The politics of policing a pandemic panic

The politics of policing a pandemic panic

James Sheptycki | Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology

The politics of policing a pandemic panic

James Sheptycki |  Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology


This essay was completed in early April 2020 and begun during the first week of the official pandemic panic in Canada. The world-wide plague caused by the COVID-19 virus precipitated the first global police event presenting an occasion for researchers and scholars to apply existing theory and empirical understanding to extra-ordinary circumstances. Consideration of the politics of the police during the plague reveals a tectonic shift in the world system. The transnational and comparative study of police and policing reveals the contours of the emerging system of world power all the more clearly in a moment of crisis. The pandemic panic presents an historical moment during which, figuratively speaking, policing power crystalizes and can be seen clearly. On the global stage, in response to the pandemic panic authoritarian and totalitarian policing practices are demonstrated alongside those in putative democracies. Emerging and observable practices of rule by law are antithetical to democratic policing in the general social interest, and rule of law rhetoric justifying militarized law enforcement action in many places continues to bring police into further disrepute. The coming era will continue to be a time where, in most places “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must”—as the ancient historian Thucydides observed in the aftermath of the fratricidal Peloponnesian War more than two millennia ago. The pandemic panic shows in the starkest statistical numbers that, where social justice is achieved, the outcome of the politics of the police is not the command of the sovereign.


The first global police event is happening. For the first time in history, police in just about every jurisdiction in the world have been mobilized at the same time due to the same fundamental occurrence. The pandemic panic concerning the novel COVID-19 virus marks a watershed. The current moment can be viewed from the standpoint of police studies as a massive global field experiment in how different practical manifestations of police power are operationalized under different local social and political contexts, and further with what consequence for human well-being the world over. It is a natural experiment for transnational and comparative criminologists (Wardak & Sheptycki, 2005). In simple terms, looking at what police do in different countries during this crisis says a lot about the global system.

Drawing attention to thinking about policework in the context of a global pandemic panic is not to say that what the police do is the most important aspect of the social response to the spread of a disease. Foucauldian theories concerning the bio-politics of populations and the anatomo-politics of individuals offer another possible window onto this historical shift (Dean, 2010), if we think of those forms of power now being constituted in a wired world. However, Foucauldian theory does not really help clarify the point that the response to the pandemic panic is what it is: a global police event. That is an event whereby the order of the global system is imposed by police methods across multiple jurisdictions in response to the same world-wide occurrence. Here the emphasis is on thinking about the trajectory of the politics of the police in a global context up to the crisis moment of the pandemic panic in order to think beyond it. This presents a challenge. Amidst the torrent of words expended during the crisis, what does the research and scholarship about crime and policing have to contribute? Characterizing the present moment as a pandemic panic is a reference to the distillation of a critical frame of analysis concerning interactions between media, crime and police reaction first articulated by Stanley Cohen, Stuart Hall and others in the 1970s (Bowling et al., 2019, pp. 211–212). From that perspective, there is in the current crisis a phenomenon—“the virus”—which seems to be a “suitable foe” that justifies police action. But the ensuing societal reaction in the circumstances of the crisis can be expected to create self-fulfilling prophecies since, on the basis of the need to control the phenomenon, are manufactured culturally identifiable symbols which structure future situations and legitimize social control. This view does not deny the real existential threat of the COVID-19 virus, but instead it raises questions about the future consequences of the political and social reaction to the immediate crisis as manifest in the politics of the police.

The study of the police and policing is very relevant to the current circumstances. What follows is a consideration of the subject at the onset of a global panic surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, which will last for an indeterminate period. In placing the politics of the police in the spotlight, this presumptive analysis draws on Bowling et al. (2019, pp. 20–37). In the multitude of commentary being produced in these extra-ordinary circumstances, it is important for specialist scholarship to contribute in a targeted way to the discussion. This means that contributions should remain based on existing empirical knowledge and tested theoretical notions and not become speculative beyond those boundaries (Goldsmith & Halsey, 2020). What do we know about the practices and politics of already existing policing around the world, and what might we expect as the pandemic panic passes and the virus becomes part of the global ecosystem? This essay sketches some insights and prognoses about an evidently momentous juncture in the evolution of the global system that might be gleaned from existing thinking and research concerning police practice. It suggests where scholarship and thinking in this domain might ought to go in the coming period, and it is a record of how things looked at the start of something new to one long-schooled in the politics of the police.

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The politics of policing a pandemic panic, James Sheptycki, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Vol 53, Issue 2, 2020

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