Back to: A message from our sponsors | Forward to: Climategate

More holding patterns

If you're wondering what this week's excuse for scanty blog updates could possibly be, it might have something to do with me being 40,000 words into the (projected) 100,000 word first draft of 2011's novel, "Rule 34". It's a sequel to "Halting State", set some five years after the earlier novel, and focusing on the way our definitions of crime and morality (not to mention the practice of policing) change over time. (Yes, the title is an explicit call-out to you-know-what. The term "Hitler Yaoi" has been used with intent ... but only after I googled, rubbed my eyes, and concluded that rule 34 was in effect.)

So it's with some interest that I spotted this news item on the web today. Nutshell version: Dennis O'Connor, HM Chief Inspector of Police, has issued a report on the conduct of public order policing (commissioned in the aftermath of the G20 protests in April). It's damning in its condemnation of heavy-handed tactics adopted primarily by the London Metropolitan Police, in emulation of crowd-control techniques used on the continent and in the United States: "The report, published today, called for a softening of the approach and urged a return to the "British model" of policing, first defined by 19th-century Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel. O'Connor advocated an 'approachable, impartial, accountable style of policing based on minimal force and anchored in public consent'."

All I can say is: it's overdue. The Americanization of British policing has visibly been in train for a decade now — and not in a good way. The culture of Britain's police forces sprang from very different roots, and the increasing emphasis on bureaucratization, pre-emption through the threat of massive force, and alienation from the public that has characterised the current government's tinkering with the machinery of law and order is a radical and unwelcome departure. It's given us such travesties as the RIPA Act, with its implicit abolition of the right to silence (the first victim of whose anti-terrorism provisions appears to be a harmless schizophrenic), the practice of police routinely arresting people in order to justify collecting DNA samples, and the use of police intelligence apparatus to help corporations snoop on protestors. The creeping expansion of police surveillance and suspicion of legitimate political dissent — I'm not talking about bomb-makers here, but simply people who want to demonstrate in public their disagreement with government policies — is deeply worrying. Let's hope that the O'Connor report marks the beginning of a sea change in the relationship between the British police forces and the public, away from the American/European paramilitary model and back towards "the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."



Another recent story that might fit your list is the man who finds a firearm, takes it to the police, is promptly arrested for possession of the firearm and is now looking at the wrong end of a 5 year prison sentence. Google Jack of Kent, Paul Clarke and anatomy for more info (I try to avoid littering other peoples sites with links).

Reverting to "Peelian Principles" would do more to rebuild public confidence in it's police than any amount of new slogans on the sides of their cars, unfortunately any chance of successfully implementing it would of necessity involve the total replacement of every serving officer above the rank of inspector which might be a shade hard to pull off :)


Not about policing per se but Mandelsohns plans have been shot down by the EU:

The upshot is that the EU, while not yet making internet access an inalienable right, stipulates that "any decision to sever Internet access, an approach championed by several E.U. countries seeking to clamp down on digital copying of music and movies, must be subject to a legal review."

This specifically targets Sarkozys and Mandelsohns plans.


Congratulations! You are finally catching up with us in the US. I assume the next move will be to reinstate capital punishment. Then, of course, unlimited gun ownership. We're way ahead of you in putting down dissidents. But, I'm sure you'll catch up. We did have a long head start on that policy. 1968 anyone? You really need to have at least one killing or shooting of a major political or cultural figure.

And, I'm so happy that you are not only following the intellectual property laws of the US. You're actually way ahead of us. An IP czar who can declare anything he doesn't like a crime? A "three strikes and you lose the internet" law? I imagine, given the supremacy of Disney et al, we will probably make it "one strike and you're out". Can't let you Brits stay ahead of us now.

Can't we find some way of really fighting these idiots. How about an ad telling everyone they'll never get to see all those Disney princess movies? Who cares about the truth? Certainly not the Right.

Welcome to the age of "who needs civil liberties"....


I challenge you never again to bother excusing yourself for time between updates. Your posts are usually fascinating, and well worth the wait. Quality > quantity.

And thank you for Saturn's Children, btw. Fun.


Does that mean I should rather not visit London again, after my last time in 1999?


Prediction: As Charlie's excuses for not blogging become more and more creative, they will eventually become indistinguishable from his science fiction. This will be the final sign of the Singularity.


Hahaha, Hitler Yaoi indeed. The things I've seen.

Looking forward to it, sounds like a good concept.


Paging Chris Williams, Chris Williams to the blue flashing courtesy phone please...


DC protesters have won a suit against DC. Lots of other groups have won, too.


Things aren't any better over here in Australia. In Western Australia, they are bringing in legislation to allow police to search people without the suspicion of wrongdoing required. If you refuse to be searched you can face up to 18 months in jail and if you physically resist arrest you face a mandatory jail sentence.


Police violence in the US is bad enough-- but as everyone knows, violence is as American as apple pie... If your police forces are getting Americanized, the things to watch out for are corruption, racism, and incompetence. Of course, New Orleans is the paradigm case, but LA, New York, Washington, Philadelphia... Consider yourselves warned.


There are two hallmarks of US police forces that you should watch for as a result of Americanization: low qualification requirements for hiring police officers, and inadequate, and often incorrect, training. Taken together, these characteristics guarantee that police on the streets will make mistakes that injure or kill civilians.

A recent example in my own city: a cop who is already under investigation in the death of a mentally-ill man shot a 12 year old girl with a bean bag round, because, he insisted, the police officers present (three big, burly male officers, as seen in the video a bystander took) couldn't subdue her. And because the police chief put the officer on suspension pending investigation, the entire police force is voting to insist she, and the police commissioner, resign.


I am so excited for this novel. Will it be in the second person?


Charlie, will you be writing it in second person?

I've also seen some other authors talk about the craft of writing, including you Charlie. Those are always fascinating pieces, care to share any more thoughts?


Will it be in the second person?

No, but he write it all in the subjunctive!


@ 11
We've already GOT the racism and incompetence, thank you very much .....


Oops - I forgot.
Blair Peach - 30 years ago!


Yes, it's written in the second person.



We can and should expect our police to behave properly. Most of the time, we will not be disappointed. My experience is that in their day to day work they are indeed approachable, impartial and accountable. I have never seen “the American/European paramilitary model” you mention (though she does sound quite exciting).

This sort of post becomes self fulfilling. If kids are encouraged to see the police as their enemy by the media then they are more likely to start looking for excuses to protest, overdo it and get into trouble.

When they let us down, of course we should be outraged and should protest very strongly indeed.

I am prepared to believe that their approach to crowd control is wrong and needs to change, and that they make cock-ups from time to time. And I am quite ready to believe that they have a point of view on the relative merits of increased surveillance. Which does need to be countered.

While the establishment is pushing in the right direction, though, I am not going to panic.

It would help if we could be clear about what we are prepared to suffer for our freedom. 1,000 people a year killed by terrorists? (After all, that’s less than the price we pay without thinking for the convenience of the motor car.) If we could release the police from the impossible standard they are currently set, we could have a sensible discussion about intrusion. Over to you, Daily Mail.


Halting State Moment goes meta?
Hi Charlie, don't know if you've seen this yet:

It's just the opening paragraph, "NASA is considering plans to integrate haptic vibro feedback and Halting State style air-writing accelerometer capability into spacesuit gloves."

So: not just a Halting State moment, but the fact that "Halting State moment" is now an internet meme, or rather 'Halting State moment' has its own Halting State moment ... you get the point.
Ah, the use / mention distinction, where would we be without it?
[OK, technically not a meme, as no such thing, but really there isn't a better word]


Without meaning to rain on anyone's parade -- because I certainly agree with every sentiment expressed in the original post, what about this part:

"duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."

It seems to me that this part of the model must be robustly in place if all of these news items aren't to end up a setup for public outcry over "soft-on-crime" politics. I realize that this probably happens more in the US, perhaps only in the US, but those promoting the paramilitarization of police forces stateside often use the vision of citizens overwhelmed by violence to justify using more force with less probable cause. If the citizens are not enthusiastic for the duty of community welfare, how will it NOT slip back to power grasping functionaries in the government? I'm all for the stolid, duty-conscious citizenry of early 20th century period novels, but that doesn't exist today. Are there really enough people willing to do more so the coppers (and various other police-like enforcement commisars) will do less?


TwistedByKnaves: I have never seen “the American/European paramilitary model” you mention.

What, you missed the G20 protests, the killing of Ian Tomlinson, the various lawsuits over police brutality, and the rest of that stuff?

In day-to-day policing work they mostly make a good fist of a hard, thankless job. But something's gone very wrong with the practice of policing demonstrations and protests -- things improved from 1997, but took a nose-dive from the Iraq War protests onwards. And when we get to the point where the police special intelligence units are handing out spotter cards with comedians listed as "domestic extremists", it's half-past time to get worried.

(I figure that the Daily Mail is a large part of the problem. But then, I would, wouldn't I?)


>public outcry

There is no public outcry over 'soft on crime'. All those so called outcries are products of the fevered imaginations and lurid writing of the populist newspapers. That's where the problem is: journalists with a political goal and no answerability


Brett L: yes, that's a really important point. Peel's Principles only work properly when there's a broad social consensus on what contitutes criminal misconduct, and there's a strong enough social commonweal that most people feel they're part of society and want to protect it.

They don't work in the USA because (a) the US citizenry was never disarmed (in the UK, the disarmament in question happened around the end of the 18th century and applied to the aristocracy: it's where our libel laws come from, they were introduced to get the nobs to defend their honour in the courtroom rather than on the dueling field) so the potential for escallation of violence to lethal force is much higher, and (b) geographical mobility is a lot higher. (If you don't know your neighbours, where does your sense of community come from?)

But in the UK, we have this steady drum-beat of media scare stories, even though the actual crime level is falling (slowly, modulo variations in line with economic activity). And it periodically leads to horrendous panics, so that a once-a-decade atrocity like the Climbié murder ends up as justification for a huge, intrusive multi-billion pound database project like ContactPoint. Or the bizarre Dangerous Dogs Act, under which bad-looking dogs can be destroyed by local authorities, without appeal (regardless of the animal's actual threat level to humans). (Shades of the earlier US ban on "assault rifles", defined so weirdly that it amounts to little more than a ban on nasty-looking guns with too many plastic accessories.)


The police are responsible for maintaining order in public. When it is perceived that lots of people will be milling around in an area (i.e. a demonstration or a protest march) they police that situation. Each big demonstration is a different situation -- the Gxx protests have a tendency to end up with stuff getting smashed, with self-declared violent anarchist groups getting involved using the mass of regular protestors as cover for their activities. They also are a security nightmare with several heads of government and top political figures concentrated in a very small volume and surrounded by an uncontrolled mob of protestors. In that sort of situation, shit happens.

The biggest-ever protest march in the UK went off pretty much without incident. It was covered by the police and they had no problem maintaining order but there were no heads of state involved which simplified things and the protestors were almost stereotypically law-abiding folks.


Actually, community policing works great in the US -- over here (there? I'm actually an American ex-pat in the UK now) it was considered a great discovery back in the 90s that if the police interact closely and frequently with community members and leaders (i.e., preachers, teachers, and assorted local activists) then (a) they get to know the people in the neighborhood and who the real troublemakers are, and (b) the locals begin to trust the police not to screw things up, and call them in before serious trouble can happen.

Of course, the reason this is a hard-to-learn-and-institutionalize lesson is that it directly contradicts the authoritarian put-the-fear-of-god-in-the-Other impulse, which is the automatic reaction of us tribal social primates to social problems arising outside our peer group (and the people giving orders at the top of bureaucratic hierarchies are always in a different peer group than the hoi polloi).


Robert @25: the whole reason for the G20 policing enquiry is that the "violent anarchists" were conspicuous by their absence this time round -- what kicked it off was a very aggressive approach to policing by the Met.

Neel: there are too damned many authoritarians in positions of power, world-wide.


Robert Sneddon@26: When it is perceived that lots of people will be milling around in an area [...] shit happens.

You may have your cause and effect switched around, there:

With hindsight, this is the same technique that I remember from the Poll Tax riots. Then, even the violent anarchists (Class War, in that case) weren't causing any significant trouble until the police tried to shift a crowd that didn't have anywhere to go.

Also: one of the reasons I'm not as down on the panopticon singularity as Charlie is that it's near-ubiquitous surveillance that's made this kind of scrutiny of police tactics possible.


@27, @28: It's easy to second-guess a situation but a large protest (marches are easier to deal with, in part because there is a hierarchy of organisers and planning to co-ordinate with) is a real-time decision-making headache. In a protest such as the ones held at the Gxx summits a crowd of people of unknown size with no specific unitary plan of action is milling around in an area which they are often unfamiliar with. Some of them are drunk, some may be violent. There may be children and infirm folks in the mix. The police have to keep these people safe from themselves and protect the local infrastructure from wanton or accidental damage as they move en masse from one location to another at random. There is a serious risk of death and injuries happening in such protests if too many people end up crammed into the same space with others pushing from the outside. A lot of the effort of police operations in such protest events is an attempt to prevent crush accidents by moving people around and preventing them getting access to certain areas. Sadly these attempts to keep the peace are seen by many of the protestors as police intimidation and shit happens. Sometimes the police get it wrong too -- moving two sections of a crowd away from crush areas of places where violence has broken out and the two groups end up crushed into a too-small area.

If you want to look at a situation where a snap decision by the police to solve a crush situation led to disaster, see the Hillsborough tragedy. Briefly, a large number of Liverpool supporters turned up at a football match, many without tickets. The crowds tried to force their their way into the ground even after it had reached capacity, and people were being crushed and injured against the turnstiles. The police, to try and prevent more injuries ordered an exit gate opened to relieve the crush. Several thousand members of the crowd then rushed into one area of the stadium which was already full to capacity and the result was about a hundred deaths. In retrospect the police should have dealt with the crowds outside the ground much more harshly, driving them away from the area where the crushing was going on with baton charges and mounted police. This would be have been considered an example of unnecessary police brutality of course.


Robert Sneddon@29:

Have you actually read anything about "kettling" as a crowd control tactic? The crush is deliberate - it's supposed to keep potential rioters contained. The trouble is, creating a crush causes scuffles with the police and can make the 'potential riot' a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Try the BBC for a better discussion than Wikipedia:


To a large degree the current American model evolved from our two experiences with Prohibition -- the original one with alcohol and the current one with certain drugs. The money and corruption involved meant the police forces had to become much more militarized.

The US also has an interesting intersection between county-level sheriffs and town/city level police forces. This leads to a mix of police forces where some heads are elected officials and others appointed professionals.


One of the few things I remember my grandfather saying about policing is that when you are new to an area you should talk to the local shopkeepers, minister, teachers etc, and get to know what happens, who is whom and does what. Now, seeing as he started in the police aged about 18, and was a chief constable for something like 19 years, I imagine he knew what he was talking about.

And oddly enough his advice chimes with comment #26 by neel. Indeed policing by assent is a peculiarly British thing which some people have been agonising over since the invention of the patrol car and radio, which meant that the Police's job could become more like a firefighters than a community helper. That people keep re-inventing the wheel regarding community policing is a sign that the institutions involved have become overwhelmed with stupidity, bureacracy and needless change just for the sake of careerism. Blair and Brown have just made things worse. Accelerated promotion for graduates? Mad idea. More paperwork and removal of discretion from the police? Even sillier.


Robert @ 29: It's easy to second-guess a situation but a large protest ... is a real-time decision-making headache. ... Sadly these attempts to keep the peace are seen by many of the protestors as police intimidation and shit happens.

Those "attempts to keep the peace" are seen as intimidation because they are intimidation -- that's the whole point of using rows of armored riot cops to confront demonstrators. Yes, policing a large protest is difficult for the reasons you've described, but dismissing heavy-handedness and police brutality with excuses like "shit happens" and "it's not easy" is pretty weak -- especially when the cops themselves are so often guilty of initiating the violence rather than merely responding to it.

On another note, am I the only one who finds it puzzling that Charlie is apologizing for not blogging enough when he's posted five times in the past week?


Robert Sneddon @ 29: Is your description of the Hillsborough events based on personal experience?
The Taylor report, although seen as a whitewash by some, pretty clearly established that the deaths were due to a policing failures. Not a failure to use heavy tactics outside the turnstiles, but principally failures to delay the start of the game and to properly direct the fans inside the stadium once the gates were opened.
I was subject to kettling avant la lettre, at peaceful demos in London in the early 80s. As a public safety measure it was counterproductive then, and continues to be so today. It works as an intimidation tactic, and as PR for lawnorda Mail readers, but not for public safety.


Charlie @22

"What, you missed the G20 protests, the killing of Ian Tomlinson, the various lawsuits over police brutality, and the rest of that stuff?"

'Fraid so. All I saw was the media coverage and web Wittering which is not the same thing AT ALL.

As I said, I am prepared to believe that the police have got crowd control all wrong at the moment, for many of the reasons you state. But they seem to be getting the message. And actually, the day to day experience on the street is far more important.

@27 "Neel: there are too damned many authoritarians in positions of power, world-wide."

What, authoritarians looking for authority? Who could have guessed that might happen?

Brett @21 I wonder. Many, many people work selflessly for the community already. The police do have broad community support. General crime is dropping. Once they've sorted out crowd control, isn't it really just the surveillance that we should be worrying about? And isn't that about terrorism and organised crime? Not too sure I'm about to go up against anyone in a large jacket, however community spirited I may feel. But I might agree to a 1/1000 chance of being killed by a bomb at some point in the next 50 years if it kept us free.


Now take into account that the danish gov has implemented proactiv changes in preperation to the upcoming gathering of politicans up there...
There won't be any more fines for "resisting" police "advice", but instant 40 day jailtime.
Go to the "wrong" side of the street" ...
Gotta love the EU.


[ Flamage deleted by moderator ]


>On another note, am I the only one who finds it puzzling that Charlie is apologizing for not blogging enough when he's posted five times in the past week?

Isn't he chained naked to a desk, ankle deep in his own excrement, and forced to work non stop on pain of nipple torture? Aren't these blogs a desperate attempt to escape the eternal torment of being a writer?

Oh wait, that's my office.


There's an article on Making Light about the practises of the WalMart chain in the UK, which lrd to one of their workers being killed in a crush incident last year.

A lot of things went into it: how they handle sale queuing is a big part of it. While this time there was a death, non-fatal crush incidents have been happening for years, and they don't do anything about it.

What makes the UK policing situation different is that we may be seeing the beginnings of a change. The Police under pressure over some of the consequences of their previous tactics. As with WalMart, they've been getting away with things.

And, yes, an election is due in the UK. I'm not sure it will make a difference which party wins, but what I'm hoping for is a narrow win: for far too much of my adult lifetime, Governments have controlled the votes to get what they want.

The result will maybe make the Police aware that they don't have the unconditional political support they've become used to. The community policing ideal aplies at the top level too, and I'm not sure that the accumulated changes have left communities with enough influence there, except though the diktats of authoritatian politicians uncontrolled by Parliament.

Anyway, I'm Sorry, I haven't a Clue is back, and we can at least still play Mornington Crescent.

Ealing Broadway.


Clapham Common


Dave, that's WalMart in the US. I'm sure if someone had been crushed to death in a post-Thanksgiving scrum in ASDA we'd have heard about it.

I'm hoping the climate change in policing policy is genuine and sustained after the election. I fear that a Labour victory will mean more of the same counter-productive authoritarianism ...


Kier @ 37: Harsher police tactics at the Hillsborough turnstiles might have kept thousands of Liverpool supporters from rushing into the stadium and killing 90-odd people. They manifestly didn't; instead the exit gate was opened on order of the police commander to prevent the crowd outside from suffering crush injuries against the turnstile blocks and the stadium walls. In an alternate universe he kept that exit gate closed and the headlines next day reported his callous indifference to the crush of supporters outside the ground, leading to several deaths and many injuries. Shit happens when there's a mob of people around without adequate police control. Sometimes (many times) the police handle mob situations that in retrospect looks like overcontrolling or deliberately vindictive but that is, as I said originally, second-guessing the trained specialists who have to make instant decisions and get no chance for take-backs or replays of the situation.



Kettling is not an 'instant decision'. It's an approach decided on in the planning phase. It's not a sign of inherent villainy, if that helps you get over your cognitive dissonance, but it's not a tactic that should be used indiscriminately.


The South Yorkshire Police were ludicrously incompetent at Hillsborough, and engaged in all sorts of utterly disgraceful actions after the fact.

It isn't like the police made a good faith effort to deal with the situation but failed; the police went in with the attitude that the fans were the enemy and that they were animals that had to be controlled. The inevitable result happened, and then the South Yorkshire Police proceeded to slander the dead, blaming innocent victims for what happened.

The headlines the next day, in the world that actually happened, included ``"Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life"''. The police alleged that fans were part of a conspiracy to get in without paying, because not every fan had a ticket. In fact, the Leppings Lane end was well under capacity and there were still tickets on sale at Anfield the day before. The police embarked on a campaign of vilification against the people they'd failed.

Using Hillsborough to argue for more police violence is mad. It's using the deaths of 96 people who died entirely avoidable deaths to argue for the very way of thinking that killed them. The fans at Hillsborough died because the Establishment treated them like beasts to be penned into cages; saying they should have been more brutalised is...

(Shit happens when the police stop treating people like people.)


Manic Street Preachers

The subtext of this song
I've thought about it for so long
But it's really not the sort of thing
That people want to hear us sing

The context of this song
Well I could go on and on
But it's still unfashionable
To believe in principles

South South Yorkshire mass murderer
How can you sleep at night, sleep at night

South South Yorkshire mass murderer
How can you sleep at night, sleep at night

The reason for this song
Well maybe it's a pointless one
But thank you Jimmy McGovern
For reminding me of what lives on

The ending for this song
Well I haven't really thought of one
There's nothing I could ever say
That could really take the pain away

South South Yorkshire mass murderer
How can you sleep at night, sleep at night
South South Yorkshire mass murderer
How can you sleep at night, sleep at night


@ 39 / 40
( One stop beyond Barking )


@38, 40, 46

Since it's the First Sunday in Advent, Wilberforce's Rule applies, which legitimises a Line Reversion.

King George V


Charlie, stop blaming the United States for the fascist proclivities of your politicians and countrymen. It wasn't the US or Europe that caused the militarization of your police forces, it's a consequence of the way your country dealt with IRA terrorism from the 1960s onwards. And it's not the US that forced you to pass RIPA, or to weaken the right to remain silent in 1994, or the elected Tony Blair, a man who spent most of his tenure in office licking George W. Bush's ass. It's not the US that forced Britain to install so many security cameras that the country now makes Airstrip One look like an oasis of privacy. Nope, that was opportunistic British politicians taking advantage of stupid and gullible British citizens who are even more gullible and sheep like than most Americans are if you mention "terrorism" or "child pornography".

Britain is an absolute shithole when it comes to civil liberties. Indeed it's as if Britain decided to become the taint between the US and Europe proper, with all of the vices of Europe and the US and none of their virtues.


Sorry chaps, I was away, selling a book proposal about how technology and politics have interacted to change the way policing has been organised inthe UK in the last 200 years.

Me and my oppo worked on a response to the O COnnor report for PM. Some dripfeed revelation from teh Iraq inquiry knocked it off in the end. Shorter:
1) don't go overboard about the great tradition of nice public order policing. There's been a lot of nastiness all the way through - the key is that now we have ubiquitous imagery.
2) in the 1990s, the police in London essentially controlled all demonstrations (Tank Waddington's _Liberty and Order_ is good on this)so tightly, that demo organisers decided that it since legal demo would be complicated, increasingly expensive, and utterly obscure, it was best just to get on with it illegally. Lesson - loosen up a little.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on November 25, 2009 3:55 PM.

A message from our sponsors was the previous entry in this blog.

Climategate is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog