Police on the verge of a nervous breakdown

A crisis amongst Britain’s boys in blue has led to a proliferation of erratic street wardens and watchmen - and they’re ruining community spirit.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

If you ask a policeman a question, you’ll likely get a pretty standardised answer. Ask a Community Support Officer (CSO) a question, and there is literally no telling what they will say.

‘First of all, WHO ARE YOU?!’ one CSO said – shouted – when I tried to talk to him in Leicester Square in central London. ‘We don’t know who we are talking to!’ When I gave a non-threatening reply, he went quiet and started fiddling with his mobile phone, leaving his colleague to deal with the ‘situation’.

CSOs’ random behaviour has not passed unnoticed. Last week, a West Midlands CSO was convicted for embezzling two local ladies in his area out of their savings after he told them lies about being in terrible debt. One of the women told the local paper: ‘You don’t expect someone in a uniform to do something like this.’ In another case earlier this month, a female CSO was fined after using police records to check out potential romantic partners. Around the same time, a Tower Hamlets CSO was under investigation for turning against local youths in what the Evening Standard described as ‘a scene reminiscent of the film Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas…goes berserk’.

One study found that Police Community Support Officers, although making up only a fifth of the police workforce, were responsible for half of all cases of gross misconduct. In 2009, 359 PCSOs were disciplined and 10 were charged with criminal offences.

Contrast this with the Quarterly Review’s description of the ideal Metropolitan Policeman in the 1840s: ‘Perfect command of temper is indispensable.’ Police training should transform a ‘wild young fellow’ into ‘a machine, moving, thinking and speaking only as his instruction book directs… Stiff, calm and inexorable, an institution rather than a man’ (see Policing Victorian London, by Phillip Thurmond Smith).

CSOs are very much men, and contain little of the institution. This is partly because of their training – which is ‘very basic’, one CSO told me – but also because they have no institutional ethos. They do not in any respect seem to represent the ‘moral order of the crown and the state’, as the police are supposed to do. CSOs look like they borrowed their jackets; they wear their authority lightly. While a police officer is still an officer – with police duties and powers – when not on duty and not in uniform, CSOs have no powers when they take off their hats and jackets. All of their power lies in the jacket.

CSOs are one of a confusing number of nearly-police that have been created over the past few years. As well as 16,000 CSOs there are over 8,000 Street Wardens, many of whom have powers to issue on-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour offences.

Chief constables can also ‘accredit’ certain individuals with low-level police powers. A 2009 audit found that there are 1,667 ‘accredited individuals’, including private security guards, railway employees and park rangers. Avon and Somerset police have empowered guards from the Vision Security Group who patrol The Mall shopping centre in Bristol, while Hertfordshire police have given the honours to employees of Parkguard Ltd. Significantly, these ‘accredited individuals’ are not under the control of the police but of train companies, the council or private shopping malls. Now the coalition government wants to extend further these nearly-police brigades, by creating new bands of ‘community crime fighters’ and encouraging members of the public to go on patrol alongside police officers.

These new categories of police are fundamentally different from Special Constables, a volunteer reserve force that has fallen from some 60,000 in the 1960s to some 15,000 today. Special constables have exactly the same uniform and powers as police officers: their role is not to be an active day-to-day force, but a reserve force for dealing with public order emergencies.

The police seem to have lost it: they are handing out police badges like sweets. In one area, a primary school swore in pupils as their own ‘Junior Police Community Support Officers’, to deal with the issue of ‘irresponsible parking’ around the school.

Still worse, there is a whole ‘community safety’ infrastructure – private companies linked to councils and other public funding pots – over which the police have little control. Of the growing number of people patrolling streets in hi-vis jackets, an ever-declining proportion are police officers.

There are an estimated 150,000 private security guards in the UK (according to the Security Industry Authority) and many of these stand guard outside pubs or patrol shopping centres or squares. Increasingly, they are offering their services to local communities, who can have their streets patrolled for 39p a day per resident. The Police Federation says that these growing ranks of private police are a ‘huge concern’. Yet it is only a version of the diffusion of powers being carried out by its own hand.

The setting up of all these parallel police powers look like a grand institutional collapse, a reversal of the process of the formation of the police, by which powers were concentrated and standardised under direct lines of control. Again, as with the Justices of the Peace, there are a set of overlapping jurisdictions, with different local forces under different controls and working by different rules.

And yet, there is another side to this. This process of institutional collapse is also at the same time establishing new forms of social control. CSOs and their assorted patrollers represent a shift of the police into a new role: a shift from traditional policing (protection of property, person, and public order), to behaviour policing (those violations of public order that include dropped chewing gum, drinking in the park, dogs without collars etc, etc.).

CSOs are not police but behaviour police. They cannot arrest somebody or investigate a crime: they wander around telling people off for doing whatever it is they are doing, and deliver state-issued tellings off in the form of on the spot fines. In this respect, they represent not a strange anomaly, but the dominant trajectory of policing.

The police have become embarrassingly inept at dealing with public order situations – witness impotent officers standing by while a handful of students took their time to smash Millbank Tower. They have also apparently lost the ability to perform armed sieges, either shooting the gunman outright (Mark Saunders) or sitting by and letting him get on with it (the Hackney siege, which was resolved after the gunman set fire to himself and the hostage escaped).

So police officers are surprisingly inert when faced with a gunman or attack on the seat of political power (or – notoriously – with a drowning boy, who a CSO stood by and watched drown because he wasn’t ‘trained’ to deal with the situation, showing remarkably less initiative and public spirit than any average passer-by). Yet officers become surprisingly agitated when they encounter situations such as one 10-year-old kid calling another child ‘paki’ in the playground, a man clipping his neighbour’s honeysuckle, a Christian handing out leaflets criticising homosexuality, a drunk student asking an officer if his horse was gay…or any other of the myriad trivial everyday incidents that have been sternly brought to justice by our brave boys in blue.

The truth is CSOs are not a diversion or betrayal of the police. More and more, other police officers approximate the undisciplined and busybody temper of these ‘plastic police’.

These new forces are supposed to ‘support’ communities – in actual fact, they erode any last vestiges of community self-reliance. What CSO, private security guards and all the other tens of thousands of ‘community safety officials’ patrolling our streets have done, is to take ordinary self-policing functions out of the hands of citizens, and into the hands of anybody with a badge.

These new officials have few distinguishing features except for their uniform and badge: the fact that they have been appointed or ‘accredited’ by some (who knows what) higher authority. It is these badged men and women who are now supposedly the representatives of the ‘community’ and have the authority to act for ‘community safety’. Citizens have none.

In spite of sporadic gestures in support of ‘have a go heroes’ (old lady tackles armed robber scenarios), there has been a systematic undermining of independent citizen action. Official advice on everything from dealing with misbehaviour to child abuse is that it is ‘unsafe’ to intervene. Instead, we are told to inform a nominated child protection coordinator or call the council anti-social behaviour hotline. The accreditation of motley bands of new officials parallels the disempowerment of citizens, to offer basic discipline or support to fellow citizens.

When there is a genuinely independent ‘citizens’ police, based in a community, these are firmly sanctioned. The ‘Stamford Hill Safety and Rescue Patrol’ operates in the Jewish communities of north London, responding to calls for assistance from this tight-knit, Yiddish-speaking neighbourhood. While the New York police integrated such citizens’ groups, the Met was not so welcoming: ‘There is an issue of members of the public putting themselves at physical risk. We would always encourage members of the public, from all communities, to contact their local police Safer Neighbourhoods team to discuss crime and safety issues in their area.’

So kids with a Junior PCSO badge have more authority than their teachers. Even cut-out police are supposed to have more power than responsible citizens: one hospital A&E even put up cut-out police officers in the reception, to try to protect staff from anti-social behaviour. And the Home Secretary’s suggestion that citizens should patrol alongside the police was indicative: a citizen on their own is nothing; only with an official at their side do they have authority.

Perhaps this undermining of civic authority lies behind several shocking incidents of ‘have a go heroes’ being murdered or seriously wounded. A citizen’s intervention is experienced as an unauthorised violation, and the offender explodes with rage: ‘Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do?’ In contrast to this unleashing of violence on well-meaning citizens, attacks on police – or CSOs or street wardens – are relatively rare. The busybody activities of CSOs get surprisingly little challenge or reaction. Brighton’s CSOs spend almost all their time confiscating drinks from people sitting on the beach or in parks – basically, stealing their property – and what is striking is how few people protest. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of drinks confiscations, a tiny number are challenged and end up in court.

So the crisis of the police – and the ever-growing and increasingly useless ranks of badged busybodies – is also a new form of official control of community life. It is time, perhaps for some citizens’ action. First, we should call for the outright abolition of CSOs, community wardens and their motley ilk. Second, we should question their authority at every opportunity, and seek to take back everyday community regulation from the hands of our hollow officialdom.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties campaign group. Email her {encode=”” title=”here”}.

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Topics Politics


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