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The power wedge

There is a gap that is rarely acknowledged between the nominal powers of officialdom and their actual powers in practice. Unless we are vigilant, and the rules are tightly drawn powers will be (not may be, will be) used for broader purposes than those for which they are granted. What’s more ways will be found to use the leverage of one power to enhance another. New police powers do not merely add to the force of those that already exist, they multiply and magnify them.

Last night an example of systematic police intimidation was proudly displayed as PR for the police on the most popular British TV channel (ITV1, not the BBC).

The program (“Inside Crime”) was one of those encouraging people to assist with current investigations and appealing for witnesses to various murders and robberies. Fine. I don’t think I have a problem with that: seems like a genuine public service. But of a 25 minute programme something like a fifteen minute segment was devoted to cameras accompanying police in Dartford as they “cracked down” on drugs and illegal working on one evening.

A sergeant swaggered around in a head mic proudly demonstrating how new technology allows the detection of traces of cocaine in pub lavatories. It was then revealed that “with the cooperation of landlords and managers” that night everybody wishing to enter a pub or club in the centre of Dartford had to submit to police swabbing their hands for drugs as a condition of entry. Those who tested postive were then formally searched under “reasonable suspicion”.

The swabbing itself didn’t count as a search because it was “voluntary”. Thus is the law perverted by those who are supposed to uphold it. The programme was silent on what happened to those who got as far as the entrance to a bar but refused the entry procedure. I’d be interested to know.

It did say that all landlords were cooperating. I bet they were. Not only might failure to do so be likely to result in police opposing a license application in future (which would normally be the end of a business), but s1 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 allows police to close, more or less instantly, premises from which Class A drugs (including cocaine) are produced, used or supplied and which are associated with disorder or serious nuisance–a power that was introduced on the pretext of dealing with crack-houses.

Meanwhile the streets of Dartford were being patrolled by “passive dogs”, and it was triumphantly explained how these, too, allow the requirements for reasonable suspicion for a search to be evaded. Apparently, if a policeman looks in your pocket it is a search; but if his dog (trained to do so) sniffs you and sits down to indicate it doesn’t like how you smell, it isn’t. However it is then grounds for reasonable suspicion allowing the policeman to look in your pocket.

As if all this police overtime were not sufficient, it seems taking advantage of high police presence to get their work done without resistence–though in theory they were not working together, of course–inspectors from the Department of Work and Pensions were racking up a bit of extra pay checking the kitchens and the bar workers, in case anyone was doing poorly-paid cash-in-hand work who shouldn’t be allowed to. Cracking down on “crime” so unquestionably a Good Thing, according to the voiceover. But one is put to wonder quite how many dodgy plongeurs the inspectors would have had to put out of business (assuming it possible) in order to make their night out cost effective for the taxpayer.

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4 comments to The power wedge

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  • MS

    Two comments:

    First, it seems there is a natural limit to the effectiveness of this method of policing: there will come a point where it is worth while for drug dealers to actively contaminate people with drug residue to undermine the searches. Imagine, for example, if dealers went onto public transport leading to the search area, or local benches, and lightly dusted cocaine onto the seats. Police dogs sniffing the backsides of most passers-by would soon bring the search into disrepute. Further, what if wily dealer with a concealed spray and wind in the right direction were able to contaminate a few police derrieres? What a moment for the video-phone that would be!!

    Second, see this excellent opinion on the topic of ever expanding police power. The author is current US Supreme Court hopeful Janice Rogers Brown. What a lift to liberty her appointment would be!
    Para beginning “The framers [who enacted the Fourth Amendment] sought” at…
    http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_09_04-2005_09_10.shtml#1125942214

  • guy herbert

    My point was that this sort of policing is nothing to do with effectiveness, certainly not cost-effectiveness. It is about display of arbitrary power.