Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The causes of bad policing...


Since I'm going to write about rioting I shall start with an important caveat - when everything has been said and done riots are the fault of the rioter. There may be mitigation, perhaps a little explanation but there is never excuse. I remember Bradford's riots - thirteen years ago now but still a pretty vivid memory for many who recall what it was like:

Ilyas was captured on police cameras wearing an Afro-style wig and throwing burning cardboard through a broken window of Manningham Labour Club while 23 people were inside.  The club was burned to the ground after petrol bombs were thrown by a group of Asian youths.

That is the reality of riot as much as is the grievance that set light to the trouble. We should not forget this regardless of how we view the events that follow the riot. And we should remember that not everyone participating in the riot is doing so for reasons of protest - as we know from London's riots there are some who see the opportunity disturbance presents for a little light looting.

However all this doesn't explain or excuse another factor in the cause of protest and in escalating that protest to riot - bad policing. Here's a bit of an illustration in the words of NFL player, David Bass a native of Ferguson, Missouri:

“I was 15 and one of my best friends had just got a car from his mom, a white Lincoln, and he picked up my brother and I to go to The Loop. When we parked there were police behind us, and next thing you know, there are about 10 police cars surrounding us. They’re screaming, ‘Stay in the car! Keep your hands up! Hand over your IDs.’ People are starting to gather to watch. They took 45 minutes searching the car while we sat on the sidewalk."
I don't know whether Bass's memories exaggerate but, even if the incident was half as big it is still an unnecessary over-reaction from the police. An over-reaction that presages what has happened in Ferguson over recent days. A response that is all about bad policing and maybe a little bit of racism too.

But why is this? Why do police - whether in Bradford, in London or in a suburb of St Louis - get their actions so wrong? I've observed before that the police act too often as some sort of occupying army rather than the agents of a community protecting that community. Here in Bradford we have huge barracks with small windows looming over poor communities. Not just the buildings but the police vehicles and even the police are bristling with antennae and, when there's a disturbance it almost seems as if there's an excitement in the quasi-military response to riot.

And from what we've seen, the USA has even more of a problem - a police force now armed to the teeth on the back of false fears about terrorism. This militarising of the police - in terms of equipment and operations is what, in part, creates the tension between a poor community and the police whose job is to protect that community. Plus the fact that, regardless of the additional tension that stems from racial difference, those police officers are no from that community. Here in Bradford there are probably no police officers living in West Bowling or on the Allerton estate - like the social workers and community developers the police live elsewhere and visit just to ply their trade.
The second cause of bad policing is the tendency to see everything out of the ordinary as a threat to order - whether it's people saying unpleasant things on Twitter, folk gathering to protest some perceived injustice or simply the reaction to a crime or spate of crimes. And since "something must be done" us politicians respond with regulations that give the police more powers - we criminalise harmless possession, define disorder is such a way as to make almost any public action arrestable and we make the definition of 'anti-social behaviour' so wide as to provide the police with the power to make criminal things that even the politicians haven't defined as criminal.
As a result of these powers coupled with an aggressive quasi-military approach, we have replaced the idea of policing by consent with a different approach - policing as social control. With each additional power the business of law enforcement becomes less PC Dixon and more Judge Dredd with the police exercising almost arbitrary power underwritten by compliant magistrates and legislation so broadly defined as to remove any ability for peaceful resistance to the orders of a police officer.

In the end society has to respond to riot, looting and violence because decent people expect us to do just that. But we also need to ask whether tear gas, water cannon and armoured vehicles are the best way to respond. For my part I'm not sure they are the right approach since they reflect a macho, testosterone-fuelled response to disorder and merely act to build up resentment, grievance and the seeds of future disorder.
We need to return to the idea of policing by consent and rediscover real community policing - not merely as an operational strategy but as the entire purpose of policing. We do not need huge barracks where the brass hats dish out the orders for the day in some sort of war room. Rather we need what we lost - local police based in local police stations, the sort of places with a welcoming blue light over the door and police officers with familiar faces seen every day - more akin to Officer Krupke than to today's flak-jacketed cop with his face hidden in a helmet.


No comments: