Plainclothes police in clubs: A surveillance strategy that will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities

© Sarah Ginn

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A recent announcement that plainclothes policemen will patrol bars and nightclubs in an effort to protect women from predators has been met with severe criticism – from campaigners and charities to the public and members of government.

Labour MP Stella Creasy pointed out that “women get abused, assaulted, intimidated in all sorts of places,” not just in bars and nightclubs. Others have highlighted that the measures don’t address the underlying causes of gender-based violence. Moreover, trust in the police among young women is currently at an all-time low. After it was announced that a serving Metropolitan Police officer has been charged with Sarah Everard’s murder, women and allies gathered to hold a peaceful vigil in her memory, which resulted in women being forced to the ground, handcuffed and detained by police, citing a breach of Covid-19 regulations.

The scheme, hastily announced by Boris Johnson after a plea by the House of Lords to amend the domestic abuse bill in order to create a national register of stalkers, was met with backlash from the night time industry, claiming it as a rash and ineffective way of safeguarding vulnerable people in nightclubs which already have measures in place to make them safer spaces.

Project Vigilant, the government’s proposed programme involving officers attending areas around clubs and bars in plain clothes, is a departure from current legislation. According to Section 97 of the Licensing Act 2003, the police can only enter a licensed venue without permission if a constable has reasonable cause to believe that a drugs offence is being or about to be committed there, or if there is high probability breach of the peace. But what are the wider ramifications of this scheme?

“When it comes to clubbing, the police have not only been historically accused of abusing their authority, but also failing to protect clubbers”

Perhaps there is a clue a century ago, when the Metropolitan Police became involved in a number of high-profile cases that led to the questioning of police procedures – one of them being the undercover policing of nightclubs. At the time, the Licensing Act of 1910 described that unlicensed selling of alcohol and drugs as well as prostitution were all criteria for revocation of a licence. However, “once registered, the police had no right of entry to a nightclub except under the specific provision of a search warrant,” writes historian Professor Heather Shore. In their attempt to clamp down on nightclubs, which were viewed by those on the political right as morally corrupt, the “Metropolitan Police divisions increasingly resorted to the use of surveillance and plainclothes officers,” and in order to gather enough evidence to justify a raid, “participated in offences themselves”.

The danger of such tactics have also been highlighted recently, as undercover police have been accused of misusing their power. Increasing numbers of cases are emerging of officers engaging in long term sexual relationships while spying on the activities of activists – one woman who ended up having children with the police officer spying on her described herself as a victim of a “conspiracy to rape”. Troublingly, this kind of conduct is allowed to continue: a new bill allows undercover officers to commit crimes while on operations.

When it comes to clubbing, the police have not only been historically accused of abusing their authority, but also failing to protect clubbers. At the height of the Acid House movement, Manchester’s renowned Hacienda club found itself at the behest of Salford drug gangs, who became the club’s bouncers. Factory Records boss and Hacienda co-founder Tony Wilson made the point that while the police were willing to police Manchester United and Manchester City games, they were unwilling to do the same at the superclub to ensure people’s safety. Hacienda manager Ang Matthew also recalled how she found the police threatening rather than helpful: “When I got stuck in the lift with one of the top officers, he was like, ‘I could do anything to you now. You’re not wearing very much, are you?’” she said in a 2018 article.

“It doesn’t seem unreasonable to presume that plainclothes officers in venues – even if they are supposedly there to protect women – will also target Black and brown artists and clubgoers”

The lack of trust in the police within nightclub settings has only increased since the turn of the century, especially among Black and brown communities who were subjected to the controversial Form 696 for years. Introduced in 2005, the documentation was used to measure the risk of violence at music events in London by gathering the personal details of artists and promoters, asking for information about the audience the events would be catering to – including their ethnicity. Targeting Black music genres like grime, garage and R&B, Form 696 led to high profile cancellations of music events, such as the 2010 tour of rapper Giggs. Form 696 is another striking reminder that, for decades, the police have never been interested in making clubbing safer.

Though Form 696 was withdrawn in 2017, Black music spaces continue to be policed in other ways. Drill artists like Digga D who have served prison sentences are also slapped with Criminal Behaviour Orders. Issued by a judge, they can prohibit an artist from doing anything described in the order. In the case of Digga, it prevented him from talking about certain experiences in his lyrics and portraying specific places in his videos, which in turn affected his ability to make a living from his craft. Meanwhile, fellow drill artists Skengdo and AM were banned from performing their track Attempted 1.0 in the terms of a gang injunction. When they did at a gig in 2019, they were sentenced to prison. As such, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to presume that plainclothes officers in venues – even if they are supposedly there to protect women – will also target Black and brown artists and clubgoers.

With the continued persecution of Black, Asian and people of colour within the criminal justice system, it’s also not inconceivable to imagine that the introduction of plainclothes police in nightclubs might be the final straw for some, in a long line of surveillance strategies that disproportionately affect ethnic minorities. When it comes to stop and search alone, “figures indicate that Black people are more than nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, a figure that increases to more than 20 times in particular areas in England and Wales.” And at a time when inadequate government support for the night time economy during Covid-19 means that “nightlife businesses face ‘extinction’ that will see urban centres become ‘ghost towns’”, this new measure could also spell another blow to the clubs, if not completely wiping out some events and venues as certain demographics cautiously stay away.

© Alastair Brookes / Entirety Labs

“Sending police into nightclubs once again shows how the government are way too quick to demonise the night time industries,” says Manchester’s DJ Paulette, who’s previously spoken out about sexual misconduct and abuse in the music industry. “My worry also is when you send police into an establishment – plainclothes or uniform – that atmosphere changes immediately for everyone who works there and everyone who is there to have a nice time.” She adds: “Sarah Everard was walking home – the clubs were closed, so who was policing the streets? For me, this [measure] does nothing to correct the ingrained culture that creates this problem – it’s just another way to manacle nightclubs and bars for no good reason.”

Indeed, it seems Project Vigilant is a misdirected knee-jerk decision that will likely be a sticking plaster solution to a problem that requires collective social change. By policing one of the few public places people of marginalised identities experience joy, it’s a direct constraint on a culture that communities have worked so hard to create and preserve. At the very least, it’s a Draconian step towards a more state-controlled future.

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