Policing the innocent, ignoring the riotous

ASBOs, CCTV, dispersal zones and a whole host of other petty powers did nothing to prevent the looting.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics UK

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After the riots in England came the predictable calls for more police powers. A Birmingham MP called for ‘more effective means of nipping future rioting and looting in the bud’. Tottenham MP David Lammy said the Home Office should be able to shut down the BlackBerry Messenger system, while Labour MP Diane Abbott suggested a curfew. The director of the think-tank Policy Exchange called for a new version of the Riot Act so that police could order groups to disperse (this act could be ‘read’ to rioters online).

Yet the fact is that these neighbourhoods are bristling with police powers. In London, Tottenham, Waltham Forest and Croydon are all dispersal zones, which means that police have wide-ranging powers to break up groups of two or more people, if an officer ‘has reasonable grounds for believing that their presence or behaviour has resulted, or is likely to result, in a member of the public being harassed, intimidated, alarmed or distressed’. Indeed, Croydon reinstated these powers with fanfare only a month ago, boasting that the order would ‘prevent and reduce criminal and antisocial activity in the town centre’.

Croydon council and many others use ‘gating orders’, which allow the authorities to shut any public right of way without notice. Councils and police authorities have vast powers of surveillance: lampposts are festooned with CCTV cameras, and the Home Office already has the power (under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) to demand that BlackBerry hand over messaging data.

What the riots show is the utter impotence of all these overbearing powers when it comes to dealing with instances of criminal disorder. Dispersal-zone powers have been used against political protesters, street drinkers, beggars, and (as the Haringey Police website put it) ‘groups of people of various ages coming into the area and congregating’. A Portsmouth police authority used dispersal powers to stop young people jumping into the sea. Yet while Tottenham police were vigilant in preventing the crime of ‘congregating’, they were less forthright in dealing with looting and rioting.

There is a flaccid pettiness about the whole antisocial behaviour/safer neighbourhoods infrastructure, which makes it more suited to meddling with the innocent than dealing with criminal actions. The Haringey council website boasts that a gang member has been issued with an ASBO preventing him from ‘using the internet to glamorise gang culture’, while a burglar has been ‘banned from using any gyms or leisure centres in England and Wales’. You can understand why a young rioter in Manchester scoffed: ‘What are they going to do – give us an ASBO?’

Criminal justice has lost its moral distinctions, between innocent and guilty, crime and normality. One academic observed a shift from the traditional concern with ‘morally culpable individuals’ to ‘an order maintenance process’, focused on managing the ‘opportunities for disorder’ (1). Criminal justice becomes a blanket business of ‘behaviour management’ – monitoring and meddling with everyone, but never really condemning or intervening.

This lack of interest in culpability is embodied in ASBOs. These orders prevent a gang member from wearing insignia or a thief from going to a gym (that is, the incidental behaviour), rather than broaching the actual crime, or addressing in any way the individual’s inner life or moral orientation.

The amorality of criminal justice is also embodied in on-the-spot fines (penalty notices for disorder), which are currently running at around 200,000 a year. On-the-spot-fines are essentially parking tickets for bad behaviour, and encompass everything from quite serious offences such as theft or criminal damage to completely innocuous actions. As director of a civil liberties group, I’ve recently encountered a woman fined for handing out leaflets about her comedy show and a man fined for putting up a poster for a coffee morning. Fines have been dealt out to a woman for feeding the ducks, a man for smoking in his own van, and another man for blowing his nose at the traffic lights.

While youths are apparently free to run riot, innocuous or even virtuous civic activities are subjected to ever-tighter regulation and sanction.

The cause of this is the detachment of policing from society. The impetus for the first London police force came from the urban middle classes, who tired of having their pockets picked and coaches robbed by urban vagabonds. The Victorian policeman was the ‘official representative of the moral order in daily life’, and it was this – and not his weapons – that provided the source of his power (2). An 1870 article observed that, ‘The baton may be a very ineffective weapon of offence, but it is backed by the combined power of the Crown, the Government, and the Constituencies’, and it was this ‘moral force’ that sent ‘the mob’ ‘quailing’ and ‘fleeing’ before it.

Today’s policing infrastructure is no longer founded in such a ‘community of morally righteous people’ of any class; nor is it founded in the interests a ruling elite or leader. New policing officials such as community support officers (CSOs) are like floating private security guards, with all the indifference of mercenaries and the pettiness of parking wardens. And like mercenaries, their primary concern is their own safety, so the more serious a situation gets the less visible they become.

The recent riots suggest, not the need for new powers, but the utter decrepitude of the already-too-powerful criminal justice infrastructure – which is why the ‘morally righteous’ (from Southall Sikhs to Enfield’s white working classes) had to take to the streets for themselves.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties campaign group.

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Topics Politics UK


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