Do we live in a police state?

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The words “Police State” are thrown about a lot. People often say that we live in a police state. Others, myself included, would say that we are certainly headed that way. But what do the words actually mean? Well here is what the dictionary says about it:

Police State: A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures. (From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)

So do we live in a police state? Lets look at some evidence. I made a long list of areas that the government, past and present, has been very authoritarian about. Some in particular stood out to me as indicative of a police state.

Detention without trial

The last government extended the time that the police were able to hold someone without charge or trial from 3 days to 28 days. That legislation has since lapsed and the maximum time that someone may be held without charge is now 14 days, although when this was debated last week the government stated that they would hold draft emergency legislation on record so that the time could be increased back to 28 days with very short notice should it be needed. The fact that they even consider that holding someone for a month without charge might be needed is telling. Of the 6 people that have ever been held for the maximum 28 days , only 3 were charged.

Not content with the power to hold someone for a month without charge, the last government also introduced Control Orders. These orders are used when someone is suspected of planning or being linked to terrorism but the government either does not have or will not reveal any evidence. The orders are used to place someone under indefinite house arrest, often for years, and to place severe restrictions on who the victim is allowed to contact or receive as a visitor. Needless to say this breaches multiple sections of the human rights act and is being fought in court.

Making up laws to keep control

The ASBO was another favourite of the last government. Standing for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, the ASBO can be requested by local authorities or the police and ordered by a judge. There need not have been any violation of laws (If there were then the subject would be punished for that instead of receiving an ASBO) and a person subject to an ASBO can be ordered to refrain from doing any number of otherwise legal things. Breaking the terms of an ASBO is a criminal offence and thus a person can end up serving a prison sentence without having broken the law.

The same act of parliament that introduced the ASBO also brought in the concept of Dispersal Zones. An area can be designated as such when there is “trouble” such as large numbers of young people daring to congregate there. In a dispersal zone a police officer can order any person to leave the area. They do not have to have a reason. Refusing to comply is a criminal offence, so that by nothing more than being somewhere and refusing to leave a person can earn a criminal record and a fine or time in prison.

The right to protest

The right to freedom of speech and to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracy. This right is under severe threat. Since 2005 it is no longer legal to protest within half a mile of parliament without first obtaining permission from the police. Getting such permission involves filling in forms and stating the reasons for the protest a week in advance. This law was brought in specifically to get rid of one persistant campaigner and so it makes me happy that when he took the law to the high court, the new law was found not to apply to him.

Apart from attempting to ban protests where powerful people might see them, there have been far worse attacks on this right. In recent years police the world over have adopted the tactic of “kettling” or “containment” as they prefer to call it. This involves trapping and imprisoning protesters in a small area, then closing in on them to force them in to an ever smaller space, and holding them there for many hours, deprived of toilet facilities, food and water, and in protests last December, keeping them in sub-zero temperatures. It is horrific for the people involved and it inevitably raises tensions between the protesters and the police, in many cases leading to the police physically attacking the protesters. Even when not kettling the crowd, at many protests the police block the crowd from the route that they want to take and the end result is conflict between police and protesters at the barriers. Last month this resulted in severe injuries to members of the crowd. The Met police claim to only use containment as a last resort to prevent violent behaviour but in many people’s experience it is actually used early on and without hesitation, and even used on people that were simply trying to disperse and go home. The end result of this is a chilling effect on peoples will to protest. Talk by the Met of introducing water cannon certainly isn’t helping with that. This is the opposite of democracy.

The police routinely now take photographs of protesters and they are known to have spotter cards featuring the faces of people seen at more than one protest. They claim that these are not official records and therefore not subject to the normal rules on police records. At recent protests they have forced people to have their photograph taken and give their name and address before being allowed to leave. Since they have no power to do that when no crime has been committed, they have at times resorted to arresting people, taking their details, and then “de-arresting” them. De-arresting is a legal fiction where they claim that the arrest effectively never took place, but they still keep all the photographs and personal details. This is intimidating to the protesters.

The Met police are also very insistent that protesters must march along a pre-determined route, and once finished, must disperse. Protesters don’t want to do that. They want to protest where those in power can see them, and they certainly don’t want to march from A to B as ordered by the police. The police repeatedly claim to have discussed routes with leaders, and they probably have discussed routes with someone claiming to be leader. The police are completely deluded, however, as protests in the last few months have been effectively very large flash mobs that happen after suggestions on social networks. There are no leaders! Unfortunately the police have repeatedly used deviation from the “agreed” route as an excuse to kettle protesters. I am not sure whether this is stupidity or cunning manipulation of publicity on the part of the police.

Spying on protesters

In a further attack against protesters it was recently revealed that undercover police officers had been tasked with infiltrating and spying on several green and anti-climate change protest groups, going back seven years. Four of those police have been unmasked in a series of revelations including that they often provided resources for various protests including transport and money, that they often were an integral part of these protests, that barely any illegal acts happened during the time that they were spying, but that the police were at the heart of those acts, and that they were authorised to sleep with protesters to gain their trust. That last act may well count as rape since the victims did not have all of the information necessary to consent to sex.

Secret, unaccountable police

The undercover police were normal policemen, however they were seconded to a group called the Association of Chief Police Officers. (ACPO) This group is actually a privately owned company which both receives funding from the home office and also made £15 million in profit last year. All senior police are members of the ACPO. The ACPO endorses security products, advises the government, and also, it seems, runs undercover operations against peaceful protesters. Who knows what else they do. We certainly don’t, because as a private company the ACPO is not currently subject to the Freedom Of Information act, although following that revelation the government has made noises about changing that.

Police shooting and killing

We have example of the police killing or seriously wounding people without cause, and getting away with it. There is the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, shot in the head seven times after running away from armed police that had not even identified themselves. Being shot in this way indicates that it was the intention of the police to kill him outright, not to stop him. This policy of shooting to kill, of execution (7 times in the head!) is probably the scariest thing that we know about the police. Then there is the case of Ian Tomlinson, a harmless bystander that got caught up in protests at a G20 summit, and was hit on the head by the police. He collapsed and died soon after.

Harassing photographers

The police seem to be on a crusade against photographers. There are a couple of real laws that prevent photography on certain occasions and in certain places. The Terrorism Act 2000 and the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 both restrict photography. It is an offence to take a photograph that is likely to be useful to a terrorist. It is now an offence to publish a photograph of a constable, member of the armed forces, or member of the security services if it is likely to be useful to a terrorist. Those two laws are obscenely broad. It is often impossible to know (a) that a plain clothes person is one of those categories, or (b) how or why it might be useful to a terrorist. Basically it is a catch all that gives the police the power to ban all photography. In most other situations people should be free to take photographs but in actual fact, police and power-hungry security guards frequently tell photographers that they cannot take photographs. Photographers have deemed this the War on Photography and it is such a serious problem that many of them now carry cards detailing the relevant laws so that they can attempt to convince the police of the law.

More detention without trial

Asylum seekers and people entering the country illegally are routinely held in detention for years at a time. The government does not want to be seen to be imprisoning children, so they are often separated from their parents for those years. These people are not charged, do not get a trial, and often do not receive adequate medical care.

Suspicious society

A poster used in London

For most of the last decade the public has been encouraged to watch and report other people that might seem suspicious. We have been told that taking photographs is suspicious. We have been told that having two mobile phones is suspicious. The police even find wearing a backpack suspicious. Being encouraged to turn in neighbours is the epitome of Orwell’s nightmare. We have a vast network of CCTV cameras across the country, both private and public owned.  We have cameras across the country looking out for car number plates that they police wish to track.

Worryingly, some people on the right have started to resort to mislabelling left-wing politics as terrorism, for their own political gain.


The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 made it an offence to withhold an encryption key from the police, punishable by two years in prison. This is ultimately because of police frustration when they suspect a crime but the evidence is encrypted. It means that a person can now be forced to provide incriminating evidence against themselves, or go to prison anyway. The only known use has been on a paranoid schizophrenic. The RIP Act has also granted spying and snooping powers to local authorities.

Social and economic interference

In addition to all the examples of government control of political life which I have already detailed, there are also the economic and social factors. Our government is very keen to change the way that the public behave through the use of tax. In particular they use this method on petrol and other fuels, on alcoholic drinks and cigarettes. They also plan to introduce a charge to couples that make use of the Child Support Agency when splitting up. Since there often is no choice but to go through the CSA this amounts to a tax on splitting up in the eyes of many and is seen as a government attempt to make people stay married. There has in the past been a married couples tax allowance which some see as doing a similar job. The government is also known to use Nudge Theory to try to change our behaviour. They also want to censor our internet connections by default to remove pornography. (Extreme pornography was made illegal in 2009.) Some of these things are specific to a Conservative government, but most of them apply to all governments that we have had.

When I wrote down this list I was staggered by the length of it. I had expected a few minor items, not this many. The examples on this list add up to our rights being systematically abused and removed for the benefit of those in power and those who chose to serve them, and to force on all a moral code accepted by only some. Surprisingly, in light of all that I have detailed here I do not think that we have a police state yet, but we do have a highly authoritarian legacy of laws from the last government and the current government does not look to be changing much of it.

So what does a full-blown police state actually look like if we don’t have one? Belarus is probably the most horrific example from recent months. When Lukashenko appeared to have won the last election the people were not happy. There were riots outside parliament. The police shot and beat up rioters. Then they arrested all of the opposition leaders and all the protesters. They tracked down people that were there by taking location information from the mobile phone networks. Even the children of opposition leaders were not safe and one child was taken away from family by the government. That is how bad a police state can get. More info: Link 1 Link 2 Link 3

We are not in a situation like that of Belarus, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. Nevertheless, we should be wary of this slow-but-increasing erosion of our rights and civil liberties. Through the last decade the public has been encouraged to be afraid of “terrorists” so that governments may pass whatever laws they want for their own convenience. This masks the cancellation, selling off and privatisation of our public services. It seems that many people in our society actually want this level of authoritarian control from their government and with the level of governmental and police control, we could very easily cross the line into a police state. We must stamp it out now before that happens.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

6 thoughts on “Do we live in a police state?”

  1. Well timed, considering today’s Slashdot story:
    I couldn’t agree more – we’re walking open-eyed into a police state and yet most of the population either seem oblivious to the blindingly obvious or just monumentally apathetic about their loss of freedom.
    I wonder if they still read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley at secondary schools these days?
    Will the next generation hate us for our lack of action or just be brainwashed into submission under the threat of possible “terrorism” if they were allowed the same freedoms as their ancestors?

  2. I think to say that because Britain isn’t as bad as Belarus it isn’t a police state is a mistake. It is not a question of scale, rather it is a question of nature.

    You say that your list is long, and indeed it is, but there are lots of other things you could have mentioned; for starters:

    -They have a clear political agenda. The tactics used at the student demos show this very well; tactics of deliberately inciting vandalism for example. They are anti-dissent and behave in a political manner. The police exists to preserve and reinforce the status quo.
    -Relationship with the media. Media acts as its political mouthpiece and is largely uncritical of the police.

    Why should we face harassment and intimidation for practicising our democratic duty, for expressing political views? This surely is the fundamental feature of a police state. You even yourself described the ACPO as a ‘secret police’. It sure sounds like a police state to me.

    I think we are often reluctant to describe Britain as a police state for a couple of reasons. Firstly the images we’re shown in the media, cinema, history lessons etc of tyranny and fascism are so extreme that I suggest it desensitises us to the injustices we face in our actual reality.

    I think also there is the simple reluctance to believe one isn’t as free as one would like to be. Talking about Belarus, Arab states, Latin American military regimes and Europe 70 years ago as police states is comforting, it creates a distant and separate “other” that reaffirms our own illusions of “comfort” and “freedom”. The same applies to poverty and inequality. I don’t think we do those living in more severe states any favours by making this distinction, by isolating them even by describing their situation as distinctly different to ours. Yes it is more severe in Belarus and yes it is more important to oppose it there, but it the same single struggle and by resisting here we aid resistance there – because really there is no here and there, there is just here.

    Just because it could be worse doesn’t mean it isn’t bad and can’t be accurately described as a ‘police state’.

    I liked your post though, it reminded me of things I’d forgotten about and even raised issues I hadn’t heard of before. Cheers. 😉

    1. My opinion on this is still fluid. It is something that has been knocking around in my head since my friend Simon told me about what is happening in Belarus so I started from the point of comparing our situations. Perhaps I am wrong about us not being a police state yet; I certainly think we are headed that way. I have also considered the possibility that there is a scale of repression rather than a line, and we are at a much higher point on that scale than is healthy.

  3. Absolutely brilliant! What a catalogue of shame. I am often surprised by how few people outside of tech circles know about things like the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) – and that includes many activists!

    This deserves a lengthy post but might it be less intimidating to the typical attention-challenged internaut if you framed the start and end as an editorial judgement then made each subsection a separate short post and hyperlinked to each in one paragraph / list of bullet points in the middle?

    ie. The words “Police State” are thrown about a lot. …
    These are indicative:
    * Detention without trial [link]

    * Social and economic interference [link]
    When I wrote this list…

    I wouldn’t cut a single word of what you’ve written although I think it might help to reduce the risk of overwhelming someone who starts reading it. They’ll get your message more easily, then can follow each link to understand the issues better.

    Just my 2c. Really, really nice post. Thank you.

    1. I intend to do two edits of this. One is actually going to be longer; there was so much that I wanted to mention but did not have room for. The other will be a short version like you suggest, and I was hoping that it might get a wider audience on one of the bigger blogs.

  4. Nice. It’s always really tough when there’s so much to say. You could write a whole book on it and still have plenty left unsaid.

    I know when I talked to Sunny about editing down my recent post for Liberal Conspiracy he suggested 600 words as the limit.

    If that’s your goal, perhaps pick just one of the sub-topics for a repost so you don’t need to dilute your argument. The site reposting will include a link saying “A longer version exists at…”

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