Monday, August 01, 2005

The Orwells, No.2, and a note on policing

Given that the Orwells are meant to be a regular feature, I really must get one out for the last seven days quicksmart...and here it is. This week's Orwell nomination for the political misuse of the English language goes to Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, for inventing the concept of a "Shoot-to-Kill-to-protect policy". This is nonsense, as they say, on stilts. For a start, there is no such thing as a shoot-not-to-kill policy - I've never heard of anyone with military or police firearms experience who thinks that it is practical or desirable to do anything else with a firearm than shoot to kill. It's probably good for all parties to remember that once guns are involved it's become a deadly business, as this may restrain both criminals and police from using them lightly, waving about replicas, and such. The problem is whether or not the police have a shoot policy, in the sense that they have taken a decision in advance to shoot at people suspected of terrorism rather than not shooting at them if at all avoidable.

The "to protect" bit is simply nauseating, and is anyway meaningless - why on earth would the Met shoot otherwise than "to protect"? So, your nomination is on the way, Sir Ian. (And by the way, could you possibly avoid badmouthing your colleagues from West Midlands after they succeed where your lot failed?)

Last week's events, which panned out while I was in distant Lochaber and happily feeling utterly disassociated from the metropolitan paranoia cooker, bear out a point I've been trying to make for some time. In our time of terrorism, two different and opposed traditions of policing are clashing. One is the original British tradition stretching back to Robert Peel, based on the principles of policing by consent, local accountability, and systematic investigation of specific crimes. The other is one we might associate with Wilhelmine Germany or postwar France, which may be characterised as policing by suspicion, public-order policing, or preemptive policing. The emphasis is on preparing to suppress riots, and the theoretical base is that the citizens are a potentially hostile force that must be watched in its aggregate in case it turns on you. So you need the armed power to crush it and the authority to lock up the ringleaders first. This thinking is expressed in legislation like ATCSA, the Terrorism Act, Asbos and the like: we, the state, know who the plotters are, or at least who might be a plotter, so we need the right to punish them before they do anything wrong.

The other tradition says instead that we know nothing in advance, but that the criminal will give us the information at the time they give us a reason to lock them up: they will leave clues which can be used through detective work to identify them. This tradition, although it cannot prevent crimes, is more robust in the face of our limited knowledge of the future. It only helps to be able to lock people up without trial if you know who they are - if you don't, your strategy is set at naught. The terrorism crisis has shown this with blinding clarity. None of the new pre-emptive policing measures helped at all, but the classic effort of investigation from the details of a specific offence has traced the complete plot with impressive speed.

What worries me is that the spectacular detective achievement of rolling up the tube bombers may end up as a swansong, a last great case for The Inspector before the security bureaucrats roll up the old uniform and stick it in some efficient piece of office furniture in their new Mearsham Street fortress. Farewell not only The Bobby but The 'Tec. Greet the brave new world of biometric ID, monster databases and automated profiling.

Against this, I propose that one particular investigation might be vital to defend the notion of investigative policing itself: the investigation of Jean Charles de Menezes' death by copper. It seems obvious to me (at least) that this is a classic case of a systems failure that produced an apparent failure of judgement by the human instrument. It's the kind of event that, in the past, led to pilots being pilloried over incidents that were in fact preordained by management and engineering factors beyond their control. The chain of decisions that killed Menezes runs something like this: decision to watch the block of flats, decision to follow him, decision not to apprehend him immediately, decision to let the bus continue on its way, decision not to apprehend him after leaving the bus, decision to shoot when he entered the tube station. If any one of those switches had been set the other way, he would still be alive and fitting fire alarms to Kilburn.

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