquhoun, who founded the Thames River Police, used arguments from Jeremy Bentham to convince the merchant’s association to give the new system a try, and Bentham’s utopian vision of a working class under total and constant surveillance underlies the workings of Police to this day.
But because of their ground-breaking work in Identity creation, the role of the Police—and the realm of Crime—quickly expands beyond the docks and factories into every facet of human life. Everything that might be logged on a worker’s Identity Card—employment and marital status, sexual practice, alcohol and drug use, skin tone, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, place and time of birth, family organization—becomes relevant to the subject’s relationship to Crime and the Police.
In the end, everyone will have a mugshot. Everyone will have a file, a number, an Identity. Everyone will be, to one degree or another, a criminal. And no worries about the exorbitant cost of imprisonment; Identity structures the whole Earth as a locked box, a prison.
Excerpt from La Police: Policy, Politics, Photography, Language, a chapbook produced by Locofo Chaps. 100 politically oriented chapbooks produced within the first 100 days of the Trump administration were printed and mailed to the White House. The entire set—along with the complete version of this one—is viewable at http://www.moriapoetry.com/locofo.html.