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Policing is a symptom, not a cause. We need less talking, more listening

June 9, 2020

An interesting discussion is brewing in the United States on the question of whether police forces should be reconstructed in response to widespread complaints about the brutality of their methods and, in a wider context, concern about their apparent militarisation.

It’s relevant here in the UK as well. Back in the day, our police looked like relatively normal people when they were going about their usual business, even if they did wear funny hats. They only turned into terminators when they donned their riot gear. But now, the average police officer wears apparel that seems designed to intimidate. Stab jackets, and all manner of devices – sticks, tasers, radios, handcuffs, videocams – that tell anyone encountering them that they’re not to be messed with. Everything short of guns, of course, though there are plenty of those in evidence in places that have lately been at risk of terrorist attacks, such as airports.

It’s natural that the police would want to have all the latest technology to protect themselves and to communicate with their colleagues when the need arises. But while battle readiness may be necessary in areas where violence is rife, it’s hard to believe that there’s a need to dominate – to use Trump’s word – the streets of a sleepy little town in Wiltshire. And domination, as well as self-protection, is clearly an intentional product of the array of kit the police carry today.

I suspect those politicians with an authoritarian bent, such as our current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and Donald Trump in the US, wouldn’t have it any other way. Indeed, for Trump, as pressure groups advocate drastic reorganisation of policing, his self-proclaimed status as the “law and order president”, is one of his main hopes of keeping his job in November.

The irony in this, or so it seems to me, is that the weaker the bonds that glue our society together, and the stronger the fear that its norms are disintegrating, the more likely it is that our leaders will respond with symbols of strength. Or, to put it more simply, the more quasi-military uniforms you see in a country, the less coherent and stable that country is likely to be.

The arguments for putting people in uniform usually centre around esprit de corps and clear identification with an organisation. And it’s not as though they’re any more prevalent now than they were half a century ago. Back then, the fashion was for uniforms that had their origins in the military. The Salvation Army, Automobile Association patrolmen, Boy Scouts and even brass bands were decked out in apparel that had a military flavour.

That fetish was on the wane until recently. For me, the turning point was when the people who check our passports at airports suddenly stopped looking like you and me and started looking like commandos. I’ve written about this before (here and here), so I won’t labour the point further.

My concern today is that manifestations of authority, in the form of uniforms that distance and sometimes intimidate, seem to be on the rise. There are times when it’s hard to tell a security guard from a police officer, and a police officer from a soldier. And the origin is not “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. It’s fear. And fear is a symptom of weakness, not strength.

So, as most politicians know, because they use it to their advantage, the issue that we need to dwell upon is fear, and the causes of fear.

The way to deal with fear is not to deny that reasons to be fearful exist. Whenever possible, we should place it in context. I remember a British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia at the height of the terrorist campaign against Westerners making the point that we had a far greater chance of being killed or injured on the road than being shot by Al Qaeda. Yet we would cheerfully drive out on the highways while at other times hiding in fear in our compounds.

And to what extent do tactics to generate fear, such as the use of riot police at demonstrations, lead to incidents they were designed to deter? Would people be more or less likely to throw stones at other people who aren’t dressed for battle, and therefore aren’t seen as symbols of oppression? How can neighbourhood policing work if those who do the policing are, by their appearance and demeanour, seen as potential oppressors rather than neighbours?

I’m not suggesting that the police should allow themselves to be sitting ducks. More, that they should be responding to fears grounded in reality rather than imagination, and that a calculation of reality should be based on an assessment of risk according to universally-accepted rules rather than a one-size-fits-all posture. And those who command police forces should be aware that by their policies they create their own realities, which are sometimes the opposite of what they intend.

It would be interesting to see a survey of people who regularly encounter fully kitted-out police in their neighbourhoods. Do they feel safer because of their presence, or are they more fearful because they see the presence of these officers as evidence that they, the respondents, have reason to be fearful?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on policing, but I do know a little about what makes people tick. And what I also know is that we have a problem with policing which reflects wider problems in society as a whole. I’m not convinced that tearing down and re-building structures is an answer, because I don’t have sufficient insight into the problem. But without too much disruption, it would do us no harm to look at training, tactics and the use of psychology in policing. As for the wider problems, such as racism, sexual violence, inequality and the consequences of austerity, the police must be involved in the conversations as well as the solutions.

At a time when as a society we’ve rarely been so divided, it’s hard to see easy answers. But we must all be involved in finding them. If we’re relying on our politicians to take the lead, we shouldn’t hold our breath. Leadership is in short supply at the moment.

With that in mind, we should remember that the most effective leaders are those who listen. Who’s listening out there?

From → History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

  1. Robert Ainey permalink

    And could anything be more frightening than the knock on the door in the middle of the night by the Gestapo?

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    the FBI doesn’t knock any more.
    they enter and shoot.
    just like the other “law enforcement” some with bullets, some with lies.

  3. Andrew Robinson permalink

    The French police turns up at 6am on the dot. Just so you know.

    Don’t you hate it when “old people” say “back in the day” rather than “in my/our day” or, even better, “in the olden days, when I was young”, (or use too many “”””””?).

    If I remember from bombs and bullets in KSA there were two places that were unsafe:
    a) 2 compounds in Riyadh and 1 in Al-Khobar/Dammam
    b) traffic lights (I was threatened with a gun in Riyadh and a khanjar on the Khobar-Dammam main road – I ran the red lights in two inadvertent Starsky & Hutch moments, fortunately being at the front of the queue).

    • Yeah, guilty as charged re back in the day. In my experience, roads were scarier than Al Qaeda, but those caught up in the attacks would no doubt disagree. Funniest moment I recall was when I drove an American consultant from Riyad to Khobar. We stopped for gas and snacks on the way, and he refused to get out of the car. “Do you think there’s someone here who’s going to shoot us?” That’s fear, though I laughed at the time.

  4. deborah a moggio permalink

    there is almost no part of our government(s), at no matter what level, that is NOT part of the problem. Look at what the CDC has been doing!!

    • I bow to your superior knowledge…

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        now, now, let’s not get snarky THIS early in our acquaintance!

      • Not snarky – you know your country better than I do!

  5. deborah a moggio permalink

    You seem to do well at keeping up with mine as it leads the world down the hole.
    I’m glad other leaders and “leaders” are finally willing to stand up and say out loud what is going wrong here. Perhaps they will decouple from the train that has too long lead the (wrong) way

    • Some will (Merkel, Macron). Some won’t (Johnson, Orban). And there will be many other examples of both in other parts of the world. So sad. Such lost opportunities to lead by example. Positive examples, that is.

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        a shortage exists that needs filling. Perhaps you could write a job description to get a different sort of person applying for these jobs?

      • That would rule out the wild cards. Intelligent, empathetic capable of loving others would be a start. Or to put it in the negative, not a stupid, malignant narcissist.

  6. deborah a moggio permalink

    Just a quick, knee jerk reaction, but I think your first list of attributes might reap more useful responses than the second?

    • Quite possible. Narcissism often goes with the territory.

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        sometime master of understatement, you…

      • Let’s say some less than others…

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