Policing in the time of urbicide

It is imperative we reorient our internal security policies towards the urban citizen and prioritise citizen security

Zoha Waseem July 11, 2015
The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London and is researching on urban security and policing in Pakistan

A United Nations report estimated that by the year 2050, more than 65 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities, concentrated primarily in the global South, a 10 per cent increase from 2014. It is routinely argued that the ‘pull’ towards urban areas and growing competition over resources lead to ‘urban insecurity’ — a phenomenon that has been gathering considerable attention since the turn of the century. This refers not only to financial security but also to human, infrastructural and state security, which can be compromised in the face of urban dissent.

As a result, over the last few decades, academics have been exploring the relationship between international and urban security. What falls short in their analyses is how the police should work and behave in an era of urban insecurity.

From the realm of urban security studies emerge three relatively young frameworks for understanding conflicts in cities: urban securitisation, new military urbanism and urbicide. It should be mentioned here that all three require further academic debate and are considered here in their most basic forms.

Urban securitisation can loosely be defined as the act of convincing a people that there is a potentially existential security threat to an urban area, such as a mega city that is crucial for the prosperity of a nation. This is coupled with the reasoning that such a threat cannot be defeated by previously exhausted measures and the state apparatus (civilian, military, or both) must take certain actions (e.g., security operations) to eliminate this threat.

New military urbanism, as theorised by Professor Stephen Graham in Cities under Siege, refers to militarised techniques of monitoring, planning and participating in urban development. These are enforced through new and improved security solutions designed for cities on the lines of military techniques, tried and tested outside the urban sphere.

Urbicide appears to fall somewhere between securitisation and military urbanism. While translated from Latin as the ‘killing of a city’, it usually applies to the destruction of urban areas, during wartime for instance (e.g., Sadr City or the West Bank). But lately, it has also been thought of as ‘purposive violence’ in urban areas that is sustained by carefully designed security policies under the garb of securitisation, and that seeks to restructure the character of a city through aggressive urbanisation, thus creating space for new military urbanism.

While the above frameworks have the intentions of securing a city and ushering in investments for economic growth, their shortcomings lie in their fragmented application and unequal distribution of development and security.

Protecting ‘wealthy’ residential gated communities by ‘securing’ them from impoverished neighbourhoods in close proximity becomes a standard practice. But fragmentation persists as security remains absent from the peri-urban areas (e.g., no-go areas) where the underbelly thrives and the urban poor find it difficult to integrate successfully into economic developments in the city. This results in the marginalisation of poor urban communities, which remain vulnerable to the very existential threat the state is trying to defeat.

Let us consider policing against this backdrop. In many cases, the state uses the police as it engages in urbicidal violence to accomplish strategic objectives, many of which are oriented towards capitalist gains, such as the appropriation of a city’s resources. In other cases, the police are left to ‘clean up’ the friction caused by urbicide in cities.

In either scenario, efforts towards community policing are hindered and officers become key participants in localised struggles generated in response to fragmented security and economic development. They are then encouraged to engage in repressive practices, often referred to as ‘militarised policing’ and ‘extrajudicial violence’ to fight organised crime and terrorism.

Briefly consider a couple of cases from Latin America. El Salvador’s conservative government took an initiative in 2003 known as Mano Dura (Iron First) to crack down on organised crime troubling the country since the 1960s. Thus began joint military and police-led operations that initially received widespread public support. Eventually, the political motives behind Mano Dura started becoming clearer. Repressive tactics, also witnessed in Guatemala and Honduras, did little to weaken criminal gangs that formed networks within prisons and operated in marginalised neighbourhoods. Kidnappings, murders, drug trafficking and extortion continued unabated.

In the South, Colombia’s second-largest city opted for another route, known as the ‘Medellin model’. Once home to the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar and known for high homicide rates, Medellin is regarded today as a successful case of urban transformation. The model has its limitations, but what stands out is its focus on citizen security instead of state security. Problem-oriented and community policing are seeking to replace repressive policing. Above all, the active participation of local communities and local security forces in the framing of security policies has been encouraged. Accessibility to public security services has increased, bridging divides and encouraging social integration. These processes have reduced, though not yet eliminated, fragmentation, insecurity and overall crime.

When cities urbanise and advance technologically, criminals adapt and terrorists evolve to use new technology and infrastructure to their advantage. In the same vein, so too should law-enforcement agencies. A cop chasing a bad guy chasing the money is a story as old as the hills. Only now, the terrain and technology have improved exponentially and made the chase towards security all the more desperate. These trends are as true in Pakistan as in any other country and there is a lot we can learn from security strategies implemented elsewhere.

It is imperative that we reorient our internal security policies towards the urban citizen and prioritise citizen security that is not spatially differential in its application. However, this will remain an idealistic notion, so long as securitisation policies and military urbanism methods continue favouring the few over the many and defending urbicidal violence in the name of security.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2015.

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Mohammad Ali Babakhel | 8 years ago | Reply An excellent endeavor , it is imperative to connect the rural deprivations with urban insecurities. Without rectifying rural gaps urban areas will remain victim of such insecurities.
Toticalling | 8 years ago | Reply I agree the trend to flock to cities should be halted. This concentration increases traffic jams, slums increase and increase in rents and price of property. But I know one country which has managed this problem very well. After WW2, Germany decentralised its industry and spread all over the country. Whereas the banking was concentrated in Frankfurt, heavy industry in Ruhrland, Car industry in Baden Wittenberg and Bavaria. The effort has born fruit. You do not see traffic jams and flat prices climbing up like in London, Paris or New York. And flat prices in Berlin are cheaper than Munich or Frankfurt. Perhaps other emerging markets should follow that example. I may add that Germany is not exception, some other countries in Africa are also doing it. I know South Africa where the industry is spread all over. When I think of traffic jams in Delhi or Lahore, I get nervous.
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