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Negotiating Demands: The Politics of Skid Row Policing in Edinburgh, San Francisco and Vancouver

By Laura Huey

Review By Rick Clapton

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 158 Summer 2008  | p. 131-3

Negotiating Demands originates from Huey’s PhD dissertation of the same title completed at UBC in 2005 under the supervision of Dr. Richard Ericson, a professor of criminology and law. Unfortunately, due to the above fact, it is unlikely that the text will find an audience beyond the academy; the dissertation framework – overt signposting, formulaic prose, lengthy literature review, a narrow focus, and a structure in keeping with the discipline of sociology cause the author to belabour the book’s main points.

It examines frontline policing in the skid row districts of Edinburgh, Scotland, San Francisco, the United States, and Vancouver. Huey’s main argument is “that skid row policing is political and that the politics of the institution – its relative inclusiveness and/or exclusiveness – are largely dependent on political forces both within and external to the institution” (8). In support of the thesis, Negotiating Demands studies Edinburgh’s Cowgate and Grassmarket areas, where police and other authorities operate within the political ideology of Ordoliberalen. According to Huey, in contrast to American neo-liberalism, Ordoliberalen rejects “extreme individualism,” thus allowing the community and state to play a larger role in  Scotland’s skid row districts (21). Consequently, Edinburgh has “wet hostels” – where alcoholics can drink away from the “public eye” – and provides enough shelter beds for the homeless (47, 188). Huey’s assertion that the Lothian & Borders Police Force pursues an institutional agenda relying on social work, peacekeeping, and knowledge work policing, rather than enforcement models, ignores the historical origins and significance of UK police as a crime prevention organization.

In San Francisco’s Tenderloin area, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) follows the “broken windows” model of policing in its skid row district. In keeping with the United States’ property-owning culture, the city’s style favours exclusionary and coercive inclusionary policing, which “privilege[s] the law enforcement role over other conceptions of policing” in maintenance of order (101). Not surprisingly, ideas of order maintenance and public safety often reflect middle-class values and stamp out or control problems of homelessness and addiction such as vagrancy, public urination and defecation, panhandling and other public nuisance activities (111, 199).

The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) in policing the Downtown Eastside (DTES) again provides a model that is in keeping with Canada’s larger political climate. Huey defines the nation’s, and more specifically British Columbia’s, political milieu as “an incomplete mix-ture of Canadian welfarism and U.S. neo-liberalism – that is, as a ‘middle way’ between these two forms of governance” (132). This thinking allowed “the facility [safe injection site], the first of its kind in North America,” to finally open in September 2003. City officials opened the site under the auspices of the Vancouver Agreement in 2002 and devised the Four Pillars plan (prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction) to engender “positive social change in the DTES” (142). In keeping with politics and the above initiatives, the VPD pursued a program entitled City-Wide Enforcement Teams, which is “saturation policing introduced with the intent of breaking up and scattering the illicit markets of the dtes … Some critics … have suggested that this new police presence in such numbers represents a ‘mini-occupation force,’” undermining Huey’s assertion that the community gets the police force it deserves (151, 153).

Negotiating Demands reveals how Scottish, American, and Canadian police forces reflect the political ideologies in which these government organizations operate. Reflecting Huey’s academic experience at UBC and the nature of Weldwork, the book provides a detailed account of BC’s recent provincial politics, illustrating how recent political trends have negatively affected funding for skid row programs. The book does not provide this background of political parties in either San Francisco or Edinburgh [1]. Although the main point that police are political actors is supported throughout the text, there are weaknesses with the argument. At no point does Huey acknowledge that police forces are paramilitary organizations with strict chains-of-command, though she contradicts other academics who assert “that devolved responsibility within police organizations is democratic” (106). She counters by stating that district captains in the SFPD “implement local policies and programs they choose” (ibid.). Frontline police officers, moreover, are cast as political actors in their own right, when in fact these members of the force use discretion in fulfilling their mandate. Because Huey has sidelined ideas of discretion, her casting of frontline police officers as political actors remains unconvincing.

There is no doubt that police organ-izations are an “arm of the state,” sanctioned to use force if necessary (197). No doubt this very fact makes their work political. Huey’s narrow focus on skid row is beneficial and firmly comes down on the side that the community gets the police force it demands. However, not to acknowledge the plethora of other activities which fall to police – at least in the conclusion – fails to “reify the police” as true political actors (214).

[1] Huey also completed her Master’s thesis at ubc. See Laura Huey, “Policing Fantasy City,” MA thesis, ubc, 2001.