Plural policing during health emergencies and natural disasters

Plural policing during health emergencies and natural disasters

The presence of multiple providers of policing during an existential crisis can accelerate the pluralisation of policing and exacerbate trends of securitisation. How can multi-actor policing activities be managed in crisis situations to counterbalance this likely drift to excessive securitisation?

Plural and networked policing

One of many phenomena that the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on is the nexus of policing and public health – more precisely, the use and the role of the multitude of security providers that have been involved in policing the pandemic. Beyond the conventional police, private security contractors, military and paramilitary personnel, municipal regulations officers, citizen initiatives and even PhD students have been given powers to enforce the pandemic policies and/or maintain the public order. Health agencies across the globe have expeditiously become the ally of police forces in regulating and enforcing anti-pandemic policies. In the criminological landscape, all this resonates with the expanding debate around the pluralisation of policing – the phenomenon which entails the increased significance of new competing state and non-state security providers to perform a wide range of policing functions in order to ensure public safety and security. This reconfiguration and diversification of traditional policing is best summarised by the Oxford criminologist Ian Loader:

Sure enough, this network continues to encompass the direct provision and supervision of policing by institutions of national and local government. But it now also extends – as we shall see – to private policing forms secured through government; to transnational police arrangements taking place above government; to markets in policing and security services unfolding beyond government; and to policing activities engaged in by citizens below government. We inhabit a world of plural, networked policing.” (Loader, 2000: 324)

Plural policing in health emergencies and natural disasters

Contemporary health emergencies and natural disasters provide a unique context to study plural policing. These type of crisis situations occur now in a highly globalized world with fragmented social structures and hybrid governance of relationships across multiple sectors and actors. As a result, public health emergencies and natural disasters create the urgent need to forge multi-agency alliances and force the state to share authority, legitimacy and capacity with other bodies. This, in consequence, might only accelerate the pluralisation of policing in the future.

In many regards, what the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed about the diversification of policing tasks is not entirely new, as similar observations were already documented, for instance, in relation to the recent West African Ebola epidemic (2014-2016) and security sector responses to the Brazilian Zika virus outbreak (2015-2016). The Ebola epidemic along with other public health emergencies informed the analysis of the crime and security researchers Julian Laufs and Zoha Waseem, who in their robust systematic review, attempt to showcase the best practices for policing the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors discuss four central themes that serve as a useful framework for studying the concept of policing during natural disasters and public health emergencies. These include (1) police-community relations (more specifically public trust and confidence in the police), (2) the psychological and mental well-being of police officers, (3) intra-organisational challenges (e.g. resource allocation, staffing issues, inadequate pre-disaster planning) and (4) inter-organisational collaboration and cooperation (e.g. between formal/informal, local/national/international stakeholders). The latter in particular sets the scene for the concept of plural policing and encourages to view the interplay of policing tasks during crises situations in both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions.

Where are we heading?

Public health and disaster emergencies will be an inseparable consequence of the accelerating global warming, which will inevitably bring more frequent large-scale crisis situations. On one hand, the phenomenon of plural policing during these types of emergencies can be seen as collective resilience based on a holistic and orchestrated response to the emergency, combined with efforts of a variety of actors to respond quickly and efficiently to additional demand for services and/or personnel. On the other hand, any multi-agency collaboration always exposes different organisational cultures, institutional traditions, professional standards, and degrees of accountability. Plural policing during health and natural disaster emergencies, without adequate regulatory framework, might heighten these divergencies and – as a final consequence – contribute to a gradual deconstruction of the Weberian state monopoly on the use of violence. Additionally, the complex hybrid governance of policing tasks, coupled with framing a health emergency as a security threat, can be very prone to an excessive securitisation of these processes. Especially with regard to infectious diseases, the academic debate about these problematic side effects has been a vibrant field of research for more than a decade (see Sara Davis, 2008). A similar constellation of securitisation processes has been observed and remarked upon in connection with the use of private security contractors, including Blackwater personnel, during natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. Even a cursory review of the critical literature on what has negatively been described as neoliberal “disaster capitalism” (Loretta Pyles et al., 2017) makes clear that this is not just a debate for crisis managers and policing experts, but an intensely ideological one as well. Less fundamental criticism will at the very least assert that the emergency responses, which are conditioned by the securitisation discourse, are at risk of introducing a bipolar social structure in which disproportionate coercive measures are implemented and societies might become more anxious, politically polarised and culturally fragile.

The variety of policing configurations during large-scale crisis situations might intentionally and unintentionally amplify existing securitisation trends. At the same time, this may cause political and academic critics of securitisation to lambast plural policing as the central culprit, without considering potential benefits of such practices in weak or fragile states or critical emergency situation. The proverbial baby may be dispensed with alongside the bathing water. The future challenge for practitioners, policymakers and scholars alike will be to balance the perils and opportunities that come with plural policing in existential crisis situations, which will be explored by the first author of this article during a scoping research project in the near future.


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