(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Murder on the Dancefloor?

Government plans to send undercover police into nightclubs are absurd and destructive

How would you react if you were assaulted by a man claiming to be a police officer? Of course, it’s not something the average person gives a lot of thought to. And when it happened to me, I had to do my thinking on the hoof.

As part of a range of measures in response to the shocking murder of Sarah Everard, the prime minister announced last week that, to protect women from violence and harassment, bars and clubs are to be patrolled by plainclothes police officers. It’s fair to say that few have hailed this as the government’s greatest idea.

Never before had I seen the boys in blue arrive in such numbers or with such speed

Several years back, I was chatting with a friend outside an awful nightclub at the end of the night — I won’t name it but it’s a notorious, sticky-carpeted dump in south London and possibly the worst place that a night out in London can end up — when a few feet away from me a scuffle broke out. Loud and frantic pushing and shoving, but nothing, I thought, to cause concern. 

I leant against the wall, with what no doubt I imagined was an air of insouciance, as the contretemps unfolded to my left. It dissolved almost as quickly as it had appeared, only for a small but determined man to spring from the other direction and grasp his hand around my neck, shouting that he was a police officer and accusing me of having instigated the nearby fight.

Despite having enjoyed a few drinks over the night, I could still appreciate his behaviour wasn’t typically police-like, at least certainly not in the tradition of British policing. As he tried to pin me back against the wall by my neck I asked myself, am I in danger from this man? Should I hit him? How to protect myself without escalating the situation?

Fortunately, a sizeable friend of mine stepped in and calmly removed the assailant’s hand from my neck and interposed himself. This pushed the putative plod into borderline hysteria. He called 999 and screamed into his phone that there was a “police officer under attack”.

Never before had I seen the boys in blue arrive in such numbers or with such speed. It couldn’t have been more than a minute and a half before a couple of vans and several cars turned up with a squadron of uniformed officers, all the while this furious little terrier of a man kept trying to get at me.

To the credit of the police who arrived on the scene, they dealt with the situation well, mollifying the enraged bantam who, they confirmed to me, was in fact a serving policeman. A pair of officers sympathised as I expressed my concerns about their colleague’s behaviour and speculated about what he might be under the influence of, but soon the time-to-go-home switch in my brain activated itself and I went on my merry way. 

Why bother pursuing it? The off-duty policeman was probably just having a bad day and had had a few too many drinks. Although his behaviour appeared to border on lunacy, he was probably trying to do the right thing. No harm done. Rightly or wrongly, I weighed it against the positive interactions I had previously had with police and decided not to take the matter further.

Boris’s recent proposal to put plainclothes police in nightclubs reminded me of that bizarre episode. Surely the level of crime in our country is not so low that we should encourage police to speculatively spend their time in nightclubs on the off-chance that they might see someone’s drink being spiked. It is strange that the government should respond to the murder of Sarah Everard by expanding the remit of the state to police private spaces. After all, Sarah wasn’t killed after a night out; she was killed after walking home at 9.30pm.

We should not expect that violence against women is a problem that can be simply policed out of existence. That is unfeasible even with many times the resources that police actually have.

A police officer in a nightclub could only be a figure of contempt

I do feel sympathy for the police, most of whom are doing a good job in difficult circumstances. How short-sighted it would be to make their jobs still more difficult by sending them into nightclubs to no appreciable benefit to anyone. That it has been proposed by the government is an indication of how far we have come to accept the authority of the state. Using undercover officers is an extreme measure, suited to infiltrating criminal organisations, not surveilling members of the general public trying to enjoy themselves. 

For the police in this country to be able to do their jobs properly, the public must hold a degree of respect for them. A police officer in a nightclub could only be a figure of contempt, something the government implicitly admits since they have proposed having officers in plainclothes rather than uniform. And it’s hard to imagine that officers will leap at the opportunity to deceive people in such a petty way. 

During the pandemic we have seen the arm of the law extend further and further into private life. Only a few days ago we heard of a Gloucestershire grandmother being summoned from her bed at night by police demanding to know whether she had enjoyed an afternoon cup of tea with a neighbour in her garden. Such episodes have a real cost to the reputation of the police with the public, and the knock-on effect is to make it harder for the police to perform their core duties. Likewise, the fallout from putting police in nightclubs would be inevitable and would further erode public confidence.

Nightclubs have few champions. Few businesses have suffered more from the pandemic, and there has been no well-publicised campaign to support them, as there has been for theatres and museums, because nightlife is not perceived by the majority as having value for society. Older people will tolerate nightclubs, but they don’t want to have the inconvenience of living near them. Nightlife in London and elsewhere is dying, submerged under waves of gentrification.

Some feeble attempts have been made by the government to arrest this decline. Sadiq Khan appointed Amy Lamé as Night Czar for the capital in 2016. Despite pulling in a salary of over £80,000, her impact has been decidedly underwhelming. She has failed to prevent the tightening of licensing laws that force venues to close earlier across the capital; although, to her credit, in October 2018 Lamé did manage to successfully lobby Waitrose to change the name of their Gentleman’s Smoked Chicken Caesar Roll, on the grounds that it was sexist.

To a nightlife industry on life support, it’s no surprise that putting undercover police in clubs has not come as a welcome suggestion. Would you welcome your own private party being policed? Plod coming round for dinner to make sure you don’t spike the couscous or sexually harass your guests? And it’s not a stretch to expect that clubs will be asked to foot some of the bill for being policed against their will.

Perhaps Boris never frequented many nightclubs. What he may not realise is that nightclubs are not simply the Bullingdon Club for hoi polloi: criminality is not the stated goal, though of course sometimes people get too drunk or take drugs.

My own days of going to clubs are behind me, but I can still recognise that nightlife has value. Once again, young people’s interests are falling by the wayside and the government is unwilling to do anything about it. People in their teens and twenties have endured the most unbelievably boring pandemic with an astonishing degree of patience. They are not children who need to be surveilled by the state when they go for a night out.

And it would be nice if there were still some nightclubs for them to go to. Otherwise they will have to go to a museum to see what nightlife looks like. When it reopens in May, the V&A Dundee is putting on an exhibition about club culture. If you’re a young person, that may now be your best bet.

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