“There’s a bigger piece going on, isn’t there? It’s not only about these counter-terrorist measures, it’s also about the position of the prime minister. We can’t play entirely outside that process.”
In 1983 Jean-Paul Brodeur, a Canadian criminologist, published an essay called “High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks About the Policing of Political Activities”. Brodeur defined ‘low policing’ as the unending and mundane job of maintaining social order and responding to breaches of the criminal law. ‘High policing’, by contrast, is policing with an agenda and a long-term perspective: the use of police methods and resources to achieve coherent political ends. Such as, for instance, clamping down on political protest.
‘High policing’ is rarely advertised as such. Indeed, one of the most popular images of police work has it that there is only ‘low policing’: the law is above politics, and it’s the police’s job to maintain social order, not to maintain any particular social order. Brodeur’s research demonstrated that ‘high policing’ is a reality, governing at least the Canadian police’s approach to political activism of any type (legal or otherwise, orderly or otherwise). It also suggested the rather more disquieting conclusion that ‘low policing’ is at best framed by, and at worst permeated with, the political calculations of ‘high policing’. ‘Low policing’ arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; ‘high policing’ turns them into informers and lets them go. ‘Low policing’ lets orderly demonstrations proceed unhindered and breaks up disorderly protests; ‘high policing’ lets protest events continue or not according to their longer-term political significance.
The police operate in defence of the state and the status quo; the political calculations of ‘high policing’ will always be with us, at least until such time as the protection of the state and the status quo is a wholly apolitical aim (smiley goes here). What we can hope for is that ‘high policing’ operations are carried out with a degree of transparency and accountability – and, above all, that ‘high policing’ is not allowed to take precedence over the demands of ‘low policing’. The ideals of impartiality and equity may seldom be achieved in the context of ‘low policing’; in the context of ‘high policing’ they aren’t even relevant considerations. ‘High policing’ sets the police at odds with the public; the immediate effects of what’s happening right now don’t matter nearly as much as its implications for the longer, political game. It’s a sophisticated game, which can be played with an eye to the press and public opinion as well as the requirements of the government of the day: deliberately under-policing disorder may be popular in itself, or it may help forestall criticism of a subsequent crackdown. But, whatever its short-term effects, the increasing dominance of ‘high’ over ‘low’ policing is corrosive of any claim by the police to impartiality, and of any possibility of broader public trust in the police.
Which brings us to those cartoons, and that demo.
BBC, 4th Feb:
A march in which protesters chanted violent anti-Western slogans such as “7/7 is on its way” should have been banned, a leading British Muslim said. Asghar Bukhari said the demonstration in London on Friday should have been stopped by police because the group had been advocating violence.The chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee said the protesters “did not represent British Muslims”. He said that Muslims were angry over satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in European papers but it was “outrageous” for anyone to advocate extreme action or violence. “We believe it [the protest] should have been banned and the march stopped.”
Guardian, 4th Feb:
Passers-by stopped police officers to ask why the marchers were being allowed to carry banners threatening further suicide attacks in the city. One police officer replied: “Don’t worry. We are photographing them.”
Metropolitan Police, 5th Feb:
Arrests, if necessary, will be made at the most appropriate time. This should not be seen as a sign of lack of action … The decision to arrest at a public order event must be viewed in the context of the overall policing plan and the environment the officers are operating in.
Low policing says: “I don’t care who you are or what you’re protesting about, stop that and move along.”
High policing says: “You lot can have your fun, we’ll reel you in when it suits us.”