Stuart Waiton: Police in panic mode again

Policing inter-personal relationships is not their job, no matter how politically correctly the police rewrite the book, or indeed how politically incorrect their attitude is to women, writes Stuart Waiton

The latest initiative focuses police attention on nightclubs and bars by training staff to tackle late-night predators. Picture: PA

Sociology, and especially criminology, was famed, in the 1960s and 1970s, for exposing crime panics. Theories about “labelling” emerged, showing how crime was not simply an objective thing, but was rather something that, at least in part, was defined by people in authority. Various strands of opinion have also pointed to the construction of crime by the police themselves: The more the police focus on a problem, the more likely it is they will find more of that crime.

The politicisation of policing has similarly been challenged by critical criminologists who have pointed to the elevation of a crime problem, the increased policing of it, and consequently the rise in crime figures regarding that particular type of crime. For example, if the police were to become concerned about “black crime” today and decided to develop awareness campaigns about this problem and to target events, like the Notting Hill Carnival, it is likely that the number of “black crime” victims would increase.

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However, for almost all “right-thinking people”, this type of initiative would be recognised as a form of racism, as politicised and prejudicial policing, as a form of labelling and indeed authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, in our more “politically correct” times, such critical thinking appears to be lacking when it comes to certain forms of politicised policing. Domestic violence, for example, has become a major priority for the Scottish police force, driven in large part by the now Sir Stephen House. Unsurprisingly the number of police officers attending “domestic incidents” has dramatically increased: this at a time when violent crime as a whole, across much of Europe, has declined significantly.

Similarly, rape and attempted rape figures have risen by 50 per cent in three years. It is unclear why the rape figures have increased so dramatically at a time when violent crime appears to be declining in society, but it seems likely that awareness campaigns by the police coupled with the change in the law in 2009 are the likely causes.

One of the most significant changes in the approach to rape cases today, and perhaps a key reason for the statistical increase in rape cases, is the elevation of “active consent”. The onus is now on the man to prove that active consent was given, when having sex. Did that drunken woman really give consent? Given this a man could have what he believes to be consensual sex after a drunken night out, and still be prosecuted for rape.

The fascinating, and extremely worrying aspect of this reconceptualisation of rape, is that it diminishes women as legal subjects. Drunken women are in effect no longer treated as adults who are responsible for themselves.

Similarly, when dealing with domestic incidents today, police officers are encouraged to take “positive action”, often splitting the two people up for a while, regardless of the desires of either party. In essence, the police take on a role not dissimilar to that of a parent who has to deal with unruly children. In most cases this means the police acting on the behalf of the women in order to protect her, regardless of the woman’s actual desires.

This degraded view and treatment of women was seen most clearly this week in another headline-grabbing initiative launched by Sir Stephen House. In a further attempt to police people’s private inter-personal relationships, House explained that Police Scotland is now focusing attention on nightclubs and bars by training staff to tackle “late-night predators” who target vulnerable young women.

Explaining what he meant by the late-night predator, House stated: “You’re in a nightclub or a pub. A group of girls who have all had too much to drink probably, and all of a sudden a man appears and is buying a drink for one girl. Often people are not thinking clearly and they think one of them knows this guy. But he is a stranger who has decided to buy someone a drink to isolate them. He puts his arm around her and starts talking to them and before you know it he’s ushering her away to a taxi.”

In House’s imagination, this everyday part of people getting off with one another has been transformed into a rape scenario. “If you were out in the middle of the day, would you get into a taxi with a man you had just met?” House asks. “Of course you wouldn’t. That is the vulnerability.”

Consequently, under the Best Bar None scheme, door staff are being trained to intervene and ask women leaving with men if they are sure they want to do so.

What is so remarkable about this initiative is the way in which women, once labelled as “vulnerable”, can be treated in a way most commonly associated with children and child safety activities. Stranger danger thus becomes a problem not just for immature children who don’t know any better, but a problem for women, even when they voluntarily leave with a man. Trained professionals are there to help you make the right decision and to protect you from men, who may isolate you, buy you drinks, and put their arms around you, before ushering you away in a taxi.

Eileen Maitland from Rape Crisis Scotland, discussing this initiative, explained that it was encouraging “to see Police Scotland taking such a proactive approach against predatory sex offenders”.

But are these actions by men described by Stephen House signs of predatory sex offenders? And is treating women in such a patronising way a positive step forward, for society or indeed for women themselves?

More usefully perhaps we should recognise that what we are witnessing here is a form of politicised and targeted policing, indeed a modern-day politically correct panic built upon prejudices and a caricatured construction of the “vulnerable” woman and “predatory” man.

• Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecture at the University of Abertay Dundee