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Across Britain, police are behaving like gangsters

The author of a new briefing document reports on how drinking control laws give the police absolute, unchecked power.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Most police powers are kept on a tight leash. If the police want to arrest you, search your house, or confiscate your property, they can only do this in particular defined circumstances – and the whole procedure is closely documented and recorded.

Yet now there is a whole swathe of behaviour-policing laws, where police – or pseudo-police such as ‘community support officers’ – are given powers to use however they want, against whomever they want, in whatever circumstances they want. They are being signed legal blank cheques. One key example of this is drinking control powers: within 800-plus control areas across the UK, police officers can now ask peaceable citizens to surrender their can of lager or ale, or to tip it down the drain.

The Manifesto Club is running a campaign against these drinking control laws, and in a new briefing document we report cases of the police targeting people who were doing absolutely nothing wrong. The implementation of drinking control laws is entirely random, without specification or logic: these powers are simply used against anybody the police feel like using them against.

Police prejudices and whims are given full rein. One man reports that in Brighton, England, drinking control laws are largely used against the homeless, or others whom the police think should not be hanging out in public: ‘One homeless man I met… had his unopened can of cider in his pocket taken from him by CSOs [community support officers] because they “thought” he was “about to” or had “reason to believe” he would drink it in a public place.’ In another instance, a man says that the police targeted him when he was at a street festival with his girlfriend, yet they left bigger groups alone: ‘[They ordered] me to empty the can’s contents into the grass. They both stood over me while I did this. As the police set off to harass other smaller groups or individuals, all around larger groups continued to drink freely and peacefully.’

When we challenged the Home Office about these laws, a spokesperson confirmed that within a drinking control zone ‘the police do have absolute discretion to request that any person (regardless of behaviour) desists from consuming alcohol’. If a police officer asks you to stop drinking and you refuse, it is a crime, full stop. The Home Office also released figures that showed that in the three years between the start of 2004 and the end of 2006, 324 people had been taken to court for the crime of refusing to surrender alcohol at a police officer’s request. These people were convicted for the crime of defying the word of a police officer.

Alcohol confiscation is becoming a vast and expanding area of police work. We do not know quite how vast, because this is a largely undocumented police intervention. Devon and Cornwall police – one of the most enthusiastic confiscators of alcohol – told me that they simply do not record it: ‘Most liquor that is confiscated is tipped down the drain, and not recorded. We cannot say how much liquor is confiscated.’ When the police confiscate any other item of property, they must justify it; they must fill in forms or enter it into files. With alcohol they are a law unto themselves: they ask you to tip it away; you must comply; they walk on. It is a hidden confiscation. They may not even remember by the end of the week.

The only documentation of alcohol confiscation is when the police brag about it – which has the tone not so much of serious legal procedure, as of gangsters displaying their loot. Local papers report that a particular force confiscated ‘five bottles of spirits, 30 bottles of beer, and three alcopops’, as if this were some kind of competition. Police are pictured in mobster-like photos with their stashes of confiscated Carling and Vodka, grinning or glowering for the camera. Sutton Coldfield police report that they have ‘seized and destroyed a substantial amount of alcohol, on one night alone more than 50 cans of lager’ (well done, lads!). In the Kent town of Chatham, officers boast that over the course of seven weeks they seized alcohol from 254 separate people. One officer sent out the missive: ‘Our message is simple, if you come to Chatham to disturb others by getting drunk, expect to be arrested or fined and have your alcohol confiscated.’

Drinking control laws are part of a panoply of behaviour control powers, which also tend to be unspecified and documented. Dispersal order powers mean that the police ‘can move on or split up groups of any two or more people on the streets who are causing, or likely to cause antisocial behaviour’ (1). There are also no-photography zones, leafleting zones (where you must have permission to leaflet), demonstrating zones. Authority figures behave like lords of the manor, or justices of the peace, telling people when and where they can do certain things. (See this video for one example of a man trying to film in public.)

We loosen controls on police powers at our peril. These controls are based on the presumption that arresting somebody, or searching their house, or confiscating their property is a serious business: it is an infringement on a free and autonomous citizen, and should not be done without damn good reason. The police are not Mafiosi; they are not themselves the law. They are merely agents of the law, enacting rules and powers that have been decided in the sphere of democratic law-making.

Only in totalitarian societies, or pre-democratic societies, are the police themselves the law. Only in places such as Stalinist Russia was the law whatever an officer said, and it was a crime to go against the word of a police officer or party official. Yet with drinking control laws, the word of a policeman again becomes itself the law: if an officer asks you to stop drinking, and you refuse, that is a crime. Those 324 people are victims of a new kind of summary justice. They could have just been walking along the street or sitting on a bench talking to their friends. Like any independent citizen, perhaps, they did not see why they should surrender their drink – their property – to this policeman or pseudo-policeman.

There are laws enough for people who are causing a real problem in public. Drunk and disorderly, breach of the peace, outraging public decency, vandalism, littering – the police could choose from all these offences and more. The difference is that they would have to gather evidence, justify the arrest, document it in their notebooks and fill in forms, and finally win a case in court. They would have to do all that time-consuming legal stuff that is necessary when the police are agents of the law in a country of free citizens.

Yet these behaviour-policing powers are much less taxing to use, and are growing as a proportion of police interventions. Last year, one article reported that only 53 per cent of offences ‘brought to justice’ actually went through a court, with a huge growth in on-the-spot fines, penalty notices for disorder, and the ever-expanding set of summary justice powers (2). And this did not even include drinking and dispersal control powers, which go unrecorded. A micro-example of the use of drinking control powers comes from the 2007 Stratford Fair: there was only one arrest for drunk and disorderly behaviour, yet there were 150 incidents of alcohol confiscations. The use of informal powers becomes the norm.

It may not seem like the biggest violation of individual liberty to be forced to pour your beer down the drain. The police are perhaps not burning our books, or torturing political prisoners, or breaking up political organisations. But the battlelines of freedom and state power are in every era different, and they are often over issues that themselves seem quite small. Whenever the police make up the law, and subject us to their whim, what is lost is more than the can of beer in question: what is lost is a fundamental principle through which social life is governed.

For us, now, these new behaviour laws are one of the key ways in which state power is being extended, and the rights and liberty of citizens restricted or denied outright. And that is why we should challenge these laws, and start to say, as a public: ‘This is our liberty, our property; you (the police) are not the law. I do not have to justify myself to you, but rather you to me.’ Law should be accountable, power should be justified. We should tear up all those blank-cheque laws that turn the police into gangsters.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. These laws will be discussed at the clubnight, ‘Free the Streets! Against the anti-social regulation of public space’ on Thursday 13 November in central London (see the Manifesto Club events page). Also see the Manifesto Club’s Campaign Against Booze Bans. Email Josie {encode=”Josie.Appleton@manifestoclub.com” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

William Melotti revealed the dangers of call-centre justice. Suzy Dean raised a glass to freedom of choice. Brendan O’Neill questioned the politics of misbehaviour. Elsewhere, he thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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