Friday, 8 March 2019

Turf Wars

We have become so used to the ineptness and tone-deafness of the Prime Minister that when she makes a correct statement there is scepticism about both her grasp of the facts and her motives. The recent increase in fatal knife attacks is not the direct result of cuts in police numbers and Theresa May isn't simply trying to defend her time as Home Secretary by saying so. Given that the role of the police is primarily to respond to crime rather than prevent it, and given the often random nature of violence, attempts to reduce it through more bobbies on the beat or more stop-and-search are likely to prove fruitless. In reality, greater police numbers rarely leads to a reduction in offences (if anything, it tends to produce an increase in offences recorded). Secular declines in crime, such as the one experienced since the 1990s, reflect complex and multi-variate changes in society. Despite the fact that none of this is a mystery, the media coverage of crime - which largely defines the popular perception of what are actually rare acts - inevitably bends towards "something must be done".

One of the arguments presented to support the idea that there is a correlation between police numbers and crime levels is a variant on the logic of the Laffer Curve. This assumes that a extreme level of policing - literally a police state - would minimise crime, while a complete absence of police - effective anarchy - would maximise crime. This appears to accord with common sense and leads to the assumption that there is a straightforward relationship between crime and police headcount, yet a moment's thought reveals it to be mistaken. Totalitarian regimes do not lack for "common-or-garden" crime as well as thought-crime, while under-policed communities do not necessarily descend into a permanent state of savagery. This reveals two truths: that levels of crime are often determined more by what the state decides to criminalise than by any innate quantum of human evil, and that left to their own devices most people do not consider riotous looting or banditry to be a viable way of life. The Hobbesian nightmare (man is a wolf to man) is just that: a scare-story required to justify the state.

In practice, policing is always disproportionately focused on sections of the urban population (because policing is fundamentally a product of urbanity) considered to be problematic by the state: the poor, immigrants, racial or religious minorities, the sexually deviant etc (one reason for the persistence of police corruption is that officers have a greater commonality of background and present milieu with career criminals). The focus on marginal communities is not because they have a greater propensity to do wrong but because they are an objectified "other" that helps define the societal norm. Policing validates their problematic status and therefore their inferiority to the imagined community of the "law-abiding". Where particular characteristics of a community intersect with criminality for structural reasons, this allows crimes that are actually common across society to be mentally situated on the fringe. For example, the contemporary Turkish and Albanian involvement in the drugs trade, which is the product of geography and family ties (echoing that of the Chinese in the past), or the Pakistani involvement in the night-time economy and its overlap with "grooming".

That both drug offences and sexual abuse are more likely to be committed by "white natives" in the UK is obvious enough, but this is elided by a focus on the idea of crime as something alien and infectious that has been introduced from abroad. This belief about the nature of crime is fundamental to the self-conception of the state and is reflected in its organisation. There is no compelling reason why the same government department (the Home Office) should be responsible for both domestic crime and border security. Equally, there would be obvious operational advantages to combining border security with customs and excise (which is part of the Treasury), something that Brexit has brought into sharp relief. That refugees are seen as potential if not actual criminals is one inevitable consequence of this wonky mindset. If Theresa May's time as Home Secretary is vulnerable to criticism, it is over her championing of the "hostile environment" to immigrants and asylum-seekers, not her reforms of the police.

Beyond the boundary of institutionalised crime (i.e. what the criminal justice system concerns itself with), we find the grey area of anti-social behaviour. Central to the disciplinary turn of neoliberalism has been the idea that previously informal sanctions, such as public opprobrium, should be formalised through new "instruments" (such as ASBOs) and by state regulators (the EHRC being a topical example). Whereas moral panics in the past would lead to demands for new laws or more vigorous policing, contemporary panics are more likely to lead to demands to extend the use of existing sanctions (ASBOs for Drill musicians), to extend the definition of rights (which may in practice mean justifying penalties, e.g. excluding trans-sexuals from women-only spaces) or to beef-up state regulation (the recent "Momo challenge" hoax was enabled by an ironically self-regulating press that wants independent control of social media). What this highlights is that the criminal justice system is actually in retreat as the disciplinary state expands. Consider the way that benefit sanctions have supplanted the magistrates court in popular lore as the face of a punitive and unsympathetic state. This shifting of the boundary has been one of the major reasons why police headcount has been reduced (and also why legal aid has been cut).

One logical trend in the future would be for the police to become ever more focused on what Americans refer to as "homeland security". The extension of police powers in respect of surveillance and cyber-security, along with the heavy investment in counter-terrorism and increased militarisation, certainly suggests this, but we should also acknowledge the corollary, which is that the police will continue to retreat from their traditional beat in the frontline of social control. As anyone who has dealt with the police in recent years over "minor" offences like burglary or theft will know, this retreat is already well underway. This doesn't mean that the wider security state is shrinking, but that more and more of it has been transferred to other disciplinary functions or outsourced to corporations serving the state apparatus, while the arena of non-violent crimes against the person has been increasingly left to the individual to address through insurance or private security.

In this context, the upsurge in knife crime (which is still low in historic terms) is emblematic of much that the police are gradually leaving behind. Framing it as a "black" problem, when that isn't the case in most of the UK, or an issue of "gangs", when the vast majority of offences are not gang-related, is not simply a case of the institutional bias of the media and renta-quote politicians. It is a form of nostalgia (the demands to reinstate stop-and-search make this explicit) and therefore a subconscious expression of dissatisfaction with the performance of the disciplinary state (i.e. that it hasn't been coercive enough). The political problem is that insisting we treat knife crime as a public health issue (which is sensible), or insisting that austerity is more to blame than fewer coppers (which is probably right), risks advocating a policy approach that funnels more resources into that disciplinary state at the same time that it restores public services. The knife crime "wave" will eventually subside, but the evolution of the police into a gendarmerie and the greater policing of society by public bodies are linked trends that look likely to continue.

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