Live and let live: the mythological projection of police in the killing of Chris Kaba 

by | 30 May 2024

Continuing our responses to A Philosophical History of Police Killing, today we bring you Carson Arthur’s response to the book.

In the UK, we are seeing the attempted rewriting of ‘police accountability.’ This in response to the prosecution and in preparation for the trial of the police officer, Martyn Blake, who killed Chris Kaba, a 24-year-old, unarmed, Black man in Streatham, London, on 5 September 2022. How can we understand and reckon with any government (not limited to the UK) intervening into juridical and administrative matters that relate to how the police are investigated when there is a death in custody? Lamb’s A Philosophical History of Police Powerwould suggest that this intervention is not so much an intrusion but a binding. According to Lamb, police is irreducible to the police and neither is it simply sovereignty. Rather, if it is said that police intervene, it is to be understood in the sense of a coming between, of a becoming betweenness–this betweenness that reconciles the Manichean split of legal and police power; this betweenness that gives the possibility of sovereignty. 

Unlike previous deaths from police shootings, the investigation of Blake will not be conducted first with an inquiry, but go straight to the criminal court. The trial is due September of this year. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) referred the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) who officially charged Blake, then known anonymously as NX121, with murder on 20 September 2023. In response, some firearms officers protested and refused to use firearms on duty. The Metropolitan Police and the UK government have publicly criticised the IOPC and CPS for their decision. 

The then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, launched a review into the legal powers for police use-of-force, and publicly voiced her support for the police not to be treated as suspects in legal death investigations. PM Rishi Sunak also defended the police and expressed that the police need legal clarity when using force.[1]Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley responded favourably to the review, as expressed in a letter to the Home Secretary

Understandably, the concern for civil liberties charities is that the government is attempting to ‘relax’ the law for the police to avoid legal scrutiny, while also interfering with due process, undermining and compromising the public perception of the trial (those of which a jury is to be selected from), and damaging public confidence in the police, especially from Black communities.[2] These concerns are undergirded by the notion that the police derive their power from the law and the public. However, following Lamb, this notion is a “mythological projection that obscures the fact that police produce their own legitimating grounds” (2024: 21). 

For critical criminologists and critical legal scholars, the general point that the police produce their own legitimacy may be less than radical, though Lamb’s main point is that the singularity that produces its own legitimacy is police. To put it another way, police is the order of self-legitimisation. This legitimisation is not simply the legitimacy to do or act but the legitimacy to be–to be sovereign, to be the self. This is not the legitimacy to merely act in self-defence, but first and foremost the legitimacy for the self to act in the self (that this self is life itself)–which in turn, is to be defended.  

The current review of police use-of-force is an extension of a mythological projection, machinated not only by the police but also the government. Moreover, the mythological projection par excellence is the projection of the police itself (where police vanishes into an institution whether it be governmental or law enforcement). 

Rowley’s letter is an image from this mythological projection, a letter that seeks to reinscribe sovereignty yet via the attempted writing out of its foundational selfhood. This image is discursive. More specifically, it is cursive. For Lamb, drawing from Amengben, police is a signature, in that it is an empty concept (2004: 128). Let us read the letter then not as a signature of (the) police, but more broadly the letter, in its full disclosure, from the beginning to the end, a signature–that is the very representation of the letter as the order of police. While Rowley may have signed off the letter, it is written by sovereignty. Rowley’s authorship is required to forge sovereignty and hide its hand, but just as importantly, as Lamb would perhaps put it, the letter seals the split between sovereignty and government, between law and force–through the representation of ‘law enforcement’. This seal cuts and mediates between legal power and police power, between legality and fatality–this seal, to borrow a perverse neologism from Sunak, is that of “lethality”

On one level, this mediation could be seen as opening and launching the review–a preface to the review. According to INQUEST (2023), “it appears the Home Office have incorporated [the assertions of the letter] into this review’s Terms of Reference.” Regarding the assertions, the letter is not unsimilar from how firearms officers speak about their role in inquests and inquiries. Rowley comments, “an intrinsic part of their training reinforces that shots can only be fired if absolutely necessary to save life.” You will probably notice the replacing of the phrase ‘to kill’ or ‘to eliminate’ with ‘to save life’. The making of life from taking life. Indeed, the metaphoricity of ‘taking’ death as the saving of life. What undergirds this articulation is a logic of applicability (see Lamb 2024: 111-112). This logic presupposes and maintains the distinction of the police as an institution and police as a social action, hence Rowley’s articulation and assertion: “let the police police.” Such a claim belies that the order of police is present for the possibility of sovereignty, law, and even the materiality of official documents, such as a letter. 

Lamb asserts: “To speak of police power is necessarily to speak of anti-Blackness and white supremacy” (2024: 14). The deaths of Black people in police custody are not merely controversial because of its disproportionality and discrimination, but because the ethical order cannot comprehend the life-death of black people. This incomprehension widens the oppositional split between life and death. As with the killing and legal case of Chris Kaba, police seal the blockage and boundary of this gap. 

Lamb posits: “order makes communicable the way that power becomes operative through shuttling back and forth between an empty transcendent end and an immanent order ostensibly necessary for that end” (2024: 130). Following Derrida, we could say, order instantiates the conceptuality of communication. That is, it makes ‘communicable’ a linguistic operation called ‘communication’. Nevertheless, Lamb’s book suggests that we should analyse accountability not as a legal mechanism but a writing machine, a bipolar machine, that constitutes and trafficks life and death. Such an analysis would reveal that in the iteration of “let the police police”, police here is not simply in its semantic and ontological doubleness but in the ‘let’: leaving and allowing–where police desire to be free of itself in its killing of a Black person and writing them as dead.[3]

[1] The debate about Blake’s trial is a discontinuation of another legal case, that of police officer W80, who shot and killed Jermaine Baker. Essentially, that case was related to which standard and test the IOPC should follow in the investigation of a death in police custody. In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the IOPC, “that the test to be applied in disciplinary proceedings in relation to the use of force by a police officer in self-defence is the civil law test.” See

[2] See INQUEST 2023 submission to Home Office review of investigatory arrangements which follow police use of force and police driving incidents

[3] See also Park, Linette 2022 ‘Unhomeliness – Afterlife and Testimony’, Political Theologydoi/full/10.1080/1462317X.2022.2087571


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