An American police officer, taking the phrase “war on crime” rather too literally. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Michael Brown, Ferguson and the United States' police-soldiers

Over the past few decades, US police departments have invested heavily in military-style equipment and training. The turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri shows the results.

The story is uncomfortably familiar. A young black man is shot by the police in the United States; the ensuing outrage sparks protests; clashes between police forces and protesters escalate an already tense situation. There are very few positive signs coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, in the current debacle following the shooting of the unarmed, 18 year-old Michael Brown on Saturday. However, alongside the hotly contested issues of racial dynamics in the country, one other talking-point has come to light: the militarisation of America’s police departments. It is a discussion that is long overdue.

The “city” of Ferguson has a population of just over 21,000 people. It is 6.20 square miles (16.06 sq km) in total area, making it the same size as the UK village of Dunsfold, in Surrey. The annual police budget accorded to this meagre area is $5.2m. It is no wonder that the police forces now facing down protests on the streets are armed with shortened assault rifles and use armoured personnel-carriers adorned with turret-mounted weaponry. In fact, huge police budgets have come in large part from grants given to them by the Department of Homeland Security. The US police have been arming and equipping themselves for years on a martial scale.

Advanced equipment and confrontational tactics have become typical fare. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The issue has been pertinent since as far back as 1997, when Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler of Eastern Kentucky University published their article “Militarising American Police: The Rise and Normalisation of Paramilitary Units”. In fact, the “drug war hysteria” of the 1980s was what initially gave American politicians the justification to roll out much of the military model that we are witnessing in action this week. The academics claimed that “some police paramilitary units proactively seek out and even manufacture highly dangerous situations,” instead of simply reacting to threat levels appropriately. Moreover, the units target whichever areas the police feel are likely to be “high crime or disorderly areas, which most often are poor neighbourhoods, whatever the city’s size”. This analysis may be 17 years old but presents a stark reflection of the realities Ferguson’s protestors are facing.

Notably large amounts of funding have been flowing into the police authorities' coffers since the 9/11 terror attacks - the money given by Homeland Security comes in the form of “anti-terror grants”. Yet it is quite apparent that the problems the police are now facing in Missouri have nothing to do with terrorism. What has happened is that an obsession with curbing terrorism, mixed with the withdrawal of US armed forces from foreign excursions, has created a huge surplus of military-grade equipment that isn't needed, but is nevertheless stockpiled by police departments. The “urban areas security initiative” plays a central role. Directing funding towards “high-threat, high density” areas like St Louis, Homeland Security claims that it should be used “to prepare for, prevent and respond to pre-operational activity and other crimes that are precursors and indicators of terrorist activity”. Though the police in Ferguson are engaging in none of the relevant anti-terror tasks, they have the equipment to suggest that they are. And since they have it, they might as well use it.  

A candlelit vigil held on Sunday night suddenly turned sour when protestors chanting “no justice, no peace” were greeted by police officers with riot gear. Images of groups of peaceful protestors – mostly from the two-thirds majority of African-Americans in Ferguson’s population, represented by 3 out of 53 police officers in the city – being fired on with rubber bullets and tear gas have surfaced all over social media. This is the US police machine operating in its most intolerant and frankly dangerous manner.

Commentators in favour of the bellicose nature of the police often point to the violent nature of interactions between police and certain types of criminals. The justification for SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams is that the police need to be better armed than their targets so that police are less exposed to potentially fatal risk. This makes sense. But when a SWAT team conducts a dramatic raid based on a “no-knock” warrant, removing the need for them to announce themselves, the chances of a fatal confrontation are actually far more likely. This is totally undesirable if the criminals would not have been dangerous in the first place.

This point can be extended to the clashes in public places of the sort now being seen in Ferguson. When the police utilise such heavy-handed methodology, it comes as no surprise that protestors, whose original objection was to an inappropriate application of police force, will react with particular vehemence. Threat arises where there needn’t have been any. Furthermore, there is no reason why maintaining an efficient police department capable of dealing with serious threats – terrorism, hostage crises – means the response to wider, but mostly peaceful social problems cannot be toned down.

Sadly, if Ferguson serves as any example at all, it is one of heightened police aggression and militarisation in the US. As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, notes, “if you take a police officer and arm him like a soldier, dress him like a soldier and train him like a soldier... that is going to have an effect.” For Michael Brown and those mourning his loss, that effect has become all too real. 

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496