UK bid for US-style police reveals despair

David Cameron’s plans of emulating US policing models face harsh criticism from politicians and activists alike.

UK riots
 Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is under growing pressure to introduce new policing measures [REUTERS]

For those working to curb the expansion of imprisonment and policing here in the US, David Cameron’s recent plans to import US policing models, theories, and actual technicians are of grave concern, even if they are totally unsurprising. States have a long history of sharing policing methodology and technology, and tough-on-crime talk on “gangs” and “mobs” are well-worn scripts for governments, especially when they have their backs to the wall. 

The UK and the US have a long history of sharing policing techniques, particularly of marginalised communities, but as is the case throughout the world – in the US, England, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere – no matter how sophisticated or tough the strategy, states cannot police their way out of social and economic crisis. 

Cameron’s reaction to recent uprisings of the marginalised and disenfranchised in England has been to declare “all-out war on gangs and gang culture” and has called for widening the use of US suppression models of policing. This includes actually importing so-called “super-cop” William Bratton himself. Known for his police chief duties in the US cities of New York, Boston and Los Angeles, Bratton has been a central character in the development and implementation of “zero-tolerance” policing in the US. While politicians in England have apparently nixed the possibility of Bratton actually heading up London’s Metropolitan Police Service, Bratton is poised still to play a significant advisory role in UK policing. On the table seems to be a widening of zero-tolerance policies, as well as the expansion of controversial civil gang injunctions and concomitant “gang-enhanced” punishments. 

Bratton and others endlessly tout the successes of anti-gang suppression policing in the US, but activists, scholars, and civil rights organisations point out that “successes” are questionable at best when we look at overall safety, quality of life, and access to resources for US residents.  At the same time, the negative effects are abundantly clear: Anti-gang policing in all its forms has meant the further institutionalisation of racial profiling, militarisation of policing, the criminalisation of youth, thousands of new laws, runaway imprisonment rates, immigrant deportation, and the further denial of access to already scarce essential programs, services, and opportunities. And the list could go on. In the US, the flashpoint of the prison explosion has been policing. One of the starkest results of Bratton’s model of policing (zero-tolerance, expanded surveillance, complex gang databases, anti-gang task forces, along with the so-called war on drugs) is the tripling of the US prison population from the late 1980s into the early 2000s.

US-style policing results in huge prison populations

Currently, 2.3 million people, or 1 in 100 adults, are imprisoned in the US. This doesn’t include those locked in youth facilities (93,000) or immigrant detention centres (400,000). The majority of people in US prisons are people of colour, and the vast majority is poor. Anti-gang policing overwhelmingly targets black and Latino communities, and this is reflected in imprisonment rates: one in 36 Latino males between the ages of 20 and 34 are currently locked up; for black males the number is one in nine.

Once a person (often a young person) is identified as a gang-member, it is extremely difficult for them to shake this label – and if they are arrested and convicted of a crime, gang enhancements can add years to their sentence. This also has serious ramifications for their health and safety while in prison. Indeed at the core of a recent hunger strike by prisoners in the US state of California, was the prison administration’s use of gang-identification to keep people in long-term isolation in Security Housing Units (SHUs). In addition to the 2.3 million people in prison, five million US residents are on probation and parole. This is significant because people who have been to prison are often denied access to or are faced with significant obstacles to housing, jobs, education, and voting rights.  The conditions of parole and probation are usually exacerbated by gang member labels.

While Cameron and co. have talked in the past week about new police powers, it is important to remember England has no lack of experience with zero-tolerance and suppression policing, and the spectre of past laws and ordinances certainly haunt current anti-gang rhetoric. The power of police to detain, search, and arrest someone based on suspicion alone – or because they fit “a certain profile”, goes back to the first half of the 19th century with the passage of “sus law” (“suspected person”). Through the 20th century, the “profile” was often race-based and targeted non-white immigrant populations. In addition to economic devastation, the police use of racial profiling and “sus law” played a significant role in uprisings in black communities in England in the early 1980s. The reinvigoration of “sus law” has been championed by tough-on-crime politicians in the UK up to the present day. Similarly, the use of civil orders were championed by Tony Blair in 1990s to target “anti-social behaviour” including loitering, begging, and public drinking.

The policing of anti-social behaviour has always been a driving element of policing in the US, but was transformed and formalised into a well-resourced policing strategy under people like William Bratton. Using a zero tolerance approach, thousands of small “quality of life” infractions were policed as full-fledged crimes where more and more people were thrown in jail for longer and longer periods of time. New York City in the 1990s was hailed as a success in dropping the city’s crime rate, with the added effect of boosting the political profile of Bratton himself along with “America’s mayor”, Rudolph Guiliani. The successes of zero tolerance policing have been largely debunked by criminologists and have been decried by civil rights and community organisations for their use of racial profiling and outright violence targeting of homeless people, people of colour, poor people, queer people, and other marginialised communites.

In its war against gangs, US policing has militarised quality of life policing into something that looks strikingly similar to counterinsurgency warfare – with state of the art military hardware, surveillance technology, and strategists. Mandatory sentencing guidelines and gang-enhancement sentencing has landed many behind bars for decades, if not for life. In California, committing three felony offences – including small theft – can land some in prison for the rest of their life. Zero tolerance offers little-to-no flexibility in police or judiciary discretion, and over the years, anti-gang policing has been further and further integrated into Homeland Security and immigrations enforcement apparatuses.

Gang injunctions

Along with zero tolerance there has been much talk in England recently of using civil gang injunctions. While proponents in the US often attempt to distinguish gang injunctions from the highly-militaristic methods of other anti-gang policing, injunctions are clearly situated in the legacy of zero-tolerance, suppression policing. Similar to the UK’s anti-social behaviour ordinances, gang injunctions in the US use civil courts to restrict the movement and activity of alleged gang members within a given geographic area. Often the “activity” can include wearing a certain colour, being out in public after certain hours, or congregating in groups larger than two people.

While proponents argue that gang injunctions disrupt the criminal activity of gangs on their so-called turf, numerous studies have shown that gang injunctions further institutionalise racial profiling by the police who enforce them; have no significant effect on violence in the given or surrounding area; are often part and parcel to gentrification schemes in surrounding areas; and severely limit the capacity of community-based organisations to do anti-violence work – work that has been proven highly successful.

Once again, despite Bratton’s particular media and political work to convince people that suppression policing is not, in accordance with US law, race-based, it is abundantly clear who is being policed, how they’re being policed, and to what end. 

As many have noted, the recent uprisings in England are most definitely political – based implicitly and explicitly on the further denial of resources to those already marginalised and disenfranchised. While Cameron and other heads of government might clamour on crudely about “moral fabric”, and lawlessness, theirs is also a political response to economic and social crisis. States are spending billions in developing policing technology and strategy sharing. William Bratton has advised police forces throughout Europe, in Mexico, and Israel. He is currently the chairman of a corporation who has done security contracting in Iraq, while also advising on the internal economic security of corporations and hedge funds.

Former New York Mayor, and Bratton cohort, Rudy Guiliani is slated to head security for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Reports indicate that Rio police were responsible for 11,000 killings between 2003 and 2009, and in 2010 were responsible for between 15 and 25 per cent of all murders in that city. Well equipped, trained, and advised police forces were at the centre of state crackdowns during the uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East during this year’s Arab Spring. 

The humanitarian crisis of policing and imprisonment is endemic. But, as always, people are fighting back. Here in the US, communities across the country are organising on local, state, and national levels against the related violence of policing and imprisonment in all its forms. At the same time, people are pushing for an end to the economic devastation of the same communities targeted by policing and imprisonment. And people here definitely have their eyes on uprisings spreading across the globe. Commemorating national liberation struggle, a mural in Belfast, North of Ireland – an area no stranger to British policing tactics – exclaims “Repression Breeds Resistance”. 

So as desperate governments tighten their grips on power amid crisis by expanding police strengths, we will likely see social movements across the world do some technology and strategy sharing of their own, continuing to fight back against the violence of policing, and to continue to struggle for fundamental shifts in power.

Isaac Ontiveros works for Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organisation working to abolish the prison industrial complex. Critical resistance is a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.