Crossing the line

Article by Michael Fisher

With the announcement of a new counter-terrorism initiative by the Metropolitan police, our author examines the proliferation of militaristic practices in maintaining law and order.

Is the militarisation of British police reasonable?

On the 3rd of August 2016 Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, unveiled the evocatively named ‘Operation Hercules’ to receptive journalists and TV news crews. In turn, the emergence of an elite force of six hundred heavily armed counter terrorism operatives was eagerly, and uncritically, reported to the public.

Posing for photos with an array of military grade weaponry and equipment, clad in “wolf-grey” fire resistant jump suits, the masked officers look like avatars in any recent first person shooter you could care to mention, a far cry from the institutional and re-assuring English bobby. It is this jarring gap which underpins the formation of this article, which will firstly examine the current academic and popular understanding of militarisation before examining the counter-intuitive reasoning behind the aforementioned initiative and the polar discourse which typifies the direction in which modern policing is heading.

In his influential work ‘Militarization and Policing’, Dr P. Kraska outlines two definitive concepts necessary in broaching the subject. The first is militarism, which describes an overall ethos or approach to dealing with challenges, namely the use of force and violence along with the operational considerations that enable it. The second is militarisation, which is the adoption and normalisation of those very practices. With these definitions we are equipped to understand if the British police force is indeed enraptured in the ideology of militarism. Certainly members of the Met’s counter-terror firearms unit have a mandate to “run towards the danger”, according to Sir Hogan-Howe. It may be considered that the absolute core of the warrior mind-set is willingness to close down an enemy, and engage them. Formerly, a contain and assess policy was considered the sensible option.

Beyond these fairly simple definitions, Dr Kraska outlines four dimensions with which to gauge the degree of militarisation an entity has experienced. These include the material element, for example the type equipment available for carrying out tasks. This became an acute issue in the United States in particular after the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. A joint police and military manhunt for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brought police officers in armoured personnel carriers and camouflaged uniforms to suburban streets and wider public attention. A natural curiosity as to where such equipment was procured was engendered. In response to greater calls for transparency, The Department of Defence revealed an ever accelerating Pentagon sponsored program in place since the Clinton Administration of the early 90’s, which disseminated over five billion dollars worth of surplus equipment to police agencies under ‘1033 Program’. Public interest groups such as ‘Open the Books’ have brought to light everything from innocuous gifts of office furniture and trumpets to extremely controversial transference of weapons, namely thousands of bayonets and grenade launchers given to wildlife officers and university campus police. In Britain no such programme exists and thankfully plastic explosive is off the menu, however, the almost understated MP5 sub-machine gun, familiar to anyone who has travelled through Heathrow Airport, has given way to high powered assault weaponry.

The second dimension in the continuum of militarisation is culture. Pertaining to the appearance, beliefs and values, and language used in an organisation. Metamorphosis in these areas might emanate from within, perhaps due to the police officers being recruited from ex-military ranks or by the simple fact that coercion of belligerents necessitates the use of force, and logically, expertise in such matters being shared. In another, often more subtle way, an outside agency may initiate such a change. Ronald Reagan famously brought about a ‘War on Drugs’, the very terminology used perhaps having some influence on the way a police officer might view their profession. It is not coincidental that the 1980’s saw an exponential increase in the use of special weapons and tactics teams, the passing of the Bryne Grant Programme, which allocated substantial funding to anti-drug measures, stimulated the use of S.W.A.T teams, a zero-tolerance policy and justification of ‘no-knock’ raids on the homes and businesses of suspects. Again, British policing appears to have been spared this particular type of pressure and the open co-operation and cross training exercises between the police and military that went with it. It is difficult to determine exactly how much involvement the British Department of Defence has had with the police in these terms, owing to the secretive nature of British special forces. However, with the recent wave of terrorist attacks, carried out by whom the press luridly refers to as “marauding terrorist gunmen”, training between police and special forces has definitely taken place with a view to interoperability, as was seen with the large scale exercise ‘Operation High Tower’. Even so, recent cooperation seems a long way from former Met SO19 firearms officer Steve Collins’ bragging about training the Special Air Service in his book ‘The Good Guys Wear Black’.

The material and cultural dimensions may contain most obvious and alarming indicators of militarisation, yet it is the organisational and operational patterns that truly enable the proliferation of martial force and most importantly determine if martial factors are used responsibly for the good of a populous or to their detriment. A highly disciplined squad of officers, emulating military special forces, directed at verifiably dangerous respondents may well be worthy of the supercop/robocop nickname they will inevitably be given. If they are given their cues by an especially decisive and communicative command structure, fed by an efficient intelligence network, they may even prove to be a deterrent to highly motivated terrorists. On the other end of the spectrum poorly trained officers may brutalize populace, they may exacerbate civil disobedience and rightly draw ire by alienating communities, viewing their beat as a theatre of combat replete with enemies as opposed citizens needing assistance. As a police service is, more often than not, viewed by the general public as a monolithic organisation, the actions of officers are seen to be representative of their peers. As has been seen with the response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, poor police conduct is liable to stimulate nationwide movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’.

As militarisation conflates these four dimensions, the very interdependence of them becomes clear. For instance, the after action report regarding the Boston Marathon Bombings outlines a lack of weapons discipline in officers engaging both suspects. One instance regarded a dangerous crossfire caused by ranks of officers taking up firing positions on both sides of one street. In another, a member of the Boston Police Department fired upon a black pickup truck that was erroneously reported as stolen, which happened to be occupied by two police officers. Finally, when apprehending the second respondent, an officer fired without appropriate authority, causing a troubling round of “contagious fire” before the acting supervisor called for cease. Curiously, advice given as part of the report does not recommend that the use of weapons be scaled down in any way, it simply asserts that more training is needed with firearms. Subsequently it can be noted that military equipment makes military training the logical and easily defensible course of action, and so the process of militarisation is re-enforced.

It can therefore be observed that a causal chain is established whereby government policy drives military equipment into the hands of peace officers who in turn have no choice but to take part in military training to justify their carrying of weaponry. If there is no resistance to such consistent progression then militarisation will become normalised, a part of everyday life. It is undoubtedly true that well trained police firearms teams are needed to respond to certain specific situations. The genesis of such groups can hardly be questioned. However, the warning given by President Eisenhower in his farewell address, that the military industrial complex holds a potentially disastrous rise in misplaced power, may easily be extended to policing. Police forces stimulating the profitable production of military/security technology and not just being a passive beneficiary. Perhaps disconcertingly the Home Office Security and Policing exhibition now matches any arms trade show for size and interest.

It would seem then, that militarisation is a definite issue in the United States and perhaps some other countries. In response to a spate of terrorist attacks, three in eighteen months, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called for young “patriots” to join the reserve gendarmerie. Part of a push to flood the streets with armed forces to dissuade attackers. Britain’s police service, often considered to be the world’s first true institutional force, may have a more intrinsic resistance to militarisation. Traditionally a liberal society, patriotism in Britain meant repulsion of any entity encroaching upon civil liberties, the formation of a police force was vehemently opposed by parliament and the public as part of a cultural identity. It was not until the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ of 1819, when cavalry was used to charge a mass of protesters who were demanding parliamentary reform, that widespread support for a police force was gained in an effort to dissipate the suspicion of standing armies. Most every aspect of the force was consciously crafted to create an image of respectability. Uniforms were required to demonstrate that espionage was not part of the policeman’s agenda and they were blue in colour, to further differentiate themselves from the army. As if to ingratiate the police with the working classes, and dissuade a militaristic officer class, wages were low and it was hoped the police and the policed would have similar backgrounds and a sympathy for each other. Within such considerations, the ideas of Sir Robert Peel, who established the Metropolitan Police Force are enshrined. The very essence of policing by consent, as opposed to coercion, is that officers see themselves and are seen by others as citizens in uniform.

It is curious then, as the new counter terrorist police take to the streets, that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged to put two devoted beat officers and a police community support officer in each of the six hundred and twenty-nine wards he is responsible for. The effectiveness of community based policing is rarely questioned, being the model adopted by the majority of forces since the 1970s, Mayor Khan clearly concurs with this, marking local officers as being better equipped to detect crime and act as “eyes and ears” of the security services. It is unclear if political leaders are fully cognisant of the ramifications of poor police and community relations. After the 2011 riots in London the Coalition Government formed the ‘Riots, Communities and Victims Panel’ which set out over sixty recommendations in terms of remedy and avoidance, most of which have not been brought to fruition. Perhaps inevitably, underlying causes of the London Riots remain and are blamed for incidents such as a Hyde Park water fight in July 2016, descending into violence, vandalism and looting. In this case Metropolitan Police had their annual leave cancelled in order to gain control.

It remains to be seen if the militarisation of British police will exacerbate deep seated trust issues between the demos and police forces or lead to diminishing violent crime rates. It is after all, in a nascent stage especially in comparison to other states. What is clear however is that the very foundation of British policing is challenged by most any form of militarisation, and with it the prestige of the most respected police for in the world is compromised.


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