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The Multiscalar Nature of Urban Security

by Simone Tulumello on June 28, 2017
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The governance of urban security (or, in American English, public safety) constitutes a privileged angle to study the relations among government, public action, socio-economic trends and urban dynamics. On one hand, security, and its governance, are a nodal dimension of the way public policy affects cities’ welfare and patterns of justice and injustice. On the other, individual safety is promoted by the intersection of security practice with virtually every other area of public action.

All around the Western world – and more evidently in the USA and UK – the institutional practice of urban security has been, during the last few decades, powerfully restructured by a set of global trends, coherently with neoliberal restructuring: the emergence of crime control cultures more and more oriented toward repression and away from social prevention; increased, if rhetorical, calls for community “participation”; and growing reliance on public private partnerships in the management of prevention and enforcement. These global trends have differently impacted over, and clashed with, local institutional and political settings. Studying those clashes was the objective of my comparative study of Memphis (TN, USA) and Lisbon (Portugal), recently published in Urban Affairs Review.

My approach has both a theoretical and a normative goal: first, contributing to a better understanding of processes of policy diffusion and change with impact and roots at different scales, and, second, providing insights for improving the way institutions at different levels of government conceptualise and promote urban security. The latter goal is particularly relevant for places, such as many US cities, that suffer, together, from very high levels of violence and crime, and of repressive and racialised approaches to crime control. In many US cities, the concentration of crime (particularly in minority-majority, inner city neighborhoods) stems from the coexistence of many social problems, like poverty, social alienation and mental disorders. As such, many agree that prevention should be sought primarily by way of addressing those very problems, through redistribution of wealth, social policy and universal healthcare (and especially mental healthcare, because of the incidence of violent events involving mental health consumers). However, my research shows, there is a major paradox in many US cities: urban security is considered a priority but those very policies that are crucial to prevent the root causes of crime have been and keep being cut, because local governments are pressured to shift resources toward enforcement. While public services are cut, police and the criminal justice system are expected to deal with those problems (including poverty and mental disorders) that generate the conditions for crime. While police is expected to compensate for cutbacks of other areas of policy, evidence from Memphis (which resonates with that from many other places) shows that practices of community policing fail to shift policing toward social outreach; and, especially in majority-minority communities, police employs aggressive tactics and is felt as a threatening presence.

Much research has shown how the shift toward repression and enforcement in the USA was part of a political economy useful to enforce racial and class boundaries (for instance, Elizabeth Hinton’s masterwork on the history of mass incarceration). My goal was enriching such scholarship by making political, institutional and structural explanations cooperate. My strategy was comparing Memphis, a city where crime and social problems are particularly evident and law enforcement is the “only game in town”, with Lisbon, a city where crime rates are very low and prevention is pursued in a more holistic way. In what follows I shall summarise four main points stemming from comparison and conclude with two suggestions for reform of urban security policymaking in (US cities like) Memphis.

  1.  The role of the state in long-term prevention in Lisbon is linked with the idea that problems with safety are “internal” to a given society; while the political environment in the US and in (cities like) Memphis tend to focus on “external threats” (often racialised), hence favoring enforcement and repression;
  2. The regional context of Memphis, the South of the US, has been at the forefront of processes of neoliberalisation of public policy: growing apparatuses of law enforcement and the privatisation of security priorities have been linked with the retrenchment of welfare. In Portugal, instead, national and local governments have kept safety as a goal for proper public policy;
  3. The localism of the US institutional system plays a role, in the sense that it damages less wealthy cities, which are overburdened by the costs of police departments; while the centralisation of security policymaking at the national level in Portugal permits local governments to experiment with a wide set of policies. In other words, decentralisation does not automatically entail increased autonomy of local policy: in Memphis, despite formal autonomy, there is little possibility of thinking beyond law enforcement; and
  4. The co-pressure of responsibility for enforcement and social policy at the local level in cities like Memphis seems to be one of the causes that prevent police to act as agents of social outreach; in Lisbon, instead, the municipal police, which is not responsible for enforcement, has successfully implemented practices of community policing. In other words, some of the problems with local policing may be due, beyond organisational causes internal to the police, by the fact itself that police forces are expected to deal with issues that should be addressed through other areas of policy.

From a normative perspective, then, what can Memphis (and many US cities) learn from Lisbon (and Portugal)? Two areas of reform, in my opinion, are crucial if structural, long-term crime prevention in places like Memphis is to become a serious priority of policymaking from the local to the federal level. First, centralising, at least at the metropolitan level, some responsibilities for urban security would help cities face the burden of this responsibility and share it with other areas that have long been privileged by policy, quintessentially, suburban communities. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be on the agenda of discussions about criminal justice and police reform – as evident from the report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Second, my findings resonate with those who have suggested to rethink US urban policies more widely in terms of making the whole policy environment more just, hence more capable of tackling structural issues at the root of crime, with an increased role of national government.

Early signals by the Trump administration suggest that the US federal government will not keep leading such reforms for some time to come and will probably shift policies further toward repression and enforcement. My hope is that cities will be capable of stepping up and creating political networks in the struggle for structural change.

Simone Tulumello
Simone Tulumello is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lisbon, Institute of Social Sciences. His research interests lie at the border between planning research and critical urban studies: urban security and safety; urban fear and planning; planning theory; urban futures; housing and neoliberal urban policy; the geography of crisis and austerity; cities of Southern Europe and Southern USA. Simone is author of Fear, Space and Urban Planning (Springer, 2017) and articles in journals including Urban Affairs Review, Journal of Planning Education and Research, Urban Geography, International Planning Studies, Space and Culture, Cadernos Metrópole, and Archivio di Studi Urbani e Regionali.

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