The police are being militarised – should we be worried?

Heavily armed: no ordinary Bobby on the beat. EPA

Faced by a wave of public concern, the Metropolitan Police has “paused” its planned trial of what it refers to as “spit guards”, but which journalists have dubbed “spit hoods”. These wire mesh devices are placed over the head of a detainee as part of physical restraint procedures to stop them spitting at officers and are already used by several UK police forces.

Some police officers support such equipment on the grounds that being spat at is deeply unpleasant, and in a small number of cases, can put them at risk of contracting diseases. But others worry about what this portends for the conduct of policing in the UK and its traditional ideals.

This is, after all, the latest in a series of recent measures altering how the police practise their legal powers to apply coercive force. For example, in response to an increased terror threat, a process is underway to “uplift” the number of armed police officers in London and across the country – with 1,500 new firearms officers promised for England and Wales – as well as a review of their tactics.

A procurement exercise is currently underway for the next generation of “conductive electric devices”, or “tasers”. And within policing circles a debate is ongoing about which officers should carry these “less than lethal weapons”, as currently not all do.

Appropriate force? Police during the 2010 student protests. Shutterstock

Alongside altering their equipment, police forces have been changing their officers’ look – foregoing the shirt and tunic of previous generations, for more functional dark shirts, cargo trousers, heavy boots and routinely issued stab vests. For officers in more specialist roles such as firearms and public order teams, these fashion trends are even more accentuated. Officers themselves describe it as dressing like a “ninja turtle”. The Metropolitan Police’s new anti-terror unit has a distinctly military look – with the hardware to match.

Designed to be different

Lest we think these are solely contemporary concerns, it is worth remembering that the wisdom of distinguishing police from military, in both function and appearance, is a long-standing precept in Britain – one not so clearly drawn in some other countries. When establishing the “new” Metropolitan Police from 1829 onwards, the blue uniform was explicitly designed to differentiate the police constable from their military equivalents, who tended to wear red. Concerns about the “paramilitarisation” of policing became especially pronounced following the Brixton riots in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the police decided to invest in specialist public order equipment, and have resurfaced periodically since.

But how and why do such concerns matter? One could suggest that maybe it is not that important if such equipment enables police to prevent harm and secure resisting suspects more easily. This logic certainly appears to be driving some policing agencies in the US, who are purchasing and deploying military vehicles and weaponry increasingly regularly. But for those accustomed to the UK policing model founded upon an idea, if not always empirical practice, of “policing by consent”, these developments sit even less easily.

It should be noted that British police very rarely use their firearms. Home Office figures show that police officers in England and Wales discharged their weapons just seven times between April 2015 and March 2016 – and this despite there being 14,753 police firearms operations. By contrast, as many as 613 people were killed by US police in the first seven months of this year.

Taser use is, as expected, much higher. Home Office statistics for England and Wales show there were 10,329 uses in 2015, of which 1,921 (19%) were actual discharges.

But there are some eternally recurrent tensions that inhere in the functions of the police as a state institution. Police are tasked with managing a spectrum of risks: ranging from neighbourhood policing, solving local disputes and antisocial behaviour problems at one end, through to regulating political protests and crisis response to extreme violence at the other. The kit needed for effectively and efficiently responding to one of these situations, is not appropriate for many of the others.

The fundamental issue is that, in reality, competent violence is hard to do. This fact has been best articulated by sociologist Randall Collins’ analyses of how interacting emotional and physiological influences render most violence chaotic, messy and confused. But as professionals that are legally sanctioned to deliver coercive force, we expect police to perform violence in a more carefully calibrated and controlled fashion. On these grounds, investing in state-of-the-art kit and equipment could be justified if they render this more effective and efficient.

Changing times. EPA

So how should police seek to navigate these dilemmas and tensions? Well quite rightly, they are increasingly interested in developing an “evidence-informed” approach to policing policy and developing practice. One key source of evidence that they are neglecting, however, are the lessons from their own history.

Past imperfect

For instance, in 1977, Sir Robert Mark, the most astute of police leaders, published Policing a Perplexed Society, in which he ruminated upon several issues that continue to resonate today. Especially apposite was his observation that:

It is an important part of the police function to act as a shock absorber in protecting society from violence from any source and it is part of our tradition that we do this with the minimal degree of force necessary. Do not underestimate the cost in terms of hardship and physical injury.

Society today is no less “perplexed” than when Mark wrote these words, and how police power is deployed to prevent harm and protect social order is no less controversial. What has changed, though, are the technologies available to the police in performing this role. There has always been a tendency towards “shock and awe” policing – using visually striking, high profile raids to project the authority of the police and show them tackling social problems assertively.

But the ability to deploy “awesome” power and force always has to be balanced by the need to secure public trust and legitimacy. While instinctively we may not like some of the accoutrements of modern policing, we do need a more sophisticated public conversation about them. For by deploying effective and efficient violence, police sometimes – albeit not always – prevent more harm.

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