Professor Philip Smith responds to policing postings

paddy wagon

Thanks for this interesting if sadly familiar narrative Judy. As an academic criminologist I was struck by how consistent your story was with the literature on policing. In fact your text could be used as a teaching resource for this reason.

First up it touches upon the issue of ‘over-policing’. This has been well documented in Australia by scholars like Gillian Cowlishaw and Paul Wilson and is known to Aboriginal activists as a problem. The basic point is that ratios of police to citizens vary widely according to who is being policed. Simply having more police in an area with more presumed ‘troublemakers’ leads to more trivial acts being detected and people being swept up into the criminal justice system. The Redfern area of Sydney is a well known locus of contention over this. The argument is also made that over-policing (in anticipation of trouble) generates a hostile atmosphere and hence a self-fulfilling prophecy. The policy conjures the crime as it were.

Next up we have the ‘dramaturgic’ aspects of policing. This is well established in policing ethnographies by people like Jerome Skolnick or Max van Maanen. Here the theme is that the police see themselves as outnumbered (ironically enough this is especially the case in over-policing contexts). They need to establish authority in direct interpersonal interactions and head off interactional complications with the public/those they feel they should be controlling. Their aim is to define the situation as one in which they are in control, where negotiation or discussion is not possible, and to make this quickly visible to onlookers. The last thing they want is a debate on whether or not the law has been broken or who exactly is at fault, even if we citizens feel this sort of thing should be central to conflict resolution or avoidance. The priority is to control the situation right now and then to let the court sort out the finer details later. The negative experiences you report at the police station (eg. their failure to smile or, apparently, to provide basic information on your rights) could be interpreted as manifestations of this urge to establish boundaries and show who has power. So also was their surly behavior at the music event. Once they had started out on a line of action, such as telling you that you were under arrest, they could not start to undo it without looking indecisive and open to hence negotiation. Once that flip-flop happens the situation starts to look indeterminate and, they believe, chaos will follow.

Lastly we have the issue of ‘order maintenance’ versus ‘law enforcement’. Ethnographies show that beat police give priority to maintaining orderly public spaces over any rigid to-the-letter enforcement of all possible laws. They feel they can be held responsible for visible public disorder, subject to criticism etc. if disorder can been seen and reported (to their boss, to the media, to politicians etc). Thus in many cases people are ‘swept up’ who have not done anything wrong but who are perceived to be either risky due to personality, as belonging to the presumed categories of the potentially disorderly (youth, minorities, people with tattoos, the mentally ill etc) or simply as behaving in non-conventional ways. It seems as if ‘order-maintenance’ was the focal concern for the officers at the music event. They wanted to keep a lid on things.

One thing that did puzzle me was that the police did not let you go sooner. According to ethnographic research you should have been defined by the police as a ‘do-gooder’, ‘disarmer’ or ‘challenger’ (see Robert Reiner’s book “The Politics of the Police” for these terms – please note these are not objective categories of person but rather types of person identified by police culture, talked about in the canteen etc.). The police generally fear such educated people as bringing complaints, shame or political interference as well as general hassle and bad publicity. The fact that your story made it to your blog and we have been reading this is a case in point. Moreover the police generally divide people into the ‘rough’ and the ‘respectable’, with the latter often given the benefit of the doubt – especially if this reduces workload and legal escalation is deemed pointless. Your referring to the fact that you had a husband and were an artist should have started alarm bells ringing that they had made a category error in their folk-classification system. Next would come the realization that their own best interest would be served by getting you out of the police station as quickly as possible. eg. with some kind of lame apology, or perhaps a Caution so you would go away humbled and not make trouble. One of the police officers seems to have realized the mistake. However it would have been difficult for him to do much about the situation without seeming to contradict or implicitly criticize his colleagues who had made the arrest. Within the peer police solidarity is very important, especially as one day you might need your buddy to risk his life to save yours.

Lastly we need to reflect a little on the difficulty of the policing role. To criticize policing does not necessarily involve blaming the individual. Much of the responsibility lies in what is called by academics ‘police culture’. On joining the police new recruits are socialized into a worldview and a set of cognitive and behavioral shortcuts that often make sensitive policing difficult. To a certain extent the leadership in Australia’s various Police services are aware of this problem, although their efforts to deal with it seem to have limited impact on the ground (see Janet Chan “Changing Police Culture”). We should also remember that in the context of Aboriginal issues the police are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In Australia weren’t the authorities blamed for failure to intervene and turning a blind eye to issues like domestic violence and incest in Aboriginal communities? Didn’t critics say “Where were the police?” And who would have been blamed had there been a violent incident at the music event and a policy of having a minimal police presence was in place? There seems to be no easy way to find a Goldilocks zone for policing and it is not surprising that the police often feel they are singled out for unfair criticism based on contingent outcomes. Finally we should remember that the police are the people who scrape body parts off the road after accidents, tell people that their child was found dead in the river, wash vomit from the back seat of the police car, and face down the occasional armed and violent person. Any volunteers? They deal with negative situations all the time and only some of these are of their own making. None of this excuses rude, insensitive, bullying or incompetent policing when it takes place but it is worth contemplating how the job itself might create a certain kind of thick skin and cynicism that helps the officer get through the day.


6 thoughts on “Professor Philip Smith responds to policing postings

    • I am pleased that the article does seem to be reaching people, including some who say they will write letters or contact appropriate social justice groups about the policing situation in Alice Springs. My thanks to those people too, and to Professor Smith for the article.


    • The experience was at least a great insight into what life is like for many of the Australian Aboriginal people of Alice Springs. In a way, I was the right person for them to wrongfully arrest as at least I have a bit of a voice through the exhibition.


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