The police and drug control as a causal factor in the breakdown of public order

Drugs and Alcohol Today

ISSN: 1745-9265

Article publication date: 16 September 2011

Issue publication date: 16 September 2011



(2011), "The police and drug control as a causal factor in the breakdown of public order", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 11 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The police and drug control as a causal factor in the breakdown of public order

Article Type: Editorial From: Drugs and Alcohol Today, Volume 11, Issue 3

When faced with public disturbances governments all over the world tend to respond in similar fashion regardless of the political character of the regime. The first and overwhelming concern is with containing the problem using whatever methods available. The irony of Prime Minister David Cameron calling for a clamp down on social networking sites, making water cannons available and emphatically taking no options off the table was not lost on regimes that had once been harshly criticised for taking similar measures. The Iranian Government according to the Economist, was quick to offer the dispatch of human rights monitors, while the Chinese Government has commended the PM on finally understanding the subversive power of social media. Regime loyalists across the world are also speaking in unison. Britain’s conservative media just like the Al Baltaqiya of ex President Mubarak called for a strong response by the security forces and tough punishments for the trouble makers.

In the UK, where the establishment was as much caught by surprise at the sudden outbreak of violence, this summer as in the North African autocracies, the debate on the riots fed immediately into a wider discussion of government reform, particularly the proposed 20 per cent reductions to police budgets as part of the government’s effort to reduce the national debt. Reducing police capacity at a time of economic contraction, it has been argued, is patently imprudent. Rising poverty so the unstated assumption, leads automatically to more crime. Former Mayor of London, Ken Livingston, even invoked the memory of Margaret Thatcher, who had strengthened the police in the anticipation of public unrest during the recession of the early 1980s. For all arguing that the police have a case for exemption from the next round of public spending cuts the riots were a godsend. Little is said about how such remissions will impact on the chancellor’s efforts to restore order in Britain’s public finances. Savings have to be found elsewhere if the programme is to go ahead, leading to trade-offs between, say health, education, road safety, or for that matter methadone maintenance programmes.

It is, therefore, for two reasons, the pursuit of sustainable government budgets and the defence of important public services (like drug and alcohol treatment) that the question of policing needs to be reviewed and international comparisons can usefully contribute to the debate. We are particularly concerned with the mechanisms that trigger collective, violent action, because, however, we may differ in our disposition towards these events as either the inevitable resolution of long-term grievances or the spontaneous outburst of opportunistic criminality, the shared assumption is that the violence has a cause. If we believe that the uprising was a correction, the question is why they happened when they did and not earlier? And if it was a criminal conspiracy what were the conditions that enabled it to go “viral”? A closer look at the flashpoints, the series of events leading up to the challenge of the state power shows once again interesting commonalities across different countries and political systems:

  • London 2011 – the family of Mark Duggan and hundreds of supporters gather outside Tottenham police station after police officers shoot and kill a local man with a criminal record for firearm offences. The protest begins peacefully, but the police do not provide an explanation to the grieving family, then claim falsely as it turns out that the suspect fired on them and finally employ violence to disburse the protestors. These then turn nasty, setting the neighbourhood ablaze and quickly find imitators across London who need no grievance just a precedence and a sense of impunity.

  • Tunisia, 2010 – the market vendor Sidi Bouzidi’s, whose self-immolation led to the public protests that overthrew the regime of Zine el Abidine ben Ali was sparked by a group of local government officers kicking over his stall, smashing his scales and hitting him in the face. They were ostensibly checking his trading license, but in reality looking for bribes.

  • Paris (Clichy-sous-bois) 2005 – two teenagers of North African extraction are killed during a police chase, though the authorities continue to deny this, sparking off protests that quickly spread to other urban areas. President Chirac declares a state of emergency.

  • Los Angeles, 1992. Following the acquittal of five police officers, who had earlier been filmed beating to death a black motorist, Rodney King, riots break out in South Central Los Angeles.

In every case public anger erupts after an individual or a group of individuals have suffered gross injustice at the hands of the authorities. The resulting disturbances lead to a breakdown in public order with extensive damage to public and private property. Alarmed by the violence commentators then call for measures that ensure that order is restored and their re-occurrence is prevented. This includes, as in Britain, the extension of police powers and an improvement in their equipment and staffing levels. Such a combination of justified outrage, knee jerk reflexes, the pursuit of calculated institutional interest and lust for revenge refuses to acknowledge one key fact in the build up to the disturbances. Law and order broke down not because there was too little, but because of too much of the wrong sort of policing. It is important to draw out a lesson from this: extending the powers and raising the technical capacity of security forces does not translate into an automatic guarantee of public safety. To the contrary, merely raising the investment in the security services without close scrutiny of how these powers are deployed may jeopardise the very public good that commentators are ostensibly concerned about.

In defence, security establishment apologists will argue that the offences committed by individual officers were neither typical nor representative. The excessive and wanton use of force by the five LAPD officers who killed Rodney King, or the bribe seeking of the officers harassing Sidi Bouzidi were exceptions in an otherwise impeccable delivery of service. One popular metaphor employed in the discussion of corruption the world over is that of a “few bad apples” in an otherwise wholesome barrel. This argument imbues the offending officers with a considerable power of agency. If these were really isolated events then the violence consuming urban areas in Los Angeles and London, as well as the overthrow of the Tunisian regime were then caused, albeit without intent, by a handful of law enforcement agents stepping out of line. While providing a diverting variant on historical causality as the consequence of human cockup, it does not stand up to scrutiny.

Even if the actions are treated as isolated, individual events, the uprisings and riots that they are related to are by definition a collective response, the actions of large numbers of people. At the outset at least, there is little coordination or organisation, only the simultaneous action of people united by a common cause or at least, a common enemy. In the UK, nobody has as yet sought to explain the riots as the product of selfless solidarity, stemming entirely from empathy with the hapless victims of an exceptional instance of police brutality or corruption. While there may be an element of randomness to the uprising itself, as all the prerequisite factors are impossible to model in a way that would allow for predictability, the key element in the response is that the experience of the victims is a shared experience. Many of the protestors, however, mixed their motives once the violence is unleashed, have either directly or indirectly suffered from similar experiences of injustice. The riots in Watts and in Paris took off not because a few police officers had violated a sacred principle of racial equality, but because the victimisation of young men along racial lines was endemic. In Tunisia also, it was not the exceptionalism of police corruption that outraged the protestors, but the fact that it was a shared experience of a systemic injustice.

In every case, the incident that sparks off a riot while excessive and exceptional, is not unique, and therefore, random in a sense of causal sequencing. Beyond the visceral anger of the people lies a more complex sense of righteousness. Even when engaging in unequivocally unlawful acts like looting, the rioters retain a vestige of legitimacy, because these instances of “self-help” form part of a greater reaction that is in itself restorative. Collective violence sends a clear signal that to the participants the social contract has already been broken and the violence, if it moves from riot to revolution part of the healing process.

But even where the actions fall well short of regime change, the people wielding clubs and throwing stones, or at least a good number of them, make clear that they no longer recognise the authority of governments and feel empowered to challenge the security services. It is in that breach of trust between governing and governed that the dilemma lies and where harsh sentences and more plastic bullets are quite ineffective. Rebuilding the social contract is a complex task, acknowledged indirectly by conservative representations of Britain as a “broken” society. Policing is one of many aspects, but it is clear that the provision of public safety is an essential government “service” to which citizens and taxpayers are entitled. The problems derived from individual misconduct by rogue officers can be addressed by making forces more transparent and exercising close scrutiny of police service delivery.

Yet where the abuse of police powers is systemic the discussion moves to different fields. An economic policy of restrictive licensing arrangements for market traders, for example, that is designed to protect particular interest and create opportunities for graft. Equally, policing practices can be seen as a reflection of more general social values, as much an indicator of civilization as a country’s prisons, to adapt Winston Churchill’s observation. If racism is engrained in a society, then this will find expression in the way police officers go about their business. Finally, governments everywhere fall back on enforcement where gentler methods of persuasion fail to get citizens to comply with policy decisions. The blame for heavy handed use of force, then, lies not with the officers wielding the batons, but their political masters, and in democracies at least, the public that elects them.

It is important in these discussions to keep in mind that the police are a powerful lobby in their own right. Far from standing above the fray, security services weigh heavily into policy debates with continuous demands for greater powers and resources. Both the configuration of the law, and law enforcement practices are to a significant degree determined by the agencies themselves, often in contradistinction to values prevailing in at least sections of society. Law enforcement viewpoints have been particularly significant in the drugs field, where legislation is often drafted to facilitate operational aspects of policing. Examples would include drug testing for “trigger offences”, the presumption of guilt and onus on the defendant to prove innocence in so-called drug trafficking cases, anti-money laundering legislation prohibiting the paying in or importation of sums in excess of £10,000, or maintaining powers of arrest for cannabis offences even after its downgrading to Class C. In each case, considerable pressure was brought to bear on governments by police services to provide them with powers that had considerable ramifications for the lives of ordinary citizens.

In many instances the request for the extension of powers by the security services is linked to concrete issues of public safety, as for instance in the right to ask demonstrators to remove face covering, or keeping terrorist suspects in custody for extended periods without charge. But no such argument can be made when police powers are extended to facilitate combatting drug consumption, production or distribution, all of which are usually victimless crimes committed by consenting adults. There is a strong argument to the contrary that public safety is compromised by law enforcement measures that in turn intensify the competition between the players in the market and raise the price of the drug commodity. Consumers without licit means of income resort to crime, while the profit margins attract organised crime groups. Controlling drugs via the security services, then, is not only an ineffective and possibly counterproductive way of controlling crime, the system was never designed with crime control in mind. When the first controls were introduced, during the 1920s, there was little association with drug use and crime, what worried governments and opinion leaders was the effect of drugs – opium and cocaine primarily – on public morals. As Kohn (1993) and Jay (2001) have shown in their work on London drug scenes during the interwar years and the late nineteenth century, the consumption of drugs was closely associated with such risqué subjects as inter racial sexual encounter. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the foundations of the current system were laid, the justification was once again cast in terms of morality, and “evil” against which the international community had to be mobilised for protective action. However, the actual referent was “addiction to narcotic drugs”[1] not crime.

The association with both the poor and marginalised ethnic minorities is once again a product of politics. First, while the drugs of dominant groups partaking in policy debates were exempted from controls, be these alcohol or tobacco, those of colonised subjects, for example Andean coca or Jamaican cannabis were happily included in the schedules of controlled substances without consultation. But of greater relevance for the current association of drug offending and urban minorities is simply the opportunity structure in areas of urban deprivation. Chronic poverty and the socially constructed profit margins in the drugs economy predispose people growing up in marginal neighbourhoods to the widespread participation in the drugs economy. Drugs, the violence required to enforce contracts and preserve trading places in an economy outside the protection of the law, and the proclivity of successful drug market participants to advertise their economic success with conspicuous consumption, bring them regularly to the attention of law enforcement. Once on the radar of the police drug market players become locked into a lifestyle of illicit trading, adjacent criminal activities, brushes with the criminal justice system and increasingly reduced options to move into legal occupations.

The role of law enforcement is complicated by the culture specific prejudice found among police officers so amply demonstrated in Los Angeles in the run up to the Watts riots, but also chronicled in the contemptuous dismissal of the “underclass” by the “average police officer” PC Bloggs ( The problems then range from enacting personal prejudice, be these racial or class based, succumbing to the temptation offered by graft, to inbuilt institutional opportunism. Law enforcement the world over has embraced drug control as a ready means to pump prime policy makers for resources and leading officers often prove adept at using the rhetoric of saving “our children” from the “drug scourge”.

Yet as the outbreak of violence in European and North American cities has shown, employing police to enforce moral values formulated at the end of the nineteenth century, is detrimental for the relationship between community and police, and for public safety in the long-term. The perception of police officers as a legitimate target for violence is only in part a juvenile rebellion against paternal authority, but largely based on the loss of legitimacy. This stems not least from the friction around drugs experienced by young people, particularly in deprived areas and their regular encounters with law enforcement. We therefore have to draw the right lessons from the riots and review the role of law enforcement with regard to controlled substances. A reconfiguration of control arrangements would lift those substances out of the domain of the criminal justice system and place them within public health and local licensing. It would allow a more targeted approach to healthcare and provide a boon to improving police – community relations. In particular, it would enable law enforcement to review its priorities and allocate resources appropriately. It would allow a service that has been stretched to rectify the shortfalls of other social agencies in socialising young people to focus on its core mission of upholding public safety. Using the police for functions for which it is in every way ill equipped, exacerbates the very problems that were supposed to be resolved:

[…] contrary to the conventional wisdom that increasing drug law enforcement will reduce violence, the existing scientific evidence strongly suggests that drug prohibition likely contributes to drug market violence and higher homicide rates (Werb et al., 2010).

The lesson then is clear, with given resources the police can impose sectarian moral values on recalcitrant communities, or it can maintain public order. If it is called upon to do both there will be riots.


1. Preamble to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.


Jay, M. (2001), Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century, Dedalus, London

Kohn, M. (1993), Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground, Granta, London

Werb, D., Rowell, G., Guyatt, G., Kerr, T., Montaner, J. and Wood, E. (2010), Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review, International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, Vancouver, available at:

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