Amanda Porter is a Senior Researcher at Jumbunna IIER she visited the Centre for Criminology as a part of her Post-doctoral Research. Her book “Unsettling Security: Policing, Imperialism and the Myth of Public Safety”.
Tell us a bit about your recent trip, what were you doing at the Centre for Criminology?
My main reason for going to the Centre for Criminology was to complete the archival component of the research for the first chapter of my book, which about the history of state and non-state policing. I was interested in looking at the relationship between policing and imperialism and the development of the modern police in England and the colonies. While completing the fellowship I was able to meet with archivists at the Water Police Museum, historians based at the West India Committee, at the London Docklands Museum as well as scholars working on the ‘Bentham Project’ at University College London (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bentham-project), a project involving 150 volunteers transcribing the works and correspondence of Jeremy Bentham. I was mainly interested in the correspondence between Jeremy Bentham and Patrick Colquhoun, who were two key figures in the setting up the Thames Water Police, the forerunner to the modern police. But I believe the biggest player, and the most neglected in terms of the history of the police, has been the West India Committee, which a collective of plantation owners who lobbied on a number of issues in the 18th century, one example being the establishment of a private police force.
Why does looking at this history matter?
I think a lot of the accounts of policing history are sanitised but they also limit our imagination in terms of ways out of the problem. For many policing scholars and criminologists the solution is to ‘recast the Peelian principles’ but in my mind the myth of the police as originating from a desire to uphold public safety is dangerous not only because it overlooks certain truths in history and the present.
And I think now more than ever we need to take a critical look at the history and operation of the police and ask some hard questions: do the police provide ‘public safety’ and if so, to whom? When you look at the circumstances of recent deaths in police custody—particularly the death of Ms Dhu or Ms Maher—it seems clear that the police did much more than fail to provide safety or fail to protect these women.
In the six months you were in England, did you have some time out and sight see around Oxford?
Well I arrived just in time for Winter, so it was pretty dark, cold and wet most of the time. On the positive side: I guess that I had perfect writing weather most days, ha! No but on a more serious note, I was very grateful for the opportunity to buckle down and just focus on my book—I am fortunate to have this time just to concentrate on my writing, it is very decadent in a way.
Finally, Did the research in those old places give you new ways of looking at the policing issues back in Australia, how do we merge tradition and new practices?
I find old places like that a bit eerie to be honest. Oxford especially, it was bitter-sweet for me. The correspondence between Bentham and Colquhoun has only just been transcribed as part of the Bentham project and a lot of the archival material about the West India Committee and their role in the establishment of the police has been neglected by policing scholars. So on an intellectual level it was fascinating. But on a personal level it was pretty tough. The Pitt Rivers Collection at Oxford University currently holds hundreds of ancestral remains which are yet to be repatriated and it made me feel uncomfortable. Being there really put policing and its deep links with imperialism in perspective for me.
Amanda would like to thank the University of Technology Sydney’s Research and Innovation Office for the International Researcher Development Grant which enabled her to complete the visiting fellowship. She would also like to thank a number of scholars who provided assistance and material on the archival portion of this project: Robert Jeffries at the Water Police Museum, David Wells at the West India Committee, Martin Quinn and Tim Causer at UCL, Lucia Zedner and Alpa Parmar at the Centre for Criminology, Oxford University and volunteers working at the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection, the Water Police Museum and the London Docklands Museum. She would like to extend her thanks to the team at Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research, especially the leadership of Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt, for providing a creative and critical environment from which to conduct this work.