On Total Policing

Last night I attended a lecture given by Bernard Hogan-Howe, current commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, on ‘Total Policing’, the new and rather sinister term for the philosophy of policing guiding his leadership of the Met. I’ve touched on some of its implications for protest and political action before; this is a series of brief thoughts on what Hogan-Howe laid out last night. It’s important to note that under the rubric of ‘communication’, the commissioner is doing a lot of similar talks in various parts of London – as Zoe Stavri points out here, these are largely exercises in Met corporate PR, with little in the way of substantive engagement. At the LSE last night, despite the audience of jobbing police consultants, timid de-clawed academics and monosyllabic coppers on CPD, he did encounter a little more in the way of dissent. So, some thoughts:

‘Total Policing’

The phrase is empty. Hogan-Howe was quick to stress that his ambition for the Metropolitan Police was ‘to be the best’ – that he didn’t know how to be ’23rd of 44′ forces. Ignoring the gruesome Apprentice-style tone of the platitude, one has to ask: best at what? Throughout the lecture this central question occasionally emerged from the the managerial fog, only to sink again without trace. Some of the shapes we saw loom through the consultancy-speak:

  • ‘Total Policing’ is a calque of Dutch ‘Total Football’, more or less suggesting that fixed roles of particular officers will be subordinated to a professional flexibility: i.e., officers can move fluidly between functions. Above and beyond this, the ‘Total’ concept suggests a dissolution of departmental boundaries, promoting the flow of information, quick reactivity, and, especially, ‘communication’ (Hogan-Howe’s favourite word) between different departments of the police. In this focus on flows of information, the commissioner is on-trend with the latest in barren management consultancy-speak, but we can also detect the traces of a police response to the currently celebrated ‘network’ model of organisation.
  • Total Policing is about tactics that ‘work’. ‘Work’ in achieving what? Hogan-Howe cites the doubling of the prison population since the 1990s as evidence of success. These tactics constitute a ‘total war on criminals’, though what this means, in effect, is a total war on anyone the police want, expect or need to be a criminal. The commissioner talks about no longer spending a long time gathering evidence, but ‘persuading’ a magistrate to allow them to ‘put a door through’ and have a look. The magistracy is paraded as a ‘check’ on police powers; anyone who’s met a magistrate may feel rather less confident. Some egg on the face for the commissioner: having gathered ranks of photographers and the execrable Mayor of London for just such a raid, the cops failed to find anything, but had a thoroughly good time smashing down a door and invading people’s homes.
  • Total Policing is composed of several points: ‘total war on criminals’ as above, also ‘total care for victims’, a ‘totally professional’ force and an increasingly total use of technology. The commissioner was a little short on what ‘total care’ might mean, other than feeling that they ought to ‘do something’ for them; presumably the rise of ‘total professionalism’ is crucial PR in the wake of phone-hacking, police bribery and the daily grind of police racism. The use of technology, however, is the most interesting. Hogan-Howe cites technology as being able to do things that human beings can’t do, i.e. retain lists of data and quickly match these up. His citation was automated numberplate recognition, which will apparently reduce burglary by flagging up burglars’ cars and reducing their mobility. However, it will also crack down on uninsured vehicles, leading to their confiscation; the network of permissions, proper papers and routine identification grows a little tighter. This automated surveillance and criminalisation is a significant part of Total Policing, only likely to increase in periods of reduced police spending.


The commissioner is fluent in the patter of management consultancy. Thus we were treated to a disquisition on the benefits of the team, and an examination of ‘performance culture’. Managerial technique is everything: the kind of programme one might expect from a man with both an MA in Criminology and an MBA. But what’s the purpose of this? The language of consultancy serves to mask reality: it’s as much what it allows one to avoid naming as it is a model to describe organisational structure. Hence not once did the word ‘racism’ pass the commissioner’s lips, instead presenting us with a mild confusion about why ‘more black and minority ethnic’ people are stopped and searched by police. Hogan-Howe professed to be unable to account for why this was the case, in an incredible act of gymnastics managing to even nod to the elephant of police racism lumbering quite obviously through the room. Similarly, any question of police violence fell muted behind an impervious wall of information flows and communication through mass media. The political uses of this kind of language may seem obvious to many of us, but it’s worth stating its purpose: firstly we have the impervious ontological categories of ‘criminal’ and ‘victim’ (the former at this point being anyone the police suspect, the latter rather hesitantly and ambiguously defined), secondly, any issue on which the police might be held to account is not a problem of agency (i.e., the police bear no culpability for racism or political violence) but simply an incorrect flow of information, communication or community engagement. It is a rhetoric of evasion.

Stop & Search / s.60

It is worth restating that the commissioner essentially sees the purpose of the police service as putting people in jail. It is worth restating, also, that under Hogan-Howe’s first experiment in Total Policing in Liverpool, Stop and Search figures rose from 1,389 in 2004 to 23,138 in 2009. With the Stephen Lawrence case recently in the news, and the August riots fresh in our memories, stop-search powers are once again under a critical public eye. With the wave of a hand, the commissioner dismisses the palpable feeling from the LSE/Guardian report that the police routinely harass black and minority ethnic men, and that, for all the talk of gangs, the police are by far the biggest gang in London. As a counter to this, he tells us that the police are soon to announce a new strategy on gangs, and soon to issue their own report on the August riots. Doubtless it will make thrilling and incisive reading: rather weakly, the only comment Hogan-Howe had to make on the riots was that nobody could fully understand them. Perhaps true, but one might think to mention that the police shot someone, lied about him through their press bureau, and shrugged this off as de rigueur.

On stop and search powers in particular, Hogan-Howe couldn’t account for the vast disproportion in ethnicity searched, but intimated (particularly odiously) that this might be something to do with the makeup of the ‘street population’ – whereas someone like him, of course, and by extension his audience at LSE, would be at home of an evening with his feet up. The questions that followed about stop / search allowed him to talk extensively about his passion for ‘lateral entry’ – i.e., the entrance of black graduates to higher levels of the police force without having to work their way up to the ranks. The logic here is that greater representation will reduce police racism. One might quibble with the logic of representation, certainly, and further suggest that perhaps recruiting from the graduate class doesn’t tackle issues of class and poverty, which are also significant here. Beyond this, however, the commissioner let slip in the response to questions on race that the record of disproportion was far greater in s.60 searches than in s.1. The difference here is that s.60 is a blanket search power, in which no suspicion is required to conduct a search, whereas under s.1, reasonable suspicion is required. So, ‘reasonable suspicion’ acts here as a brake on police racism, as when it isn’t required, racial prejudice is in full flow. In an era where s.60 powers are being more widely granted and for longer duration, one might think this is cause for concern. The commissioner evidently doesn’t.

Total Policing and Public Order

The impact of Total Policing on public order situations – the rubric under which all political demonstrations now fall – is where its ‘total’ nature is most visible. It’s therefore not surprising that the following question, or something much like it, was asked of Hogan-Howe:

Commissioner, you mentioned that during a period of recession, people are more likely to protest, and that you see the role of the police as being balanced between the rights to democratic expression and the right of people to go about their business unimpeded. We probably saw the first manifestation of public order policing in this vein in the student demonstrations on November 9th, with protesters hemmed in by portable police barricades, stopped every ten minutes, random searching, many plainclothes officers, and funneled down backstreets where no-one could see the demonstration. On November 30th we saw the erection of steel walls across Trafalgar Square and the confiscation of placards in inappropriate zones. Is this what the right to protest and express dissent looks like under Total Policing?

The answer was, in essence, yes. The justification for this was that no ‘violence’ occurred on those demonstrations, and that, well, we wouldn’t like it if protesters came an invaded our homes, would we? (The mention of Millbank was greeted with a raucous cheer from the gallery.) The assertion ran something like this: there were people intent on violence on that demonstration, no violence happened, therefore the policing was justified and a success. This is curious: it’s good to know that the commissioner’s surveillance now extends as far as people’s private intentions, but the evasive sidestepping is instructive. Despite having talked about a ‘balance of rights’ in his lecture, when the difficult questions emerged about the effective suppression of one of those rights, the commissioner slides into talking about (potential, hypothetical) violence and its failure to manifest as a success of and justification for the policing operation.

Public order in 2012 is the focus for the commissioner’s conversation about ‘challenges’ facing the police force. He mentions that he views the role of the police in the Olympic and Royal Jubilee period as being that of a referee in sport – that is, acting largely invisibly but controlling the order of the game. The unprecedented police powers and securitisation of London during this period should give an idea of what this invisibility will look like: invisibility through ubiquity. The extension of the public order logic and spectre of terrorism allowed him the following formulation: though we have no intelligence of terrorist threats to London during the Olympics, we wouldn’t want to look back in retrospect and say we could have done more to prevent an (entirely hypothetical) incident. Thus, Total Policing.


Many people emerged from the lecture wondering about whether Total Policing was just entirely vacuous managerialism, whether Hogan-Howe, for all his slipperiness, was much like any other police manager. I don’t think this. It’s certainly true that ‘Total Policing’ is a pliant phrase, that it can come to mean whatever one wants it to mean. But for Hogan-Howe’s operation it clearly means the following: it is ‘total’ insofar as there is no ‘outside’ of policing, that policing should extend thoroughly to all domains of life. It is ‘total’ insofar as it uses surveillance, data-gathering and information culture to effectively criminalise a substantial proportion of society. It is ‘total’ insofar as it even extends to the imagination: the inculcation of imaginary or threatened irruptive violence legitimates all kinds of pre-emptive securitisation and police powers. Behind the jargon and sheen of management consultancy lies a very simple desire to extend the power of the police to regulate and order all forms of public life. Total Policing is arriving sleekly and quietly; it seems we should be making some noise about it.

14 thoughts on “On Total Policing

  1. Nice piece. BHH’s mindset – behind the corptalk – did become very apparent at certain points. My favourite quote was when talking about the riots: “When control broke down, we saw the worst side of human nature”. I think that tells you something about his view of society.

    Another classic: “We have said we want a total war on criminals. Nothing illegal. Nothing aggressive”. Doublethink…?

  2. “…and that, for all the talk of gangs, the police are by far the biggest gang in London.”

    Exactly. Distance prevented me from attending this, but your report – and everything else I’ve read – suggests it was as slimy, duplicitous and sinister as I’d expected.

  3. Good post. Just wondering: have you read David Garland’s ‘Culture of Control’? It’s a really great text on, among other things, the necessity of reading policing alongside the growth in de-centralised securitization, including everything from gated communities to corporate security at, say, shopping centres. It’s interesting because the preventative tactics you mention here very much come from the private sector first.

  4. I don’t know if this is just me being some kind of boring lameting and sitting on the fence, but you seem to go so far in your arguments that you sound as though you’d prefer it if there was no police at all. The police have been shown to act like total shits at times, whether it’s officers infiltrating peaceful protest groups or kettling protesters or being racist etc …. but fundamentally they are there to maintain law and order and on the whole I’m sure at least some of them are decent people.

    What I don’t understand is this weird attitude you have towards hating the police and criticising everything they do. What would you have the commissioner do instead?

    • Bit rushed to respond to this in full, but yes, I’d prefer it if there were no police at all. Or at least, that statement would allow us to differentiate the policing function from the institution of the police. There’s always some degree of policing in any society, if you mean by that there are some things that are considered as infractions against social wellbeing. The institution of The Police, however, is historically contingent and tied up in the maintenance of a particular social order, enforcing class division and prioritising the needs of (these days) business and above all the flow of capital over, say, political dissent or the desire for equality. In other words, the police aren’t an immutable thing – they’re a social institution created for a reason, and fulfill a structural role in the maintenance of inequality.

      So, much of the above is obvious. You say they’re ‘fundamentally there to maintain law and order’, but these things aren’t immutable either, in other words, some laws are simply unjust. And anyone can see some laws are enforced much more strictly and disproportionally than others. I’m sure some of them are decent people, especially those serving at a local level – though I think anyone can recognise there are also a lot of vicious power fetishists in the Met, too – but my problem is with their structural role. I think this decency is also less the case as one goes up the ranks, where the closeness between political culture and police top brass is pretty evident – in Hogan-Howe’s case, therefore, yes, I’m happy to direct anger at him, because his predilection for heavy policing and rampant criminalisation over minor infractions is pretty dangerous.

      What I don’t understand is this weird attitude you have towards not hating the police, when their abuses are so obviously rampant, so much that they have become for many simply part of the texture of life; maintained solely by their long-asserted claim that they’re the thin blue line between chaos and order. Even if you don’t believe – as I do – that the institutions of the State necessarily concentrate power and structure into themselves a need for exploitation and inequality, I think it’s quite easy to recognise the strategy of total policing will only exacerbate the problems we’ve seen in the past two years, all the while further criminalising and marginalising even the ability to dissent from those changes.

      • So a few years ago my house got burgled. We called the police, they eventually caught the burglar. On another occasion I got beaten up, called the police, someone came to take a statement, they pored over cctv, sent the images to the local paper with a call for if anyone recognised the guy who beat me up (they never caught the guy), offered me counselling in case I needed it (I was happy to decline). I’m not going to write an endless list of why I’m grateful we have a police force, I think you get the idea. I don’t think the police are perfect, I don’t agree with all of the laws in this country (illegal drugs for example) and I don’t agree with the imbalance of power that exists.

        It strikes me that you’re wrapped up in the idea of being some sort of revolutionary fighting the evil dystopian fascist regime. Criticise the police and the government, but don’t pretend you’re living in a George Orwell novel.

      • Believe me, I understand your reluctance to criticise the police. I am in my mid forties and I am clearly aware that London has become a far more hostile and dangerous place in my life time. I too have been subject to several violent attacks. What’s more, I have become used to peoples stoical acceptance of this horrible reality. I know that an active response by sympathetic police officers can be enormously reassuring.

        I also, am very reluctant to being drawn into dark conspiracy theories espoused by sundry “tinfoilers” of impending fascism etc,..

        Nevertheless, you should remember that the Met constitutes much more than the staff and officers you encounter when reporting a crime. Like it or not the overall command of London’s police has switched from The Police Federation to the State. Firstly, ACPO (take a look at some of the police federation blogs to see what they think of this lot) and now the MOPC headed by the Mayor. The fact that there aren’t jack-booted stormtroopers marching down the Mall or reptiles infiltrating the civil service shouldn’t lull us into the belief that all is well. That we should “stay calm and carry on”. The fact is that there has been a massive shift of wealth from the majority of people – you and me – to a tiny elite, it is especially acute in the UK and America but it has happened elsewhere too. It would be natural to assume therefore that an overriding concern of these people would be the monitoring and control of those they have dispossessed.

        The UK is the most “surveilled” nation on earth.

        The right to silence, habeas corpus, retrospective legislation, joint enterprise, the devulging of a defendant’s prior convictions,… the list goes on. All of these rights and protections were enshrined in the UK constitution and are now gone with the wind. I have had PERSONAL experience of police jury tampering, I can assure you that it has become a legitimate tool for many detectives in securing convictions. It may be that some reading this will doubt me. It is a true.

        This has not happened in a vacuum. The media plays it’s part too, watch this; http://youtu.be/Sbe95TEFOSQ

        It is not fascism we must fear, or out of control crime, they are strawmen. The danger is real and it is the all encompassing power of the state.

  5. rarely in the national press does one encounter commentary so penetrating and articulate. indeed, this deserves to appear in a nationally-recognised venue.

  6. It’s tempting to draw the analogy with total football, but I believe there maybe a more sinister interpretation of this tag. That is, Totalitarian, as in a Totalitarian state. A Totalitarian system “controls” every aspect of a citizens life. On reflection this seems like an irrational fear but consider this,..the idea of a government department calling itself The Ministry Of Justice would have seemed mad as little as 20 years ago.

  7. Yeah… now i get to leave my comment!! So brilliant to find this group of smart people thinking and asking question about this issue.
    I’m currently researching the ‘politics of the police’ and came across this article and LOVE what you are all saying its so right on.
    I even agree with the person who has been helped by the police and wonders what all the police bashing is about, and i’m curios about her demographic.

    I’m about to start working on the development of a community project with police and community in Tottenham.
    The project is a dialogue with the people who are police officers. It’s about TOTAL COMMUNITY.
    (by the way i think the use of the term ‘Total War’ arose from the French revolution).

    It is an opportunity to engage in a conversation in which we all swop roles, what if you were a police officer, about to step into a riot scene? What if you were a black youth, being stopped for the 5th time this week and searched by the SAME officers? What if you were a single mother trying to find a job, or a shop keeper just trying to protect your shop?

    Unless we start to see all sides, and recognize the roles we play in our imagined community we will never be able to unveil the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The powermongers control the police, they are only a part of the tactics used, mechanisms put in place to control the masses.

    This ‘war’ with the police force persists because it serves as a way of keeping US separate from THEM. The old divide and conquer.
    We don’t think of the police as people anymore, we refer to them as ‘The Force’… this anonymatification (is that a word?) keeps us distracted from the real problems. They are not part of the communities they ‘serve’ for a reason.
    I’m sure you all know this,
    let me know if you can help with the project in anyway!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s