Policing and justice

If, like me, you’ve been watching the TV news over the last few days, you’ll have seen the same scene repeated with minor variations again and again:

Dawn.  A nondescript front door in an unidentified urban area.  A large team of police officers in full riot gear breaking down the door and piling through mob-handed.  A brief cutaway to something else.  Cut back some time later to show a single teenager, hands cuffed, being escorted out, his face obscured.  Another officer follows with a nearly empty evidence bag.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  I mean, the wheels of justice grinding slow but inexorable: what’s not to cheer?

Well, for a start, this looks like a clear case of overkill.  So far as I can see, there is no way the numbers of officers shown is justified on operational grounds.  You might need this number of officers if you were intending to arrest several people at the same address, and wanted enough bodies in the house to make sure you could lock down all the suspects simultaneously, in order to prevent some escaping or having the opportunity to destroy evidence.  For a single suspect, it looks entirely over the top – almost absurdly so.

So why do it?  After all, the juxtaposition this creates in the mind of the public is not flattering to the police.  As buildings went up in flames, and people fled panic-stricken from their homes, the police stood by watching; now that the danger is past, and their safety is quite assured, they turn up mob-handed to demonstrate how tough they are.  This looks like classic ‘cowardly bully’ behaviour – absent at the moment of crisis, full of bluster and bravado once the danger’s passed.  But in truth I don’t think this is about police cowardice, or even, fundamentally, the practical realities of policing.  I think it’s about theatre.

The concept of ‘security theatre’ has gained quite wide acceptance, I think.  It’s the idea that many of the high-profile security measures put in place in airports, for example, do very little to actually make people safer, but are instead designed to make people feel safe.  It seems fairly obvious to me that the massive deployment of officers for what are essentially small-time arrests – and, crucially, the fact that the media were invited to go along to film and photograph events – is intended to ‘send a signal’, in exactly the same way that enhanced airport security checks after 9/11 were intended to ‘send a signal’.

That said, there does seem to be some doubt about precisely what signal is being sent, and to whom.  Is the signal for members of the public – reassurance that the rule of law has been re-established?  Is it for potential looters and arsonists – look at what the consequences of those actions are?  Or is the signal a little different?  Is it intended, not to make a statement about the future, but the past?  Is it intended to spare the blushes of senior police officers accused of doing too little in the early stages of the riots, and now determined to show how on top of the situation they are?  Most likely, I suspect, it’s a combination of all of the above.

Whatever the precise nature of the signal being sent, it seems to me there’s a danger this kind of ‘police theatre’ might be counter-productive.  I suggested in my last post that one of the background causes of the looting and rioting was the lack of trust between the police and certain communities that they are tasked with policing.  It seems to me that heavy-handed tactics of the kind being shown on the media reports are likely to fuel that kind of resentment, not help to ameliorate it – the police aren’t just arresting wrongdoers, but smashing up property and disturbing the peace of the neighbourhood in order to do so.

It’s hard not to contrast these images (coming mainly, I think, from London) with the footage I saw of the Birmingham peace rally yesterday, which showed police officers – a few police officers – standing hand in hand with the rest of the community.  If you asked my opinion as to which set of images would best reduce the likelihood of further rioting, I’d say it was the images of officers standing as members of the community they police, not the images of officers as mob-handed outsiders who swoop in to mete out something they call justice, but looks more like retaliation.

The peaceable majority in the communities affected by the looting and arson want justice to be done, I’m quite sure.  I know that if I lived in one of the violated communities – I live on a high-rise ‘social housing’ estate, but in an area that has seen no rioting – I would want to see justice done.  But justice has to be something that arises from within the community itself, not something that is imposed upon it by outsiders.  For the British model of policing – policing by consent – to work, police officers have to be part of the communities they police, not hostile outsiders.  It’s not enough for them to ‘stand with’ (in that overworked politician’s cliché) the peaceable community, they have to be part of that peaceable community, and known to be so.

It seems, though, that this is not something that is universally accepted by the police themselves.  Over the past few days I have seen several people connected with the police, or claiming to speak on their behalf, state that the initial failure to respond adequately to the riots was the result of police officers receiving ‘mixed signals’ about the kind of policing the public want.  One commentator – a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority I saw interviewed on the BBC News channel on Saturday night – put it quite explicitly.  I’m paraphrasing from memory, and may therefore not have his exact words, but in essence he suggested that on the one hand the public say they want ‘robust policing’, but on the other hand insist police officers face manslaughter charges when they are suspected of being ‘too robust’.  This desire – for the police to tackle crime, but without committing crime themselves – he identified as evidence of so-called ‘mixed signals’.

This is, of course, nonsense, and the choice we’re implicitly being presented with here is entirely false.  It’s simply not the case that we have either to accept a police force that sits idly by while the country is trashed, or alternatively grant our police officers authority to commit assault and murder without fear of prosecution.  There is, obviously, a very large middle ground, in which the police are empowered to intervene, using proportionate force where absolutely necessary, but remain subject to the same standards of behaviour they are pledged to enforce in others.

As with the self-proclaimed ‘defenders of law and order’ who called for summary execution of rioters last week, I’m staggered that police officers – who doubtless see themselves as the ultimate ‘defenders of law and order’ – could argue that they ought to be placed beyond the law, thus becoming, in effect, a vigilante mob.  The whole concept of ‘the law’ only works if it is universal and applies equally to all of us.  If the same laws don’t apply equally to everyone, including the police, then ‘the law’ ceases to be a means of upholding justice, and becomes instead the means by which injustice and inequality are institutionalised.

As I pointed out in my last post (and subsequently saw the same thing said by Peter Oborne of The Telegraph; that one I didn’t expect), one of the immediate causes of the looting was that the looters had learned the lessons taught them by our society: that taking is good, that everyone has their eye on what they can get for themselves, and that if you’re not one of the people milking the system, you’re one of the people being milked by it.  ‘The law’ is already on the wrong side of justice on this one, in that looters who took from their own communities are facing the full might of the state, while the bankers (and the MPs with their dodgy expenses, as Oborne rightly highlights) who also took from their own communities in a way that’s, morally speaking, almost identical have faced no significant penalties.

The solution to the problem of the rioting and looting isn’t to place the police beyond the law, so that their response can become ever more violent and draconian.  That can only identify the police more closely with the rich and powerful, and thus intensify and prolong the resentment felt by the poor and powerless.  The solution must be the exact opposite: to ensure that the law becomes the servant of justice, not privilege, and that everyone is treated equally, no matter their place in society.

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3 Responses to Policing and justice

  1. gun street girl says:

    Here in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC in 2001, most local police departments have been encouraged to treat all suspected criminal activity as if it might turn into a full blown assault/riot/terrorism event at any moment. Police departments were given federal money to buy riot gear, obtain training, conduct simulations, etc., and many of them now have all this fancy and expensive stuff sitting around and feel they should probably use it. The end result is that nowadays when you go to any outdoor event that might require police security instead of seeing friendly officers in the standard blue uniforms you see what are essentially jack-booted thugs, clothed from head to foot in black, wearing reflective eyewear, and carrying massive weapons of various sorts (guns, tasers, chemical sprays). It also means that most drug busts, even minor ones, are conducted as full-on assaults. It is probably not an accident that this looks great on TV.

    A few years ago we had incident near here where a “suspicious package” was delivered to a suburban home. The state and county police were watching the package (which contained marijuana) and as soon as the resident of the home arrived and took the package indoors (this constitutes accepting delivery) they did a full bore SWAT attack on the home, exercising a “no-knock” warrant. Turns out the house belonged to the mayor and his address was chosen randomly by the drug dealer; an accomplice was supposed to pick up the package but didn’t. So basically what happened was that multiple officers in SWAT gear burst into this innocent man’s home, held his family at gunpoint, shot and killed both his dogs, handcuffed his elderly mother in law, and interrogated him for hours while he was dressed only in his underwear. They ended up not actually arresting anyone after all that. They failed to involve local law enforcement; the city police chief later said he’d have just gone over to the mayor’s house and knocked on the door.

    While I am not in any way opposed to the arrest of drug dealers, this just failed on so many levels and was so unnecessary. Unfortunately, nothing was learned from this. The same county police have said repeatedly they did nothing wrong and would “do it again”. They did however settle a lawsuit out of court with the mayor in exchange for some money and “SWAT reforms”, whatever that means.

  2. Kapitano says:

    Whenever a strategy fails, there’s always the question: Did it fail because it’s a bad strategy, or because we didn’t do it hard enough?

    If security theater doesn’t intimidate, should we try something else, or have more security theater? If ‘community policing’ stunts don’t make the public trust the police, do we need more stunts…or try intimidation instead?

    At the moment, the response to the failure of theater is more theater, but there’s enough mixed signals and confused punditry in the media to suggest debate and uncertainty in government and police.

    Of course, one course of action is to persue several mutually incompatible strategies simultaneously. Community stunts, media paranoia, hand-wringing of ‘alienation’, intimidation, draconian laws, pseudo-conciliatory talking heads on TV – we could have all these at once. Which would be…interesting.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Kapitano – sorry for the delay in your comment appearing – I decided to have some time away from my computer before I actually became grafted to my chair…

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