Bernard Hogan-Howe talks out of his braided hat

This post was written by Guest Post on January 18, 2012
Posted Under: Civil Liberties,Communities,Criminal Justice,Police

This is a guest post by Matt Mahon

Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe of the Met – played excellently on Monday by Iain Glen, fresh from the set of HBO’s Game of Thrones – was supposed to explain his ‘total policing’ policy at LSE on Monday. In fact, he flannelled for half an hour about the challenges facing the force, then quite comfortably fielded a mixture of questions. On the one hand, fawning entreaties for him to explain just how it is he copes with the self-same challenges that he had just defined, and on the other, increasingly hostile attacks, and later chants, from students and anti-racism activists. The most powerful of these came when Hogan-Howe was skirting around a question about deaths in police custody, and disparate sections of the audience began spontaneously naming some of the three hundred and thirty-three dead. Given that the subject of the session was ostensibly to discuss total policing, though, Hogan-Howe did a remarkably good job of saying very little in many words.

It’s clear that events of this type are spectacles in the purest sense. The aim of the talk wasn’t to advance any debate that might emerge, or even the content of the lecture that Hogan-Howe gave. Instead, the event itself is what mattered: a veneer of academic respectability is given to the Met, and to BHH himself, by the fact that he can appear to be engaging in such a conversation. His talk was a mixture of down-home wisdom and flat-out contradiction, though those questions which weren’t anodyne or purely polemic exposed some interestingly large gaps in Hogan-Howe’s own understanding of policing in London: for instance, he doesn’t seem to have a desire to explore the disproportionality of stop-and-search further than to ‘explain’ it by pointing out that more stops take place in BME areas. But beginning debate like this isn’t the point of the event, when there’s such apparent disconnect between the rhetoric at the top of the Met and the realities of public order and inner-city policing.

Hogan-Howe likened total policing to Johan Cruyff’s total football; everyone can fill everyone else’s positions. But as one questioner noted, the immediate implication of total policing is high barriers at protests and a massive increase in the ability of officers on the street to decide exactly how the law should be enforced. Public order policing at the moment is heading in two directions: firstly, an increase in the ability of officers on the street to determine exactly how the law is applied. The state of exception, the moment in which particular police officers are able to determine the law, has been particularised and extended with new police powers – as in the case of the imposition of section 60 orders, the ban on face coverings and the restrictions on protest materials outside the agreed route of a march. Secondly, there is an increasing tendency for officers to be placed in situations where the instructions that come down to them from on high force a logic of escalation on to situations.

This mixture of increased power and increased institutional pressures – and the ever more apparent inseparability of police policy from the demands of government of the day – makes it clear that Monday’s talk could never represent a forum for a genuine discussion of total policing. I could go further: Any explanation of total policing from the top cannot encapsulate what it may mean for activists and black youth whose relationship with the police is much less mediated by such rhetoric. Hogan-Howe may represent a nicer face of the Met, but he does not speak for them, or to us.

A podcast of the talk will be available here in the next few days.

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