Reflections on 'The End of Policing'

April 12, 2018

Dr. Sophie Chambers

Policing in England and Wales has reached crisis point. Funding for all public services has suffered a dramatic 20% reduction in recent years, and the legitimacy of the police is persistently questioned. While the police used to enjoy a certain level of immunity from criticism, particularly from the Conservative party, that seemed to change following then Home Secretary Theresa May’s 2015 speech to the Police Federation, and her agreement to support the budget cut.

State led attempts to improve legitimacy tend to come in the form of enhancing accountability through the use of body cameras, efforts to recruit more diverse police officers, or promoting community engagement. However, such procedural reforms aim to make people feel better about policing, not change the outcome of policing, argued Professor Alex Vitale on Friday 16th March at the University of South Wales.

According to Vitale, these reforms are a distraction from the real problems with modern policing. It seems to me these are two distinct but related problems. Firstly, the militarisation of law enforcement has resulted in use of force becoming the norm. In the U.S., armed police killed 1,147 people in 2017. 718 of those were suspects in nonviolent offences including traffic violations. 149 were unarmed. High profile cases such as the killings of Walter Scott and Stephon Clark highlight the apparent trigger-happiness of the U.S. police. According to the Mapping Police Violence Project, police recruits spend 7 times more hours training to shoot, than training to deescalate situations.

While police in England and Wales are not routinely armed with lethal weapons, they are armed with low-lethality weapons such as Tasers. The use of Tasers by the police has risen steadily over recent years, with a 9% increase from 2016 to 2017, equating to a rate of 30 times a day. Between 2003 and 2016, there were at least 17 deaths linked to the use of Tasers. British police have also been criticised for the use of ‘close’ physical force, from handcuffing a compliant person, to using ‘kettling’ techniques while policing legal protests.

Secondly, the police are becoming increasingly involved in incidents that do not essentially require law enforcement. Vitale uses the examples of homelessness, mental health, sex work, drugs and youth ‘violence’ to demonstrate the proliferation of police involvement in the U.S., but such examples also transfer to the British context. To take just two examples, numerous councils in England have imposed Public Space Protection Orders on homeless people, resulting in fines which can result in prosecution if not paid, while the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in the late 1990s were viewed by many as a way of criminalising normal youth behaviour. As criminologist Adam Crawford pointed out in 1997, we are witnessing the criminalisation of social policy issues. In the current climate of austerity, local authorities do not have the resources to manage the problems effectively. This results in the escalation of issues to an ‘emergency’ which are therefore dealt with by the police, who, given the first problem, have the power to use excessive force and are rarely satisfactorily held to account.

On the flip side of the same coin, we have long recognised in the U.K. the inability of the police to deal with issues of crime and disorder alone, and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 created statutory provision for Crime Reduction and Community Safety partnerships. Members include the police, fire service, health and probation services, as well as other criminal justice agencies, and the voluntary and business sectors. In Wales, partnership working is viewed positively, and many practitioners praise their utility for filling gaps in required knowledge. However, the police often take the lead in partnership. The resulting police contact with vulnerable people, who are often non-criminal, leads to them entering the criminal justice system. This does very little to solve the problems they are facing.

Vitale calls for ‘The End of Policing’ in its current form of excessive use of force and attention to non-criminal issues. He sets out a variety of alternatives, which tackle the social inequalities that have led to the over-policing of social problems: homelessness needs to be tackled preventively, people with mental health problems need to be provided with fully-funded mental health services, sex work and drugs need to be decriminalised and regulated, and youth ‘violence’ requires community-based restorative justice. To be able to do this, we need to move away from ‘broken windows’ policing, which tackles those who engage in low level disorder punitively, with the understanding that without cessation it will lead to further and more serious criminality. However, that will require a significant change in habitus of the police.

Professor Alex Vitale spoke at the University of South Wales on Friday 16th March 2018. The public talk was organised with the Cardiff branch of Amnesty International. Vitale’s book ‘The End of Policing’ is currently available for sale here and you can watch a video of the talk below.

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