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opinion
06.05.2022

What are the policy and social implications of Project Servator?

In the second of a series of articles on the little known policing tactic, Shaquille Scott-Davis explores the impact of Project Servator on our way of life

Project Servator was originally commissioned 5 years ago in 2017 in the City of London. For more background information see ‘What is Project Servator’. Since then, it has expanded to other parts of the UK, being used by other policing services including the West Midlands Police and the British Transport Police.

In March 2022, a teenager in Coventry was arrested after ‘acting suspiciously’ and was found to be carrying drugs and a weapon (Coventry Live, 2022). The same month in York, another person was arrested and is now ‘on his way back to prison’ (The Press, 2022). It is clear that Project Servator has had an influence in the number of people being arrested in public places, which police services have cited as a positive thing (British Transport Police, 2020). However, it is crucial, when evaluating Project Servator, to not fall into a positivity bias.

The first policy implication of Project Servator is the trade-off between increased security and privacy. Project Servator methods not only incorporate the use of uniformed police officers, but also plain clothes officers, automatic number plate recognition, enhanced CCTV, and the use of drones. Whilst most of these forms of surveillance are not new, their increased use as part of Project Servator represents a greater shift towards surveillance policing. This is something that the average citizen cannot consent to. There are two implications on a personal level. On one hand, increased police and surveillance presence could make people feel more comfortable and secure when out on the streets. Equally, others may feel uncomfortable about the prospect of being constantly watched, and the prospect of seeing armed police officers may cause anxieties, particularly for communities who have historically had negative relationships with the police.

Ethical concerns mean it is even more important to objectively evaluate the effectiveness and efficacy of Project Servator. Whilst police services have claimed that they have seized drugs and weapons from individuals, more empirical research needs to be conducted to evaluate the extent to which Project Servator prevents crime. Even if there are some crime prevention benefits, it is important to consider the extent that this prevents the motivation for committing a crime. Project Servator, by definition, involves policing in specific circumstances. There should be evaluation of whether Project Servator has removed crime or merely displaced crime.

Concerns also need to be raised about who Project Servator is targeting. The main claims are that Project Servator aims to disrupt criminal and terrorist activity. However, in the past Project Servator officers have been accused of targeting protesters, such as Ocean Rebellion, (Guardian, 2022), an environmental advocacy group. Increased surveillance may limit the ability of people to protest. Alternatively, increased policing as part of Project Servator, may create the opposite outcome of making protests more violent in response to police presence.

Suggestions to mitigate some of these harms have been put forward in research by Leicester University and Cranfield University (2019). They suggest rigorous assessment and surveys as well as refresher training. They also suggest systematic evaluation of Project Servator deployments and increased research to evaluate whether deployments correlate with a drop in criminal activity in the area. In addition to these suggestions, the findings need to be made public and used to improve the use of Project Servator, but also provide critical discussion and accountability for its use. Otherwise, it could reinforce notions of discriminative policing.

In conclusion; as Project Servator diffuses throughout the UK, accountability mechanisms must be put in place to ensure transparency. Regular reviews should be conducted not only on the efficacy of Project Servator, but also public perceptions. Specific attention needs to be paid to the ways that protesters are policed, to reduce the risk of over policing. If these considerations are not taken into account, then Project Servator could have the opposite effect of making people feel safe, rather making people feel constantly watched.

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Photo by Free London Image on Unsplash

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