Eight Minutes and Forty-Six Seconds

Police militarization enables racial oppression

Paul Edwards

Paul Edwards is a Criminology PhD Researcher based at Liverpool John Moores Universities Faculty of Arts Professional and Social Studies & School of Justice Studies. Research interests include: Popular and cultural criminology, illicit markets, organised crime and critical criminological theory.

 

“These streets will speak for themselves”

(Dave Chappelle – 8:46 Netflix)

The murder of George Floyd shocked the world and again put the reality of living in the United States, especially as a BAME citizen on the global stage. During a global pandemic, millions around the country bravely marched, protested for justice and declared their message ‘Black Lives Matter’. In response the US government deployed its heavily militarised police to face them and later, National Guard units lined city streets: rifles, batons and shields in hand.

This also inspired protests globally: in the UK, France and Belgium people came out in support of the BLM movement. Nations woke to populations whose anger was clear to see and statues of former slave traders (representing the historical roots of black oppression) were ripped down. So, in light of recent events this blog will focus on the current state of policing in the United States and seek to address the questions: Where has policing gone wrong? How policing relates to concerns about racial tensions? and How might policing change?

To answer the first question, it is not hard to see that the trust in the police and the wider justice system is seriously eroded in large sections of the US. Thus, this section will focus on the loss faith in policing in the US and how it adds racial inequality and oppression.

This subject is ‘Militarisation’, which Kraska (2007) notes as the traditional distinctions between military/police, war/law enforcement and when internal/external security becomes blurred. Additionally, Kraska states that Militarism in its most basic sense, is an ideology focused on the best means to solve problems. It is a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions that stress the use of force and threat of violence. This direction towards militarisation has been tracked down to its beginnings most impactfully with the terrorist event of 9/11 (Dunlap, 2001). However they have also been documented as early as the US involvement, both abroad and domestically, in drug control efforts in the mid-to-late 1980s (Kraska, 1993) .

The consequences of militarisation are vast, including hyper-violent, no-knock raids. Debates have been raised to question if these are unconstitutional and breach local police powers. In the US, these types of raids go head to head with the second amendment, as cases have come to light where officers and citizens have been shot as a result, see example here: Breonna-Taylor-shooting. These usually result in expensive litigation judgments but they still exist as a result of militarisation, with questions being raised on the targeting of innocent individuals (like the case above) because of their race (Balko, 2006).

Opinions voiced in online platforms, suggest the policing community see their job as an ‘us vs. them’ scenario. This is best described by youtuber Wraglerstar who shares his opinions about the change in the policing, specifically from the 80’s to the present day. In this he describes the beginnings of the militarisation of police and the change (notably in the city) where police officers seem to become more ‘special forces operator looking’ as well as describing this changed mentality. For Wraglerstar, this changed mentality in policing was experienced after being pulled over aggressively by heavily armed officers, assaulted and even being harassed by the same officers after the incident. Going further he points out that ‘no one is inviting these guys to the local barbeque’ because their aggressive nature is not welcome. This is unlike  the past, where police and other services would be invited to ‘birthdays’ and ‘thanksgiving’ get togethers to tighten community bonds, morals and trust. Therefore, this demonstrates that community policing is, as stated above, seriously eroded.

In short this change in mentality can be said to be due to militarisation as Kraska (2007) noted that it causes a cultural shift to martial language, appearance, beliefs, and values. An example of the culture can be seen in the Punisher Skull used by police in the US specifically, even though the use of this in the Marvel comics represents the failure of the police and justice system. What this has caused, is a complete failure of the purpose of the policing model in the US with the community aspect of policing being totally thrown out of the window. Regardless of how many community outreach teams departments police have, the community they serve is fearful and disconnected.

Turning to the second question, it is obvious that the militarisation of the police only serves to widen the racial tensions in communities and enables those officers who have a racist mindset to exercise their views in a more hyper-violent way. Policing as a whole depends on communities trusting those who are there to protect and serve. However, if the police themselves are not part of the community, they have no vested interest in that community. This is not helped by officers who are drafted in from other parts of the country and do not understand the cultures and traditions of the neighborhood.

Thirdly, the militarisation of the police needs to be rethought and stripped back. The communities they serve are not the enemy, they are citizens who expect to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. They are people who want to welcome in officers to their shop, chat to them on the street and invite them to cookouts. But they will not invite people they see as a threat, who are violent to them and kill people on the street through excessive force. Extensive training is needed and when an officer is seen to be using excessive force, officers around need be equipped to challenge without fear of backlash.

Perhaps the time has come to question more deeply how to police a predominantly armed nation? It is necessary to question why patrol officers need to be seen in neighborhoods patrolling in camouflage pants and why at a peaceful protest is there armored SWAT trucks and officers with rifles at the ready. This only harbors a culture that looks at everything like a battle to be fought.

To conclude, it is obvious how the militarization enables an overuse of power and potentially allows those with a racist mindset to fulfil their prejudice and this needs to change. Policing needs to change, whether this is stripping departments back to people who come from the communities, or other solutions, it is critical-community style policing restored to maintain civilian oversight. Other solutions like defunding the police may be a slippery and dangerous slope however and may lead to private security solutions (as seen in the UK and some US states) and this needs to be avoided, as this may lead to the loss of trust and vulnerability as demonstrated in South Africa. With this it is critical solutions are looked for, debated and critical thought is needed from all sides. This blog ends on one thought, that the police (and the incredibly difficult job they do) are needed but the senseless deaths need to end.

 

Below are links to recommended viewing:

The Future of Policing in America – Understanding & Changing Police Training: Gracie-Breakdown

Racial oppression and community by Kimberly Jones

Netflix 8:46 – Police brutality and lived experience by Dave Chappelle

Netflix Collection – ‘Black Storytelling’ Including Ava DuVernays ‘When They See Us’

 

Contact

Paul Edwards,  Liverpool John Moores University

Email: P.Edwards@2020.ljmu.ac.uk

Twitter: @P_Edwards8

Images: courtesy of the author

Inside the COVID-19 State: Protecting Public Health Through Law Enforcement

Covid19 is a public health threat yet it is treated as a law enforcement priority. This blogpost criticises this approach and rethinks public safety beyond policing.

image of author

Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the winner of the British Society of Criminology’s ‘Blogger of the Year Award 2018’.

 

 

 

After three weeks in a state of isolation following the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, we could be excused for mistaking ourselves for the virus we stay away from. The UK government’s  slogan: ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ has become the mantra we live our lives by, while also setting the tone for a new social contract through which we come together socially by staying apart physically. Accompanying such governmental instructions, new public health regulations were also introduced to ensure compliance through law enforcement. Such emergency measures would be sensible, defensible and desirable even, if being quarantined and policed were to merely supplement rather than nearly substitute the provision of adequate healthcare. Yet, law enforcement has taken precedence over an adequate public health response forcing the government to apologise ‘if people feel there have been failings’.

This is an opportune moment to reflect on why the government chose policing against the public over protecting people from the virus by adopting a law enforcement approach to a public health emergency. The remainder of this blog post will grapple with that question by critically assessing the new “Coronavirus regulations”, and arguing against criminological analyses that disguise the medical nature of the Covid-19 pandemic as a criminal justice matter.

Policing the public as a virus

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the UK government set up a coronavirus action plan to limit the spread of this infectious disease through emergency legislation which created new offences and widened police powers.  These new regulations came in the form of a Coronavirus Bill which passed through Parliament on March 25, 2020 accompanied by a statutory instrument which gave legal force to the new social distancing rules. These rules prohibit people from ‘leav[ing] the place where they are living without reasonable excuse’, during the lockdown, and empower the police to ‘direct’ or ‘remove’  individuals ‘to the place where they are living’ allowing the use of ‘reasonable force, if necessary’. Breaching the prohibition amounts to ‘commit[ting] an offence’ which is ‘punishable on summary conviction by a fine’. Put simply, failure to comply with these instructions means breaking the law and, therefore, committing a criminal offence.

As these laws became daily practice allowing the police to impose fines, disperse gatherings and remove people to their homes, police forces around the country have also issued court summonses, resorted to online shaming, deployed vehicle checkpoints and used aerial drones and roadblocks to enforce the lockdown, targeting ‘bored’ drivers, dog walkers, people sitting on park benches and even shops selling Easter eggs. Such stories may be dismissed as unfortunate, and perhaps inevitable, mishaps, or isolated cases that are harmless if not altogether amusing. Yet other incidents, such as the violent arrest of a man who was moving a tree for his mother, alert us to the danger of extending police powers without due regard for the consequences: especially when their vague nature, broad scope and worrying dependence on discretion render them illiberal, discriminatory and illegitimate too.

Policing as the virus

None of the above is meant as a suggestion that emergency laws should not be observed. However, it must also be stressed that conformity depends on democratic legitimacy, not repressive authority. As they currently stand the new police powers are arbitrary in their design and unrestrained in their force, raising questions about who is more likely to be targeted under such legislation, on what grounds and based on whose interpretation of such laws. For example, whatever may count as ‘reasonable excuse’ or ‘reasonable force’, in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, largely relies on police officers’ individual judgement, despite additional guidelines that change nothing in the actual legislation. Since there is no explicit prohibition on leaving one’s home only once a day, no time limit by which one has to return home, and no requirement that one may leave one’s home only for exceptional reasons, enforcing such vague regulations ultimately results to their arbitrary application by officers who are given wider powers of discretion to decide what restrictions are breached and what charges are to be made. This is made worse by the realisation that these regulations convert almost all “normal” social behaviour into anti-social behaviour, thereby turning fundamental rights and civil liberties such as freedom of movement and assembly into criminal offences.

Some might dismiss such concerns as little more than liberal hand-wringing, yet policing requires ‘the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state’. This means that without public support, policing becomes a fraudulent imitation of its legally-defined remit, and the law morphs into a counterfeit image of itself. In the light of the two-year time span of the Coronavirus Bill and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny or approval of the Coronavirus regulations, references to a “police state” may sound flippant, but they are not unfounded. Such warnings may cultivate alarmism, but they also nurture attentiveness to what happens when citizens’ activities are supervised by diktats from government instead of democratic consent.

Protecting the public from the virus

As critics and supporters of policing as a tool for managing public health emergencies clash, the question of whether policing has any role to play in the Covid-19 crisis asserts itself and demands credible answers. Although the government introduced the Coronavirus Bill ‘for the purposes of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination’,  it is not clear why the onlyrelevant persons’ for enforcing these regulations must be ‘constables, police community support officers (PCSOs)’ or ‘those designated by local authorities and by the Secretary of State’. Given that Covid-19 is a public health threat, it might be sensible to suggest that it requires a medical rather than a criminal justice response.

Accustomed though we have become to consider ourselves a public health risk, as potential hosts cells in which Coronavirus multiplies, it does not follow that the only, the best, or most urgent response has to be the policing of our movement or the restriction of our civil liberties. At least not without testing on a mass scale, and ensuring that the NHS is adequately equipped with enough Protective Personal Equipment (PPE), ventilators, healthcare staff and hospital beds. The decision to prioritise policing over healthcare, therefore, is based more on politics and expedient crisis management than on the prevention, detection, containment, and eradication of Covid-19. As public health experts, Prof. David McCoy among them, note: a ‘greatly expanded testing regime combined with aggressive case detection and contact tracing, coupled with continued physical distancing and improved hygiene’ would have helped us ‘avoid the harms of draconian, population-wide lockdown’.

This is not to suggest that we should disregard the current rules and regulations, but to abide by them in the full knowledge that we are being policed as the virus instead of being tested for the virus. Staying at home to protect the NHS is eminently sensible and truly commendable, but it is done in order to protect the NHS from the initial and ongoing failures of the state to take action. It is a collective effort we willingly make as a result of state failure. Not only did the UK government procrastinate, missing important deadlines to bulk-buy PPE and ventilators, despite shortages in the NHS, but testing also lags behind, ignoring the World Health Organisation’s message to ‘test, test, test’ when Covid-19 was still treated as an epidemic rather than a full-blown pandemic.

Rethinking policing in times of crisis

In the absence of adequate support for the NHS, the government’s public health agenda has ultimately resulted in policing instead of protecting the public, thereby attempting to police itself out of a public health threat. Policing Covid-19 away, however, does not just reek of state negligence by breaching its duty of care to the public. It also invites police- friendly criminologists and dyed-in-the-wool crime scientists to rethink their approach to policing by situating it into its political context, instead of pretending that it is a neutral civil institution. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis this involves asking not what the police should do to respond to a public health crisis, but whether the police should (ever) have a(ny) role in managing such crises.

Designing public safety, be it from violence or infectious diseases, is not and should not be the exclusive property of the police. It can also be practiced in non-coercive means through investment in healthcare, welfare and upheld through social solidarity and mutual aid, not tainted by suspicion, surveillance, punitiveness, or shaming. This involves thinking about who and what the police is, what it does, who does it do it to, and who does it do it for, therefore heeding Raymond Chandler’s oft-quoted yet otherwise largely ignored observation that ‘cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack’.

 

Contact

Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton

Twitter: @lfatsis

 

Images: courtesy of the author and Pexels

When Police Racism is Denied, Does it Go Away?

The Macpherson Report remains a touchstone in and a flashpoint for debates on institutional racism within the London Metropolitan Police. Twenty years after its publication, how well does the capital’s police force fare today in the face of accusations and denials of racism? This article casts a critical look at the evidence to expose how institutional racism within the “Met” remains an uncomfortable reality that cannot be denied without denying the facts, ignoring the truth, or remaining willfully blind to it.

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Dr. Lambros Fatsis is currently Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and the winner of the British Society of Criminology’s ‘Blogger of the Year Award’. In September 2019, he will join the University of Brighton as a Lecturer in Criminology.

 

Amid a plethora of Home Affairs Committees, events, debates, and impassioned commentaries that interrogate the legacy of the Macpherson report and muse on the current state of the London Metropolitan Police, as far as institutional racism is concerned, recent statements by the Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, do much to spark further interest in and controversies around the issue. During a Home Affairs Committee session on the Met’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the Macpherson Report, including steps taken to address that report’s findings on institutional racism in the police, Cressida Dick reportedly said that the Metropolitan Police is no longer ‘institutionally racist’ and stressed that the label itself is ‘toxic’ and ‘unhelpful’. Insisting that the force has been ‘utterly transformed’ since Macpherson’s time, the Met Police chief added that: ‘The label now does more harm than good, it is something that is immediately interpreted by anyone who hears it as not institutional but racist – full of racists full stop, which we are not. It is a label that puts people off from engaging with the police. It stops people wanting to give us intelligence, evidence, come and join us, work with us’.

The Met Police Commissioner, therefore, seems confident that: (a) institutional racism in today’s Met is a thing of the past, (b) that it harms the reputation of the force, and that (c) when the term is used we hear the word “racist” louder than the word “institutional”; thereby thinking that the police is populated by racists. She then reassuringly claims that not only is the Met not ‘full of racists’ but that this misperception damages the relationship between the public and the police and undermines citizens’ confidence and trust in the force, while also discouraging potential recruits to join. As a result, institutional racism is suddenly pronounced dead, the definition and meaning of the term becomes misunderstood, and we are left to consider the reputational damage of institutional racism on the Met, instead of worrying about its impact on those who suffer from its consequences. On all three counts, this is a deeply unsettling statement which denies the facts, distorts what words mean, and prioritises the public image of a civil force of the state over its accountability to the public that it ostensibly serves and protects.

Starting with the premature obituary of institutional racism within the Met, it should be read against the latest evidence which clearly points to its existence today. Relevant research findings unambiguously demonstrate racial disparities and disproportionality in the use of stop-and-search, the Gangs Matrix, or the policing tactics used to tackle knife crime and clamp down Black music genres like grime and drill. Last year alone, an influential report for Stopwatch and Release by LSE academic Michael Shiner and his colleagues did much to demonstrate the discriminatory effects of stop and search, echoing earlier evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a Criminal Justice Alliance briefing, and other oft-quoted academic research (here, here, and here). The Met’s gang database (the Gangs Matrix) fares just as badly with two damming reports by Amnesty International and Stopwatch exposing its racist logic, as did the Information Commissioner’s Office which noted ‘the potential to cause damage and distress to the disproportionate number of young, black men on the Matrix’. Buttressing claims of the effectiveness of stop-and-search as a vital tool for fighting knife crime, a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies condemned the overall approach as ineffective, unjust and damaging to the people that it (cl)aims to protect, as did the Youth Violence Commission which advocates for a public health alternative. As for the policing of UK grime and drill music, my own research demonstrates how the discriminatory policing of both genres serves as a unique case study of institutional racism within the Met today.

Were this not enough, on her visit to the UK last year the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, appeared ‘shocked by the criminalisation of young people from ethnic minorities, especially young black men. They are over-represented in police stop and searches, more likely to face prosecution under the country’s joint enterprise provisions, and are over-represented in the prison system’. None of this is secret knowledge and even a cursory glance at the government’s Race Disparity Unit ‘ethnicity facts and figures’ on stop-and-search and arrests would suffice to convince anyone of the discriminatory treatment of Black people by the police and other UK criminal justice system institutions.

Factual evidence aside, the Met Police Commissioner’s comments are also striking for the way they misrepresent what institutional racism actually means. In Macpherson’s famous formulation, institutional racism ‘consists of the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The institutional origins of racist behaviour and discriminatory outcomes are not separated in Macpherson’s definition, as they are in Cressida Dick’s interpretation of the term. Yet, she argues that people somehow mentally uncouple the two when the term is used, while also claiming that the term implies that the Met is ‘full of racists’ instead of pointing to a collective failure of an organisation whose processes and attitudes are to blame. The difference between Macpherson and Cressida Dick is that the former points to racism as a feature of the institutional structure and collective mentality of the Met, whereas the latter misunderstands racism as individual prejudice alone. In so doing, a structural characteristic of an entire organisation is denied, and attributed instead to a few individuals who independently act out their own prejudicial attitudes as individuals. Individual officers therefore appear unaffected by their socialisation into an institutionally racist mindset, nor do they act as a team in line with that institution’s logic and unwritten rules. Since racism, according to the Met Commissioner, is an individual trait it has nothing to do with the institutional make-up of the organisation, and since it does not characterise the entire force it cannot exist. The term institutional racism, however, refers to racist attitudes that are built into organisations by design, with the assumption being that individuals take on the prejudices of an organisation and do not act independently of it, especially when they work in groups.

What makes all the above so difficult to stomach is not a logical fallacy, which mistakes something structural and systemic for something individual or (co)incidental, but a dangerous argument which shows little regard for the casualties of such structural arrangements. To perceive institutional, structural, systemic racism merely as a ‘toxic label’ is to deny how toxic the reality of it is for the people and communities that are disproportionately affected by it. Worse still, it reveals a denialist logic which refuses to admit the existence of institutional racism, thereby discounting the relevant evidence. Such a stubborn stance contradicts the Met’s self-understanding as a professional police force which acts on the basis of evidence in order to oversee public safety. On the contrary, such statements give the impression that the Met chooses to defend itself instead of protecting the public to whom it is accountable, and that it chooses to tackle crime by strangling the facts that should guide its mission, its ethos, and its conduct.

Pretending that institutional racism is a thing of the past, is to fail to see how and why it is present today. Yet, the Met chief seems either unable to see all this or willfully blind to it all. If it is the former, she could be dismissed as inadequate. If it is the latter, she might be suspected of being dangerous. Either way, she seems disconcertingly vulnerable to the siren call of hawkish policing and deaf to the evidence that renders it illegitimate. Her pledge to ‘relentlessly’ pursue gangs through increased stop and search doesn’t simply clash with evidence that this police power is ineffective, discriminatory and unjust, but also jars with the lack of concrete evidence to link knife crime and gang membership. Such a stance does chime well, however, with the government’s recent promise to increase stop and search powers and relax rules of conduct to make criminals ‘literally feel terror’. Similarly, the Met chief’s refusal to acknowledge institutional racism as a reality within the force that she leads, eerily echoes statements by the new head of No. 10’s Policy Unit, who famously dismissed institutional racism as a ‘myth’ and decried the establishment of the Race Disparity Audit as serving a ‘phoney race war’ that is ‘dangerous and divisive’.

Twenty years after Macpherson diagnosed the Met with institutional racism steadfast refusals to see it, point to a reluctance to see what is evident through facts. We should, therefore, be reminded that when ‘racism is how the world is seen’, as Sara Ahmed brilliantly put it, ‘it remains possible for racism not to be seen’.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

 

Contact

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Twitter: @lfatsis

Copyright free image courtesy of Pexels