Silencing the Streets: From Covid Exceptions to Police Crackdowns

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti, Deanna Dadusc, Raph Schlembach and Lambros Fatsis

Previously published by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton

As news of the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police Officer became a headline story, a vigil held in her memory was violently suppressed by the very same police force on Clapham Common in London. Both incidents should shock us, but they should occasion no surprise. The world may have suddenly woken up to the reality of violence against women — as it belatedly grappled with police racism after last summer’s #BLM protests — but institutionalised misogyny and police violence are nothing new.

Rather than representing an exception, these events confirmed once more that police violence is not the result of “bad apples” of “isolated accidents”. Migrant women, Black women, women of colour and those who are non-normatively gendered are subject to  racist policing and patriarchal violence every day. For decades, they have been saying that the police are not the answer to gendered and racist violence, but part of the problem. The strength of this political moment — however delayed — is that many (carceral) feminist groups who still addressed the police as a solution to gendered violence and who called for more security, more police and more prisons can now learn from the demands and struggles of social movements and community groups that call for the abolition of the police and the criminal legal system as a whole.

These new alliances, coalitions and the protests they inspire are powerful, but they are already targeted and pursued as “dangerous” and “threatening” by the state and its law enforcement institutions through the introduction of the UK government’s Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Rightly nicknamed the “crackdown bill” by those who oppose it, this 296-page document parades its anti-protest stance with pride — raising concerns over its illiberal, undemocratic and discriminatory nature from leading human rights organisations, charities, campaigners and more than 700 legal scholars who (rightly) fear that that aspects of the current emergency powers included in the Coronavirus Act are here to stay. Introduced as a piece of legislation that gives new protections and powers to the police, this new Bill allows senior police officers and the Home Secretary to restrict protest activity in unprecedented ways, while also criminalising the living circumstances of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

When Protesting Became a Crime

Under the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the police can now impose conditions on static assemblies, including timings and approved noise levels, even when the protest is held by just a single person. It will now become a crime to fail to follow police restrictions that protesters “ought” to have known and it will become an offence to intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance as part of a protest, however vague or ill-defined this phrase is. Such authoritarian crackdowns on the right to protest are hardly unexpected and entirely consistent with the government’s “law and order” agenda, whose enmity towards protest has been expressed in public statements that described the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter protests as ‘dreadful’ and labelled Extinction Rebellion activists as ‘criminals’ who ‘disrupt our free society’. Such inflammatory remarks could be ignored as mere reactionary ramblings, yet they threaten to become law. A recent HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report, which accompanies and complements the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, describes ‘activity that seeks to bring about political or social change but does so in a way that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality’ as ‘aggravated activism’. Adopting a Counter Terrorism Policing definition of activism as a form of domestic extremism, such language signals an era of renewed expansion of surveillance on political and social movements.

The criminalisation of dissent that such new legislation further enables is an assault on everyone’s protest rights. The violent suppression of last weekend’s vigils, however, reminds us that men and women are policed differently, as a national study on anti-fracking protests revealed. Scenes of police officers barging into a crowd of mourners, throwing women to the ground and making arrests — as eyewitnesses report — are of a piece with groping and the pulling of clothing to reveal women’s breasts by police officers. A public inquiry is currently investigating the extent to which secretive undercover policing units permitted police officers to deceive female activists into long-term, intimate relationships. Those women who have found that they had been targeted for such operations after their partners’ sudden departures from their lives have long accused the police of institutional sexism and are seeking redress. The practice of having sexual relationships with women in protest groups was apparently so common that some of the victims have spoken of officers conspiring to rape.

As a group of Criminologists at the University of Brighton, we are deeply concerned and angered by tactics used to clamp down on the women-led vigil in Victoria Gardens by the local police force. Neither the statement from Sussex Police, nor the silence from Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne fill us with confidence that lessons will be learned, or decision-makers will be held accountable. It comes as no surprise to us that further protests have been held outside Brighton police station. Many messages and notes left at the temporary memorial to Sarah Everard in Brighton reveal the deep-seated distrust of policing solutions to male violence. “Police don’t protect”, reads one. “You can’t trust the police anymore”, says another. And “more police powers is never the answer”. As many claimed: “We do not want your protection – just stop killing us”.

Policing Protests and the Politics of Disposability

Making sense of these events, urges us to set up before us a broader canvas for a better understanding of policing and violence against women than conventional portraits of the matter allow. It is worth remembering that the protest vigils were met with police violence because they were against police violence. Such attempts to control, limit, silence and dilute dissenting voices is part of a long process of serving, protecting, maintaining and enforcing an unequal social order that is marked by hierarchies of gender, class, sexuality and “race”. What the policing against last weekend’s vigil and the introduction of the crackdown Bill as an extension of police powers and emergency government reveal, is an attempt to dismantle political opposition and social movements. This political logic exposes the State’s hostile relationship to those who are racialised, gendered and classed as subordinate by ensuring that they feel the full force of the law. Such politics of disposability, or what Achille Mbembe calls ‘necropolitics’ encourage us to understand policing, state violence and gender-based violence as interrelated. Defining ‘who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’, as Mbembe notes, reminds us that the social order we are educated and socialised into is racial, as it is gendered and classed. To maintain such an order, an order maintenance institution is required, and the police are happy to oblige. This helps explain why those who are policed and treated with violence; physical, psychological or structural are Black people, those who are non-normatively gendered and those who are classed as a precarious and disposable workforce.

As we grapple with the implications of the current moment and the intersectional thinking that it requires of us, it is imperative to recognise, as the Combahee River Collective Statement compels us to do four decades after its publication, that ‘the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy’. Rethinking our current political moment, therefore, requires us to think about capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy as political economic and cultural systems of oppression that share a common language, ethic and purpose. The policing of protests against police violence therefore illustrates what policing is, what it does, who does it do it to, and who does it do it for; urging us to understand policing as an order maintenance institution that serves and protects a social order that is racialised as “white”, gendered as male or divided into heteronormative binaries and classed according to economic status. If we are to understand policing, we also ought to understand state violence. And to understand state violence, we need to understand that state formation itself is violent, depending as it does on an extractive and repressive logic that is imposed and therefore coercive by its very nature. And this extractive and repressive logic is disproportionately exercised on those who are racialised, gendered and classed as subordinate. As the State proceeds by arming itself with extra powers, empowering ourselves with the knowledge that “toxic masculinity kills” and that “police don’t keep us safe” is the first step towards making our demands heard and remaking the world we want to live in by mobilising our energies to create the conditions for the abolition of interlocking systems of oppression.

Originally published by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton

The not-so-public inquiry into undercover policing has started its evidence hearings

BSC member Raphael Schlembach reports on the oral evidence hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in England and Wales.

Raphael Schlembach is a Principal Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. His research interests span social theory, criminal justice and political protest.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up in 2015, finally has begun to hear oral evidence. Yet, most participants remain side-lined and national security considerations dominate the proceedings. This article argues that the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Mitting, has lost the confidence of the majority of those with an interest in the scandal of undercover policing – victims, campaigners, journalists, academics – with the exception of the police and state representatives. Nevertheless, criminologists and policing scholars should follow the proceedings with interest.

A grainy photograph (see above) released by the Undercover Policing Inquiry shows the first undercover police unit set up in 1968, led by chief inspector Conrad Dixon with the blue jacket, deployed to spy on potential ‘subversives’.

It took a while. After some five years, £30million in mostly staffing or legal costs, and over a hundred anonymity orders preventing the publication of the names (and sometimes cover names) of former undercover officers, the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) has held its first set of evidence hearings in the first half of November 2020.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir John Mitting, a former High Court judge, had been set up in 2015 by Theresa May as a public inquiry according to the 2005 Inquiries Act. Three home secretaries later, the UCPI finally has had its first police witnesses on a zoom call, though unless you are one of the few registered parties allowed to view the stream in a four star London hotel, you are restricted to follow a live transcript. That’s one of the many reasons, as its critics assert, that the inquiry is “public” in name only.

According to his remit, Mitting is tasked to ‘inquire into and report on undercover policing operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968’. But the context is much more specific and inherently political, as the first three weeks of evidence hearings confirmed.

In this first phase of its work, the UCPI considered evidence about the period from July 1968 to the end of 1972. In March 1968, following a large rally to protest against the Vietnam war, a large part of the demonstration entered Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, home to the American embassy. Protesters pushed back police lines and mounted police responded with charges and mass arrests. It was the impetus for a new, secretive unit reporting to Special Branch, eventually called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

SDS officers grew long hair and beards and adopted the cover identities of progressives and revolutionaries. Their first target was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and its key figures, including Tariq Ali and Ernie Tate. During the 1970s and 1980s followed long-term infiltration of the Socialist Workers Party and other socialist and anti-racist groups. Later they also included animal rights groups, environmental protesters and some far right groups.

Giving his evidence over a full day of questioning, Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist author and intellectual, said that he has been spied upon by at least 14 undercover police officers over several decades. The surveillance continued until at least 2003, when Ali was on the national committee of the Stop the War Coalition mobilising against the invasion of Iraq.

There is considerable public interest in undercover policing, especially the targeting of so-called subversives and political radicals by the SDS and its successor organisation, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which apparently disbanded, or rebranded, in 2011. Over the next two years, the public inquiry will hear further evidence from former police officers and from those subjected to intrusive surveillance about the undercover deployments and their effects. Of particular concern are:

  • The deployment of undercover officers to infiltrate and monitor primarily left-wing political groups and individuals, including elected representatives
  • Methods of deception that included long-term friendships and sexual relationships with activists
  • The creation of cover identities based on the details found on the birth and death records of deceased children, without their parents’ knowledge or consent
  • The monitoring of trade union activity that led to the blacklisting of workers
  • Officers attending criminal courts in their cover names, contributing to large-scale miscarriages of justice

I have followed the work of the UCPI for almost five years, observing most of its preliminary hearings held in the Royal Courts of Justice from 2016 to 2019. I witnessed delays and legal arguments that some said were deliberate tactics of obfuscation and obstruction on the part of police lawyers. The inquisitorial process quickly turned adversarial, with activists, researchers and media representatives arguing for full disclosure, while those representing the Home Office and various police bodies attempted to guarantee maximum secrecy, anonymity and document redactions.

The start of the evidence hearings did not settle the concerns of non-state non-police participants that their participation mattered only as an afterthought. One recalled ‘the impression that the Inquiry believes it can do its work without the non-state non-police core participants if needed’. Another, the blacklisted trade unionist and author Dave Smith, compared the inquiry to the Magisterium in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, clinging on to an outmoded and alternative truth.

As an academic observer, I had intended to follow evidence hearings as best as possible. Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, public access to the proceedings looked to be severely restricted. Crucially, the Chair ruled out a live stream, as is now customary for example in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Observers had to attend in person. Due to the pandemic and in order to comply with social distancing measures, the UCPI then decided to conduct this phase of hearings virtually. Instead of a publically accessible video or audio feed, a single live stream of the oral evidence was transmitted to a venue in a central London hotel. Even senior media observers complained, with the BBC’s home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani tweeting that the lack of a video link to the virtual hearings ‘basically means, from a practical perspective as a working reporter, that a public inquiry becomes largely impossible to report.’ Anyone who wanted to follow the proceedings had to apply to attend each day separately, with limited places to maintain social distancing.

And just as England was placed into a renewed lockdown, the Chairman, in his interpretation of the Public Health Regulations, withdrew attendance rights from members of the public. Although journalists and recognised core participants received exceptions, academic researchers did not.

Beyond my professional engagement, I admit to a personal interest in the inquiry’s work. As a student activist for a variety of political causes, I now know that I encountered at least three undercover police officers who had infiltrated the groups that I belonged to. As fellow activists, they were passing acquaintances, rather than friends. On one occasion, an undercover officer going by the cover name Marco Jacobs acted as an agent provocateur to involve me in a protest and we were both arrested for a conspiracy offence. Though never charged, it allowed police to search my house and confiscate, as ‘evidence’, materials for the PhD that I was working on at the time.

There are thousands of such stories of ‘mundane’ uses of undercover policing employed as a mechanism to control protest and activism. Current estimates have it that over 1,000 political organisations were reported on between 1968 and 2011, though only a fraction of them are currently named.

This is a major public inquiry, which allows us to revisit policing history over more than 50 years. It shifts our attention from the ‘policing by consent’ model, to policing by deception. It also demonstrates the difficulty in holding secretive policing functions to account, even when they apparently covered deeply un-democratic roles.

Few, if any, on the non-police side the proceedings so far, have faith in the ability of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to deliver truth and accountability. It appears to be left to campaigning groups and non-academic researchers to find their own ways to scrutinise the role of undercover policing. Using the hashtag #SpyCops on Twitter, they shine a light on the police infiltration of political movements and demand a genuinely public inquiry.

Contact

Raphael Schlembach, University of Brighton

Email: r.schlembach@brighton.ac.uk

Twitter: @raphschlembach

Images: Courtesy of author

A Seminal Moment for America’s Campus Police?

Demonstrations at U.S. colleges and universities over alleged improprieties by campus police are forcing schools to rethink all aspects of these agencies.

John J. Sloan III is Professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research interests include specialized police agencies, criminal justice policy, and professional ethics. His work has appeared in outlets such as Criminology, Criminology & Public Policy, Justice Quarterly, and Social Forces.

In recent months, demonstrations have been occurring at multiple U.S. colleges and universities over alleged improprieties by campus police that include charges of  racial profiling, using excessive force, and increasing “militarization.” Questions have also arisen over the legitimacy of campus police and whether they are “real” police. Demonstrators’ proposed solutions  have included disarming, defunding, and even abolishing campus law enforcement agencies found at 95% (n=905) of all U.S. colleges and  universities enrolling over 2,500 students. A movement is clearly underway at many U.S. colleges and universities that is forcing institutional administrators to rethink all aspects of having “cops-on-the-campus.”

Having studied and worked with campus police agencies since the 1990s,  I am not surprised a day-of-reckoning has arrived for them and suggest three specific reasons why this reckoning is occurring. First, the historical roots of campus police reveal they were specifically created to address student unrest on campus and protect school property from the damage that often accompanied it. Second, in creating campus police agencies, school administrators adopted mimetic isomorphism as the mechanism for creating them and imbuing them with legitimacy. Finally, in an effort to further professionalize campus policing and increase its perceived legitimacy, nearly all aspects of campus law enforcement ranging from officer training to within agency specialization have mirrored those associated with municipal police more broadly. Because campus police sought legitimacy by mimicking the structure of, and processes associated with, municipal police departments, they are also confronting the same existential threat faced by the police more broadly.

Sworn police officers – those having the power to detain and arrest – have patrolled the campuses of American postsecondary institutions since 1894 when Yale University hired two off-duty City of New Haven police officers to patrol the campus. However, as they are now known and configured on American college campuses, campus police have only existed at U.S. colleges and universities since the late 1960s and early 1970s when American college and university campuses increasingly became sites of protests over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, civil rights, the “free speech movement,” and the rise of the “new American left.”  Many of these protests became violent when student protestors confronted local or state law enforcement, or in some tragic instances the National Guard, that had been ordered to campus to restore order and protect institutional property. School administrators soon realized that unless they did a better job controlling the protests, outside political authorities, such as governors, would do so for them. What to do?

With assistance from existing law enforcement agencies and state legislators, postsecondary administrators decided to create institutionally-based law enforcement agencies, dubbed “campus police departments,” that would be part of the fabric of the campus community but also have state-accorded power to address lawlessness on campus. State-level enabling legislation was quickly drafted and passed by multiple state legislatures, and thus was born a new, specialized, police agency whose jurisdiction (at least initially) was limited to the geographic boundaries of the postsecondary institution but whose sworn officers would enjoy full law enforcement power and authority including the use of deadly force.

Senior-level postsecondary administrators quickly hired upper-echelon commanders from local (county or municipal) agencies to oversee creation of the new campus police department. Because these individuals came from law enforcement, they chose a familiar organizational model, that of the municipal police department,  to adapt to a new set of circumstances. Like its municipal counterpart, the new campus police agency would have a rank structure, a chain of command and a paramilitary orientation, task specialization, and training, both academy-based and in-service. Officers employed by the department would have full arrest powers and be decked out in the accoutrements of law enforcement, including uniform with name tag, badge, rank, and shoulder patch with department name sewn onto it, and the familiar utility belt holding weapon(s), handcuffs, communication devices, chemical weapons, and baton. By copying the look and feel of municipal police departments, postsecondary administrators believed the new officers would be accorded legitimacy by students, faculty members, staff, and visitors. Campus cops are real cops!

Over the next few decades, the number of campus police departments steadily  grew and with that growth came a push to professionalize campus law enforcement. As campus departments recruited and hired new officers, they were sent to training at established police academies around the country. There, they received basic law enforcement training over the course of 4-5 months alongside new recruits who had been hired by state, county, and municipal police agencies. Also included in the push was creation of a professional association of campus law enforcement officials, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), whose articles of incorporation were filed in the State of Georgia in 1980 and which was recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a non-profit organization in 1981. What had been a monthly newsletter for the organization became a full-fledged publication, the Campus Law Enforcement Journal which continues to publish six issues annually and is “the” trade publication for the industry.

The end result of the push to professionalize campus police is that they have become increasingly like their municipal counterparts both tactically and organizationally. Tactically, because it is now the norm for new hires to attend basic law enforcement training at one of the over 600 police training academies operating in the U.S., as part of basic training new hires learn not only about firearms and use of deadly force, but also about use of “less-lethal weapons” including batons, chemical irritants (e.g., tear gas, “pepper spray”(oleoresin capsicum)), and conducted energy devices (e.g., Tasers). Campus officers now carry on their person an approved set of “tools” that includes both lethal and less-then-lethal weapons that become available for officer use during encounters with students, faculty members, staff, and visitors but the presence of which has been shown to elicit variation in constituent perceptions of the officers as hostile, helpful, friendly, and answerable for their actions.

Organizationally, campus departments are becoming more specialized in their operations, including creating “tactical operations teams” (i.e., SWAT teams). To illustrate, during 2011-2012 – the most recent years for which data on campus police agencies are available – 27 percent of campus police agencies using sworn officers indicated they had officers assigned to a tactical operations (SWAT) team. What this translates to is that of approximately 615 campus police departments using sworn officers, about 167 had a unit using specialized military tactics and/or equipment to address so-called “high-risk” situations (e.g., threats of terrorism, for crowd control, or to address a hostage-taking situation) that exceed “ordinary law enforcement” capabilities. 

The militarization of the campus police may simply reflect a growing trend by different types of police agencies in the United States to utilize SWAT teams to perform routine tasks (e.g., serving search warrants) that can ultimately lead to unnecessary casualties and property damage. Peter Kraska was among the first to note this trend when he spoke of the “militarization of law enforcement” back in 2007, while Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop became a best-seller in 2013.

A second organizational trend is extension of both arrest and patrol jurisdiction of campus police to areas well-beyond the physical boundaries of the campus itself. During 2011-2012, for example, 86% of campus police agencies’ arrest jurisdiction included properties adjacent to campus and 71% of agencies’ jurisdiction included areas beyond the area immediately surrounding the campus. Also during 2011-2012,  81% of agencies employing sworn officers had patrol jurisdiction that extended to properties immediately adjacent to campus and 57% of agencies’ patrol jurisdiction extended even beyond properties immediately adjacent to campus. Thus, it is now common for campus police to engage in routine patrol in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus and have the power to arrest people in those areas.

For several decades, campus police agencies in the United States have grown larger, become more professionalized, and more complex organizationally. Gone are campus “watchmen” and “rent-a-cops” of bygone eras. They have been replaced with sworn police officers trained at state- or nationally-accredited academies, who are then equipped with all the tools of 21st century policing including weapons and technology, and whose patrol jurisdiction and arrest powers are steadily expanding. However, like their municipal counterparts, campus police are also encountering significant pushback and criticism. This past June, for example, Johns Hopkins University announced it was putting on hold for two years a plan to create its own campus police agency in light of protests over the school’s plan to create such an agency. Campus police are also being criticized for their opacity, militarization, use of excessive force, and racial profiling. Whether and how campus police in the United States weather this seminal moment in their history remains an open question.

Contact

John J. Sloan, III, Dept. of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Email: prof@uab.edu

Images courtesy of the author and “IL – Benedictine University Campus Police” by Inventorchris is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0