Crisis and Control

In a period of social and economic crisis, Crisis and Control by Lesley J Wood, provides an understanding of the state logic that leads to increased police militarisation, finds Adam Tomes

Crisis and Control

Lesley J Wood, Crisis and Control: The Militarisation of Protest Policing (Pluto Press 2014), x, 205pp.


Ferguson and Michael Brown

The shooting and killing of Michael Brown on the 9th August 2014 ignited two weeks of mass protest across the USA. The police response by a small, local police force to the unarmed protestors on the streets was incredibly dramatic. The police took to the streets with rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, teargas and armoured personnel carriers, in scenes that resembled a warzone, not the policing of a protest in a democracy. This was a hyper visible example of what has been happening more broadly in the USA, Canada and throughout western democracies across the last fifteen years. This leads to the question how could it be that this local police force is so heavily militarised. This short, academic and empirical study of police forces and practices since 1995 aims to answer the question of militarisation and, given the events in Ferguson, it could not be timelier.

A world of struggle

The first building block in the argument is the radical restructuring of the global economy by the elites driving the neoliberal agenda. The rapid restructuring, the marketization of key public services and social life and globalisation has hit ‘the poorest and marginalised most directly’ (p.5). This problem has been further exacerbated by the policies of austerity. The neoliberal agenda has increased the volatility and effects of economic fluctuations, whilst decreasing the ability of the state to deal with them leading to ‘ongoing political and economic crises’ (p.163). Within these ongoing crises, the police are a tool of capitalism and the state with the aim of ‘defending the status quo’ (p.14). As the world becomes a place of increasing inequality, the role of the police has become the protection of that inequality in a context of increasing struggle. The author, throughout this book, bases each point on meticulously collected evidence. On this occasion, Wood illustrats the point with a quotation from the police publication, Ideas in American Policing, stating that the neoliberal project will lead to ‘increased violence stemming from inequalities structured by race, class and ethnicity’, which leads to a ‘warfare mentality’ by the police (p.6).

The legitimacy of the police

At the same time, the police have been facing a legitimacy crisis that has led to a full review of its tactics and approach. This ongoing crisis, on one hand, is driven by the incendiary video of the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police in 1991. As a result, the police faced a legitimacy crisis and ‘sought weapons that could exert a level of force between that of the baton and the gun’ (p.28), given the rather bizarre title of ‘less lethal weapons’. The second critical event was the Seattle protests of 1999, where the clashes between the police and protestors were top of the news agenda. The Seattle Chief of Police was forced to resign, virtually none of the six hundred arrests led to convictions, and law suits against the police led to payouts of over $1 million. This launched ‘a period of reassessment and justified the emergence of a new style of protest policing’ which was militarised and defined as ‘strategic incapacitation’ (p.27).

The process of reassessment is then detailed meticulously based on painstakingly collected evidence. As the police are forced to justify their budgets and their legitimacy, they seek out ‘already dominant police agencies, defence industry actors and professional policing networks in global policing networks that offer “best practices”’ (p.163). These networks are increasingly influenced by global corporations who realise that austerity is only going to increase the desire for more technology to repress protest. The global market in less lethal weapons, such as pepper spray and Tasers, is due to grow to $1,146.2m in 2018 from $880.5m in 2013 (p.119). There is then a detailed analysis of how Taser had sponsored and promoted training within police networks and massively increased the number of forces using Tasers from around 1,000 in 2001 to over 16,000 today (p.122). This one example of corporate power shows how the increasing privatisation of public services has spread to the police and can be linked to the increasing erosion of trust in the police in the global North.

Best Practices

These new ‘best practices’ include the spread of ‘new managerialism with its emphasis on results’ (p.54). This has depersonalised policing and the process has become one of ‘key accountability measures’ (p.58) where it is all about hitting statistical targets based on computer technology such as Compstat. This means it is more likely that a protestor in cities such as New York will be arrested. This process will be familiar to many public service workers who find their role is now valued by the quantity of key strokes they hit or the number of spurious and often detrimental targets they meet rather than the quality of their work and their human interactions.

The second element of the ‘best practices’ is the spread of intelligence led policing. This process is based on the ‘logic of risk and threat assessments’ (p.125). Given the need for legitimacy and budget from society’s power holders, it comes as no surprise that, especially since 9/11, the police hold a view that ‘the worthy status quo is besieged by the forces of chaos and darkness’ (p.137). In this context, uncooperative protestors are seen as criminals and as a threat. This gives logic to the idea of pre-emptive mass arrests and the militarisation of policing to deal with the threat. It justifies the increasingly violent policing of any social resistance to austerity.

As part of the best practice of intelligence led policing, the author, through her research, uncovered the spread, within the police world, of intelligence that is false, without evidence, and explains the increasing likelihood of violent police responses. Intelligence briefings are used to pass on knowledge and experience to police about to enter volatile protest situations. These briefings often include personal stories of violence or of ‘urine filled supersoakers’ (p.155), which massively increase the likelihood of the use of militarised responses, as it sets the stage for ‘confrontation, fear and even distortion of truth’ (p.155). These stories of urine and faeces are critical as they are linked to a societal taboo and therefore ‘dehumanises and depoliticises protestors’ (p.160) in the eyes of the police. In a globalised network, based on best practice, these stories spread and become part of the police culture and their view of anti-globalisation protestors in particular.

The logic of policing

Lesley Wood, through her meticulous research and her succinct, clear writing style gives us a very detailed account of the changes in the logic of policing protest in the last fifteen years. This logic has led to the ‘brutality of a system that affects hundreds of thousands of people, especially people of colour, poor people, every day’ (p.168). This book aims to give activists an understanding of this logic so that they can challenge and contain it. There are clear strategic insights, especially for protesters in the US and Canada that will enable this process and the author argues that we need to ‘demilitarise our relationships’ (p.168) to promote ‘a social system that treats people with dignity’ (p.168). Yet remorseless logic tells us, that whilst the police are the core defenders of the status quo, and when that status quo is relentlessly increasing the inequality driven by austerity, the continued militarisation of the police is a given. The only answer that remains is to change the status quo.

Tagged under: