Greater Manchester Police have again showcased their drug arrests on social media. It’s only one example of day to day media activity from British police, but it is notable how professional it looks.
It really concerns me that police in the U.K. are getting so slick at social media. You could argue that they’re just playing catch up with online content that has raced along in influence and sophistication for the last decade or so.
But why do we need police to catch up with this slick digital manipulation? It is of course a core responsibility of our police services to maintain public confidence. For if the public lose confidence in policing, the fabric of society becomes more fragile, right? Police also have a duty to respond to community concerns and to inform their public how they are responding to them. So why am I uncomfortable?
Police have a duty to the truth. In a democracy our law enforcement must not become the mouth piece of the State and certainly must not misinform the public. For the most part we can be proud of how our police communicate. When we look around the world we can at least have a claim to having the most ethical cops as regards to how they present their work to the masses. But there is a glaring problem that they have in common with other law enforcement institutions worldwide.
Peel’s Principles, presented in 1829, still offer great guidance for how police should function in a liberal democracy. The last, Principle 9, is important here. ‘The evidence of police success should be the absence of crime not evidence of police activity’.
For conventional crime, police activity can actually reduce it. For drugs policing it never does. In fact LEAP members and allies all over the world note that, more often than not, drugs policing actually increases crime. Police do not reduce the size of a market, they just change the shape of it. Where gaps are created in the market, these are fought over, increasing violence. Where collectives and monopolies are created through the change in the landscape, corruption increases.
Cops have long shown off their ability to get active with drug crime. The public see images of seizures, doors smashed in and arrests. They’re reminded that there is something to fear, and that the police are on it. They are busy dealing with the problem. Look at the size of that pile of drugs!
But this activity is a lie. Presented as success but without context, without any explanation of the actual impact. No explanation that it will make no difference to the availability, price, purity or variety of drugs on the streets. No explanation that violence will likely follow and that the ‘balloon effect’ means that some deals might now take place on a different street.
So this glossy social media product is misleading the public. It’s giving a false impression of success where there is none. Every war has its propaganda.
Too many members of the public are conned into believing the rhetoric that these seizures have ‘kept drugs off the streets’ as is regularly and cynically claimed. No. No drugs have been kept off the streets. Any police seizure is merely normal business losses. No one has gone without their drugs today.
Recent social media campaigns from big city police like GMP’s Operation Avro are the new face of drugs policing. #WATCH their Tweets shout. The poor unfortunates being led to the police vans are just that. Poor unfortunates. A colleague described it to me as poverty porn. And that’s what it is. It’s an extension of the insidious empathy-stunted reality TV phenomenon. But it’s presented as a huge success. Without any evidence to back that up. They cannot present evidence of a reduction in crime because there isn’t any. And in the absence of that evidence they are going for presentation. And of course GMP have a particular problem with public image right now. Do they really imagine drugs social media will deal with that?
The main problem that Manchester police have is that they’re failing to adequately report and investigate crime. So why on earth waste resources on operations that have no impact on that problem?
An extraordinary amount of resources goes into operations like the ones taking place in Greater Manchester. Drugs policing is labour intensive and expensive. Police leaders see it as an easy PR win, a way of showing the public that they mean business. A way to reassure. Drug arrests have always been a way of showcasing police business. There is no shortage of vulnerable problematic consumers to hunt, and other people who use drugs. The markets are a never ending, never shrinking pool. Easy pickings.
Those resources could be used elsewhere. In Cleveland the PCC has proven that an investment in health interventions is an effective way of reducing crime. Looking after problematic heroin consumers through HAT is cost effective and of huge benefit to communities. The reduction in crime that is proven wherever heroin is prescribed would genuinely reduce the strain on crime investigation in Manchester and elsewhere.
We have to challenge these sophisticated online messages around drugs operations. It is hard to present the truth to the public while lies are being peddled by those charged with maintaining public confidence. And that’s the great irony. That the power for meaningful change is in the hands of our hardworking cops. All it needs is the truth, and the public to be told.
So I’m calling on police leaders to resist the political pressure to sell a drug policy that has failed. Don’t get seduced by media training into thinking that police activity in and of itself is worthwhile. Follow the evidence. Imagine, that if the pubic were told the absolute truth about the impact of our drug laws, then their expectations would change. Then resources can then be used effectively. The truth can set you free.
Neil Woods is a former UK police officer and undercover drugs operative. He is now part of UK LEAP and author of Good Cop, Bad War and Drug Wars.