At war: the rise of militarised policing
This article first appeared on the Red Pepper website
Police chiefs are fond of talking about the way UK law enforcement is guided by a bedrock principle of “policing by consent”: the idea that police officers are legitimised by a consensus of support in the communities where they exercise their powers.
Whether this has ever been true is another matter. Over the last four decades, there have been many in working class mining villages, in black and Asian communities, amongst numerous protest movements and in the north of Ireland who would profoundly disagree. Nevertheless, it is a comforting and prevailing fiction – even if it is hard to reconcile with the fact the police in this country are apparently in a permanent state of war.
These ‘wars’ on Britain’s streets include, unsurprisingly, the unending ‘war on terror’, but also a war on ‘gangs’, a war on ‘illegal immigration’, a war on ‘extremism’. Every battle requires an enemy and these wars are no exception, whether Muslim communities, or urban black youth, or political dissenters, or the ‘tidal wave of migrants’ the Daily Mail insists is the ‘greatest threat to Europe’ since 1945.
The police leaders expected to prosecute these conflicts, like the generals of any army, are constantly insisting they need more comprehensive intelligence, improved weapons and logistics, more boots on the ground. Unsurprisingly, there is also a growing network of private sector companies, like their counterparts in the arms trade, whose profits are dependent on the continuance of irregular domestic war: on expanding the emerging policing and security market in Britain and exporting it around the world.
In a 2012 speech [, 94 kB] after becoming Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan Howe talked about ‘Total Policing’: “using all the powers we have, all the levers we can access, all the skills and capabilities of our people in a total war on crime.” He added:
“Our most important activity is often pre-emptive – targeting criminals before they strike – or preventative – trying to head off the risks… We will need to reorganise ourselves so that we can put more officers and staff into the teams who go into battle on our behalf”.
Placing everyday policing on a war footing enables senior officers to claim the need to respond to alleged ‘threats’ to social order using extraordinary means – in other words, to break the notional rules of ‘policing by consent’.
One result is a nominally unarmed British police who have shot dead Jean Charles de Menezes, Mark Duggan, Azelle Rodney, Anthony Grainger and Jermaine Baker, or who in 2014 alone threatened UK citizens with Tasers on over ten thousand occasions and fired on them over 1700 times.
Another consequence is a liberal society that is prepared to comprehensively spy on Muslim communities under the ‘Prevent’ ‘anti-radicalisation’ programme, increasingly extended to other so-called ‘domestic extremists’ involved in a wide range of activism from campaigners against fracking to bereaved families seeking justice following a death in custody.
So too is the changing approach to policing public order: more officers in riot gear, more mobile security barriers, the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to introduce water cannon to the UK mainland (defeated due to public pressure) . Another is the threat of eviction against families of alleged ‘gang’ members, a sinister form of guilt-by association familiar to occupied Palestinian communities; the fencing, barbed wire and scanning equipment at our borders; the systemic absorption of academia into developing greater police surveillance; or the highly intimidating and blatantly racist operations conducted by police and immigration enforcement officers in search of ‘illegals’.
The desire for ever greater intelligence by police means mass surveillance of our social media, the routine filming of demonstrations, the harassment of protest organisers, a database of young people ‘at risk’ of becoming drawn into a gang. Currently, a public inquiry is examining the grotesque tactics that undercover officers have been prepared to use to undermine organised political dissent.
So much for consent: the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, we are expected to avoiding questioning why the police are acting more and more like an army of occupation.
After all: don’t you know there is a war on?
The notion of police militarisation might sound like paranoia, but even the body representing rank-and-file officers has used it as a warning as austerity hits more ‘old-fashioned’ forms of policing. In part, this is because senior police chiefs know governments are always able to find money for responses to supposedly extraordinary threats: it’s the reason why the Metropolitan Police will recruit 600 extra armed officers in the aftermath of the Paris attacks last November.
In March this year, many of the companies that provide the technology and support for militarised policing – and that help fuel the demand for ever more repressive or intrusive methods of ‘Total Policing’ – are gathering behind closed doors for ‘Security and Policing 2016‘, a sales exhibition in Farnborough.
The event, which is organised by the Home Office and the arms industry’s trade body (ADS), has been billed as enabling exhibitors “to display products which would be too sensitive to show in a more open environment”. Numerous national and international police forces, national crime units and military delegations will attend to network with delegates.
In response, a coalition of groups is arguing that the time has come for us to start joining the dots: between mass surveillance and data capture, the oppressive use of stop & search, the labelling of individuals as ‘domestic extremists’, the criminalisation of young black men and the racist targeting of migrants.
The militarisation of policing in Britain is already underway. If the police are using all the powers they have, all the levers they can access, all the skills and capabilities of their people to make it happen, then maybe we should consider the same approach to actively resisting it.
A public planning meeting for opposition to ‘Policing and Security 2016’ takes place in London tonight (Thursday 21 January): Resisting police militarisation and state repression