Security theatre in an age of anxiety

In his 2003 book Beyond Fear, the American tech security specialist Bruce Schneier coined the term ‘security theatre’ to describe visible measures intended to make people feel safer without actually improving their safety. After 9/11, the whole Western world became a stage for such theatre, airports more often than not the mise en scène of choice, and each of us dramatis persona – though some more than others.

Security agents obsessed over shoes and snow-globes, and pointlessly swabbed the hands of flyers for explosives as though – as Schneier points out – terrorists would not simply conceal bombs elsewhere or had never heard of latex gloves or alcohol wipes. Office workers were subjected to photo ID checks and metal detectors. Uniformed guards were installed as actors in elaborate displays that promised safety but delivered nothing of the sort. The net effect was longer wait times, billions of dollars wasted, and even, according to some studies, more rather than fewer casualties.

Almost two decades since, you might think that the spectacle of security theatre would have been consigned to the past, a relic of a more paranoid time. Yet this has not stopped South Australia Police (SAPOL) from wheeling out a vintage example.

Last month, at a cost of $9 million, SAPOL launched the Security Response Section (SRS), a heavily-armed special operations unit comprising 48 members, and – unlike the higher-tiered, 140-member Special Tasks and Rescue Group (better known as ‘STAR Force’) – designed to conduct regular patrols of ‘at-risk’ public areas and events. Although the force was officially announced in July, South Australian Police Commissioner Grant Stevens revealed during a radio interview that it had been ‘deployed over the last 12 months’.

Speaking alongside the then Police Minister Corey Wingard on ABC Radio Adelaide in June 2019, Neil Fergus, CEO of Intelligent Risks, assured listeners that ‘I don’t think we’re going to see teams of them [SRS officers] up and down Rundle Street Mall [sic].’ Yet that is precisely what happened. SAPOL social media posts last month (some later deleted) showed SRS officers on Rundle Mall, Adelaide’s main shopping precinct, armed with what look like AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, and incongruously flanked by bouquets of flowers for sale at a street florist. We were told by Wingard that such sights are necessary because ‘South Australia is not immune to the threat of terrorism or incidents such as those we have seen interstate and abroad’, a claim repeated by Grant Stevens in a tabloid op ed.       

Maybe so but, coinciding with renewed global scrutiny of police brutality and institutionalised racism, the move could hardly have been more egregious. As thousands of Adelaideans prepared to protest against Australia’s scandalously high rates of Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody, debate raged as to whether SRS officers would be deployed to the rally. (In the end, it seems, they weren’t.)

Just as security theatre interventions such as airport profiling have been shown to have disproportionately adverse effects on people of colour, so too have relations between police and the public remained overdetermined by racial bias. In June, a SAPOL officer was stood down from operational duties after sending racist social media messages to Sudanese-Australian lawyer and human rights advocate Nyadol Nyuon following her appearance on Q+A.

Worse still, just days ago SAPOL officers were predictably cleared by an internal investigation after the violent arrest of an Aboriginal man, despite footage showing him being forced into the ground and restrained while an officer repeatedly punched him. Given such scenes, it’s worth asking who will be made to feel safer by the sight of SRS officers on patrol. Certainly not groups that have historically been oppressed by the police – people of colour, queer and trans folk, and so on – nor members of protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion whom it is not hard to imagine Grant Stevens had in mind when referring to ‘issue-motivated violent incidents’.  

The truth is, there remains much capital – both political and monetary – to be made from security theatre and ‘law and order’ policy, particularly at a time of acute public anxiety around the social and economic consequences of COVID-19. The pattern is so familiar as to be barely worthy of note. An opposition party (in this case, the South Australian Liberal Party led by Steven Marshall) takes a promise to bolster security into an election, which it proceeds to win. Frightened of appearing ‘soft on security’, their opponents (in this case the state Labor Party) are wedged into uncritically supporting draconian and unnecessary new ‘law and order’ and ‘counter-terrorism’ measures.

What is unusual, in a state that has never been subject to a terrorist attack, is the extent of the overreach that has delivered the SRS to us. It was recently announced that police officers in Melbourne would have access to AR-15s, but that they would be stored in stations and vehicles, and, unlike the SRS, not used during regular patrols. I’d be interested to know what incidents in South Australia’s past might have had a better outcome if the SRS had been around, and why STAR Group – a specialist unit that has been dealing with rescues, sieges, and the like since the 1970s – could not handle such an incident were one to occur in the future.

It’s less than heartening to note that SRS officers receive a mere six weeks of ‘job-specific’ training. In addition to what appear to be AR-15s – semi-automatic variants of the military M16 rifle that journalist Peter Charley has described as ‘the mass shooter’s weapon of choice’ – these recruits are equipped with a ballistic vest, pistol, taser, pepper spray, baton, combat helmet, and radio; in short, more like soldiers in a war zone than police officers in one of the safest countries in the world. And all of this with, as far as I can tell, less community consultation than was sought concerning the changing of the colour of SAPOL’s uniforms 10 years ago.

Another way to make sense of the establishment of the SRS is to see it as part of what writer and historian Jacqui Shine and others have dubbed the police-industrial complex, the network of private-public partnerships between law enforcement agencies and for-profit companies that have come to shape policing in many parts of the world. We don’t yet know the procurement details of the SRS’s rifles, but we do know that SAPOL and Victoria Police have previously signed contracts with arms dealers to export thousands of surplus firearms for resale on the American civilian gun market, a practice prohibited in most countries. We also know that Grant Stevens favours a ‘user-pays’ (or ‘rent-a-cop’) model for the SRS, which would see event organisers billed between $125 and $159 per officer, per hour – or around half a million dollars for an event like the Royal Adelaide Show.

Make no mistake, the value of security theatre is more than symbolic. Its uses and abuses take place in the real world, not just in the dank trenches of the culture wars.

As evidenced by the Christchurch mosque shootings, perpetrated by Australian man Brenton Tarrant, right-wing extremism represents a greater threat to Western democracies than Islamic fundamentalism, the fear of which fuelled the post-9/11 rise of security theatre. Yet even in Aotearoa/New Zealand, an Armed Response Team (ART) set up following the shootings was recently scrapped after a six-month trial, with Police Commissioner Andrew Coster citing widespread community opposition. (The SRS has been met with a similarly vehement public backlash in South Australia, with more than 12,000 people having signed a petition calling for its immediate disbandment. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, opposition to the ART was led by the grassroots Arms Down campaign, which is still fighting racist policing in that country.)   

It is not the security measures that we can see that are the most effective at preventing and responding to terrorism and other security threats, but the ones we can’t. As Bruce Schneier wrote in a 2009 essay for New Internationalist, albeit with an exclusive focus on Islamic terrorism:

Unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities – both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur – and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare. They do not include expansive new police or spying laws. Our police don’t need any new laws to deal with terrorism; rather, they need apolitical funding. These security measures don’t make good television, and they don’t help, come re-election time. But they work, addressing the reality of security instead of the feeling.

Anecdotal reports of the ways in which the SRS has so far been deployed suggest little, if any, intelligence is behind its use. Instead, officers have been seen harassing homeless people, patrolling shopping centres in low-income areas, and hanging around domestic violence shelters. There have also been reports, confirmed by SAPOL, of SRS officers responding to incidents alongside STAR Group personnel – including to a routine welfare check in Adelaide’s northern suburbs that involved no firearms – which surely raises the question, why are both units necessary?

Here, as in Aotearoa/New Zealand where reports abounded of the ART excessively policing suburbs with high Pasifika and Māori populations, a specialist counter-terrorist unit appears to be being used to intimidate the public according to the same old racist and classist biases rather than any genuine security concerns. As Monash University Professor of Criminology Jude McCulloch has observed: ‘Where police adopt a military philosophy, the community is divided into those to be protected and those seen as a threat … the line between being presumptively seen as a threat or considered deserving of protection is most deeply etched in race.’ Moreover, a number of studies, for instance by Princeton University, have found that militarised police – more often deployed in communities of colour – are ineffective in reducing crime. Rather, they contribute to an erosion in public trust, already so low that calls for the disarming, defunding, and disbandment of police forces are not only growing but being taken seriously by those in power such as the Minneapolis City Council, which recently approved a proposal to replace the city’s police with a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.

Ultimately, as even Andrew Coster was moved to admit when announcing the disbanding of the Armed Response Team, the police operate on a social licence given to them by us. The increasing militarisation of the police in South Australia is a plain breach of this licence and sets a dangerous precedent for other states to follow. The touted sight of the SRS at November’s Christmas Pageant –  should this go ahead – promises to be a more than usually gaudy addition to proceedings.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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