The Thin Blue Line

Harry Stopes

Greater Manchester Police take social media seriously. Their head of corporate communications said recently that PR can be a cheaper and more effective way of deterring crime than traditional policing: ‘PR is far from being “fluffy” promotional activity and is about supporting frontline policing.’ I’ve been following the Twitter account for police in central Manchester since 2015.

The police see an ugly side of life (they can also make it uglier, but that’s another story) and the account has always been an ugly read. Alongside the occasional serious crime – ‘reports that a man had been assaulted outside Barca bar in Catalan Square with a machete’ – there’s a recurring cast of spice dealers, shoplifters, nightclub brawlers, drunk drivers, beggars.

This last ‘crime’ has been the object of considerable focus for the account in the last six months or so: ‘persistent female beggar … tested positive for opiates … Female has flat and on benefits’; ‘One beggar, who lives in a house & is on benefits, wore disheveled clothing & had a large holdhall & empty suitcase with him.’ The police exhibit a shaky grasp of the meaning of homelessness, suggesting that a man’s ‘homeless please help’ cardboard sign was a lie because he lived in a hostel. It’s hard to see why a 62-year-old man should spend three months in Strangeways for begging; harder still to see why his name, age, street address and photograph should be tweeted by police.

Rough sleeping is up 169 per cent across the country since 2010, along with every other form of homelessness. The rate in Manchester is more than twice the national average. Among major English cities, it’s higher only in London and Bristol. The numbers of homeless people referred to temporary accommodation in Manchester rose 319 per cent between 2010 and 2017. It’s bizarre in these circumstances for Greater Manchester Police to downplay the crisis of homelessness by claiming that the genuinely homeless receive help, and those visible on the street are not really in need. ‘There is plenty of help for those willing to accept it,’ they say.

‘Police and Manchester City Council get regular complaints from the public stating we are not doing enough to tackle begging in the city centre,’ they say. ‘These posts inform our critics of our work.’

It isn’t the job of the police to deal with the causes of poverty, addiction, poor mental health or austerity. But define the problem as the visible presence of unwanted people in the wrong place, and define those people as ‘criminal beggars’, and the police will know not only what to do with them, but how to talk about them.

Social media can shape a landscape, depict a set of circumstances and validate certain feelings. It depends on aggregation: the expression (or the creation) of a particular mood is one of the things it’s good for. What frontline policing purpose is served by the use of this discursive power to demonise a small group of desperate people?