Do ‘difficult’ areas need special police attention?

Chris Bowlby examines policing in Britain

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Why do the police tailor their tactics to the different areas in which they operate? We may assume that policing developed similarly across Britain. But there have always been places – which the authorities and the media associate with high levels of crime or ‘difficult’ populations – where the approach has differed. The police have responded to their limited resources by attempting alternative strategies in these areas, prompting tension and division both within the police themselves and the communities affected.

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Jennifer Davis, a lawyer and historian at Cambridge University, has studied this phenomenon’s roots in the 19th century. It is associated with no-go areas, where police attempt to keep order through alliances with local power brokers, rather than by taking direct action. The residents of the ‘no-go’ areas have, meanwhile, resented the way they have been categorised and approached.

Dr Davis identifies an early version of this kind of policing in Jennings Buildings, a slum in Kensington, London, between the 1840s and 1870s. It was “immensely overcrowded” she says, “with over 1,500 people in accommodation meant only for 200.” Its inhabitants were classified in a local newspaper as the “lower order of Irish” whose “violent and disgraceful habits” kept other Kensington residents – living in far more prosperous conditions – in fear.

Direct policing was difficult. Jennings Buildings residents were resentful of how often they were arrested, and helped each other resist police action, sometimes bombarding officers who approached them. The police decided to retreat, relying instead on power brokers inside to prevent disorder. These were figures who had local economic power over jobs and housing, even if they were also engaged in their own illegal activity. One local senior policeman, notes Dr Davis, “not only turned a blind eye to their wrongdoing but… spoke up for these power brokers when they appeared in court”.

Taking her research a century or so on to the Broadwater Farm estate in Haringey in London during the mid-1980s, Jennifer Davis finds a similar policing model in a very different period.

This was also an estate with a reputation for poor conditions, contrasting with housing nearby. Tensions ran high between police and young black residents, seen as responsible for much local crime, and more likely to be stopped for questioning. Police were sometimes attacked when they entered the estate, so increasingly withdrew.

In effect, argues Dr Davis, “like Jennings Buildings, and for much the same reasons, Broadwater Farm had become largely a no-go area for the police”.

Again, police sought help from local groups to help maintain order – in this case, a Youth Association dispensing grants for employment and housing which, it was thought, would be able to help control lawbreaking on the estate.

But this model of policing was never stable. There were divisions within the police, with lower ranks disagreeing with their bosses’ strategy. At Jennings Buildings, violence followed junior officers’ decision to enter the estate to make arrests.

And many policemen were highly critical of the ‘community policing’ model being practised in Broadwater Farm. When, in 1985, drug dealers became active on the estate, the Metropolitan Police’s Instant Response Units moved in, despite local police commanders wanting to continue with their community model. Riots followed in which one police officer, Keith Blakelock, was killed.

Last summer, meanwhile, the involvement of special outside police units and the shooting of local resident Mark Duggan was the spark for what became widespread rioting across many parts of London and beyond.

Dr Davis’s research indicates too, however, that what outsiders – whether police or media – define as ‘the community’ on an estate can be a far from united group. Residents may have varied priorities and experiences when it comes to how they want to be policed.

So the problem is constant. There will often be a clamour for some areas to be exposed to specialised policing. But the question of how far such tactics have popular local legitimacy has never been resolved.

About the author
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org