Policing Temporality: Police Officers Reflect on the Role of the Police in Gentrifying a High-Crime Neighborhood

By Hadas Zur (Tel Aviv University)

Numerous studies have shown how gentrification processes promote and are supported by an increase in policing. Areas under gentrification are subject to more intensive police presence, stop-and-arrest practices, aggressive police tactics and surveillance. These claims are raised by long-term residents who suffer from and witness intensified police presence in their neighborhoods, and are also supported by empirical data on 311 calls to police and by qualitative studies with new residents who admit for demanding more police presence. However, the voices and reflections of police officers who operate in these transformative times and spaces have yet to be heard. This study focuses on the perspective of police officers working in a high-crime neighborhood undergoing gentrification in South Tel Aviv, Israel. It is based on qualitative interviews with police officers and commanders (N-15), ethnographic work with urban police and a spatial analysis of urban renewal.

South Tel Aviv, especially the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, is known as an area for drug trafficking, sex consumption and houselessness. Moreover, it is the home to various immigrant groups including asylum seekers and refugees from Africa. Since 2010, in response to the local residents claims for raising insecurity, the state and municipal authorities have invested in expanding police services in the neighborhood. Within the last decade, the area transformed from having no police station to being the most surveilled and policed area in the city, with the largest national and municipal police force operating in the smallest geographical area (see Figure 1 below).

In the last five years, urban renewal processes have accelerated and brought new middle-class residents, especially young families, couples, and singles, to the neighborhood. Below, Figure 2 shows the clusters of urban renewal and the overlap with the surveillance cameras and police foot patrol area. Figure 3 presents three projects of urban renewal in the neighborhood to give another sense of how the area is changing.

Operating in such a complex sociospatial environment, the study examines what it the role of police in the gentrification process? And how does it make the officers reflect on police and policing?

The interviews with the officers strengthen the arguments of past research and confirm that police work intensifies under gentrification to include more order maintenance policing and criminalization of incivilities in the designated areas. However, beyond that the paper reveals the reflexive insights of the officers that arise from working in this complex environment. Their reflections are divided into three levels: local, social and urban. On the local level, they question the effectiveness of police practices such as situational crime prevention (SCP) in dealing with drug users and those experiencing houselessness. They indicate how in the absence of long-term solutions for populations in need (such as housing and rehabilitation) the police main role is to compromise their visibility in space by engaging in mobilization and dispersal. On the social level, they highlight the moral dilemmas that arise from policing a socially mixed neighborhood. Spaces undergoing gentrification become complicated environments where old and new residents live in physical proximity but demand that social distance and boundaries be maintained. This study shows how digital communication plays a significant role in the ways the police distinguish between populations. Digital platforms and communication become a means of internal borderwork in gentrified areas. The digitally skilled enjoy immediate, accessible police services at the expense of those who are not digitally connected.

In south Tel Aviv, with its large population of immigrants and people with drug addiction and houselessness, the line between the connected and disconnected is conspicuous. The police who are determined to serve the community find themselves in uncharted territories of community-police relations mediated by digital platforms. They reflect upon their moral obligation to the various populations in the conflicted gentrified area and ask: “Have we become the private police of the newcomers?” The broadest criticism from the police targets urban politics and illuminates an unspoken dynamic regarding the gentrification of high-crime neighborhoods where unwanted phenomena (such as prostitution, drug trafficking and houselessness) are centralized. This process, which undermines previous spatial arrangements that have economic, moral and functional value for the city, evokes conflicting desires and interests. Police are expected to reduce crime, displace unwanted populations, and make the area safer for newcomers. Simultaneously, they must prevent crime and incivilities from spreading into other areas. Therefore, their reflection exposes how the gentrification of a high-crime neighborhood is not a single-vector process of change but a state of negotiation and struggle among police stations, municipal authorities, residents and the people involved in those activities. Maneuvering among the contradicting forces, police are wondering about their actual role in this space; “Do they truly want a win here?” asks one officer regarding policy makers, he wonders “maybe it’s meant to be here. They’re telling you, ‘Deal with it! That’s what you’re being paid for.’”

Being aware of their position, engaging in everyday interactions with the community, having limited tools to effect real change and being distant from decision-making, police officers question their role in the broader political game. Are they here to make a change or to preserve its borders?

The paper suggests that the role of police in spaces undergoing gentrification is not to strive for a fundamental change but to police temporality, to mediate between the existing space and the future space. Their role is to preform governmental engagement, maneuver conflicting communities and needs, be at the forefront of serving the new residents and absorb their criticism and claims, while the bulldozers effect change in the built environment. The police try to maintain stability in times of transformation and disorder. They conduct internal borderwork in an increasingly heterogenic environment with technology becoming their main tool for reinforcing social divides. Policing temporality effects the police officer’s motivation over time, expose the limitation of policing under neoliberal development and reveal the behind-the-scenes politics of gentrifying a high-crime neighborhood.

Read the full UAR article here.

Author Biography

Hadas Zur is a PhD student at the Laboratory for Contemporary Urban Design (LCUD), Department of Geography and Human Environment at Tel Aviv University. Her research interests include violence, policing, urban conflicts, and the digitization of city life.