For many, the 'boys in blue' are a brutal force who use their powers to punish and wreak revenge. England's riots began with an explosion of anger towards the police - so why is this issue not being addressed?
On Monday 8th August, in South London, three hundred young people gathered outside Battersea’s Lavender Hill police station "taunting" the police to come out. In Nottingham, three police stations were attacked including Canning Circus police station, which was firebombed. The Pembury Estate in Hackney erupted when the police stopped and searched a teenager. As one young girl said in Peckham that day:
“I will die for the cause of FUCK THE POLICE! They fuck our lives up every day!”
These were outbursts of anger and even hatred towards the police. If any part of the post-Tottenham riots had political content, this was it.
The knee-jerk political responses to the England riots distracted parliament and the public from a key issue which that girl from Peckham understood: the significant and sustained misuse of police powers.
In the week of the riots, when Tory MPs variously demanded that rioters be detained in Wembley stadium, sprayed with indelible chemical dye, water-cannoned and tear-gassed, former minister Peter Lilley demanded that the government stick to its plans to cut police budgets.
Based on my own and my family’s experiences I suggest cuts to bureaucracy would not — in Peter Lilley’s words — “make the police more efficient” but instead would lead to further abuses of power by the state, abuses which ultimately endanger all civil rights.
Stop and Search: A case study in vindictive policing
As a 29-year-old black man born and bred in London, I have never been stopped and searched by the police. Perhaps it is because I look like and am a computer geek, I don't know.
My 24-year-old brother Gus has been stopped and searched countless times. For months on end, he was subjected to sustained police harassment.
It started in 2001, when he was 14 years old. Wimbledon’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) came to our home and charged him with robbery. Gus admitted taking a school friend's house keys after an argument and explained that he had tried to give them back. The police gave him a final caution and warned him that next time he’d be going to court.
After that, Gus was frequently stopped and searched in the Mitcham and Colliers Wood area of South London. He would complain to my mother that he wanted our family to leave the area as he hated it, but nobody took his allegations seriously.
A few weeks after the robbery accusation, Gus was with friends on his way to school when plain-clothes police officers arrested him alone for ‘causing an affray’. The Magistrates Court threw out the case due to the officers’ unreliable testimony, calling the charges spurious.
It got worse. Gus said he could identify which cars were following him but I dismissed that as paranoia. He told me that once police driving a car spotted him on a bus, flagged it down, marched him off and then searched him in the road. He hated walking the streets alone, knowing that he would be subjected to a “routine check”, as illustrated by this rap song by British duo, The Mitchell Brothers.
This became a regular ritual of aggression and shame. It wasn’t just because he was black, it developed into a personal vendetta.
Six weeks after the farce at the Magistrates Court, my brother and his friends were walking home from a local youth club when police sirens and lights headed towards them. "They are coming for me", he said. His friends laughed and joked in disbelief, but he was proved right.
Gus was charged for robbery of an off-duty police officer's chequebook. As he was forcefully handcuffed on the floor, his friends attacked the police car in outrage and retaliation; two of his peers were arrested but later one was released without charge and the other was subsequently charged alongside my brother. The allegation was that Gus, with two other boys, had pounced on an off-duty police officer at night and stolen the officer’s chequebook.
The police kept my brother overnight in South Norwood Police Station where, he claims, two police officers punched him in the head, directing blows at the temples and at the back. (We later understood that this was to avoid visible bruising). This happened a few days after his 15th birthday.
The following morning, when my mother was on her way to collect him, Wimbledon police came to our home to search for the "officer's missing chequebook". My grandmother and my youngest brothers (then aged 6 and 7) were present and the youngest even had a pleasant chat with one of the officers while our house was being turned upside down. The chequebook wasn't found but the police still pursued the charge of theft to the Magistrates Court.
Gus and a friend were convicted of robbery but Gus’s conviction was overturned on appeal, as it came out in the Crown Court that his alibi — he said he was in the youth club — was corroborated by youth workers and the youth club register.
My mother got support from the local MP, Siobhan McDonagh, who told Wimbledon police that she would help our family sue for them for harassment. After McDonagh’s intervention — and only after that — we received a written apology from a chief constable, and the campaign of harassment ended for Gus.
Is this a tragic, isolated case? I cannot produce concrete evidence that on dropped or acquitted charges, black family homes are more likely to be searched than those belonging to white or other ethnic groups. However, let’s look at the context: people of African descent are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched in the UK than white people.
The day after the Tottenham riots, thirty South London leaders of Ashanti, a Ghanaian ethnic group, held their bi-monthly meeting. Every parent who attended reported that at least one of their children had suffered sustained harassment by the Metropolitan Police. It was always between the ages of 13 and 17. This is the experience of just one of many African and African-Caribbean communities in the UK. Rather than upholding the law, some elements of the Metropolitan Police across London are misusing their powers for extra-judicial punishment meted out to those they happen to despise.
Stop and search is a pernicious power. The received view is that it is used by the police in too blanket a fashion, and by indiscriminately selecting entire groups - young men with hoods, young blacks - causes generalised grievance. My experience is that the police use the power in a discriminating and selective fashion, singling out individuals they decide to 'get' and then getting them.
This is not just a race issue but also a class issue. When David Starkey claimed the whites had become black, he was referring to white working class children adopting popular black youth culture. His claims (evil black youth corrupting previously innocent whites), allude to a truth: that many white working class youths of Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool suffer similar abuses of police power and thus express similar anger towards the police.
What is wrong and what must be done
The Tottenham and subsequent riots must be seen in the context of the death of Mark Duggan, the Met’s 320th death in police contact since 1990. The riots were fuelled by the perception and experience by some communities of persistent discriminative police brutality. The Scarman Report of 1981 was supposed to resolve this and now in 2011, the same issues are being repeated. The police are now allowed to arrest based on race. How did we get here again?
Since the Blair premiership, tabloids - especially the Murdoch press - have portrayed The Hooded Teenager as the bete-noir of local high streets. A group of children sitting outside a shopping centre became a "gang", and ephebiphobia (the fear and loathing of particularly working class youth) became a national past-time.
The New Labour era ushered in performance targets. Funding for police constabularies was contingent on meeting these targets set by Whitehall, and this filtered down into a perception of police officers having to make a certain number of arrests each year in order or face punishment. This was especially true in Merton, the borough my family still live in, where in 2007, one officer was being threatened with action for failing to achieve three arrests in 15 weeks.
Policing was turned on its head: crime prevention was no longer a priority — the police now relied on crime to save their own jobs. This perverse incentive combined with tabloid hysteria ("feral hoodies", "chav scum") and institutional racism, creating a climate of hostility towards young people who hung around street corners listening to grime and hip hop. After the terrorist attacks on 7th July bombings, New Labour also brought in special anti-terrorism laws. David Davis, former shadow Conservative Home Secretary, recently remarked that "not one of its 100,000 stop and searches under the Terrorism Act had led to a terror-related arrest", let alone a conviction.
When the coalition government came to power, Theresa May rightly called for an end to the target culture and has scrapped performance targets in policing. May also pledged to scrap unnecessary paperwork. In February this year Parliament approved alarming reductions in the information recorded on stop and search which, according to the Runnymede trust, “will now make it impossible to measure repeat stops and harassment; the effectiveness of a stop and search; and any misuse of force.”
What’s more, said the Trust, “police will no long be required to record the use of ‘stop and account’, which will make it impossible to determine if stop powers are being used proportionately and remove local community scrutiny of stop practices.”
This drive to cut bureaucracy conveniently forgets that much of it provides a necessary check on those officers inclined to misuse their powers. It is particularly troubling at a time when the Prime Minister has sanctioned the use of rubber bullets and water cannons and declares that our "human rights culture" is a problem.
Though I am not more than a community activist, from my experience, I would recommend the following:
1. Stop police cuts to enable local police transparency: Ensure a minimum ratio of back office staff to police officers/activity. Local police constabularies must publish online police activity/arrests maps alongside already existing online local crime maps. They should detail aggregate non-identifying information such as postcodes and wards that have had stop-and-account and warrant searches, and this should be traced to conviction rates.
2. Scrap Sus, anti-protest and other illiberal laws: Abolish stop-and-search, the SOCPA Act of 2005, remove the ability to create non-protest zones, repeal the parts of the Counter Terrorist Act which criminalises photographing the police. Remove provisions in the current Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which allow police constables the power to confiscate personal property in Parliament Square.
3. Demilitarise the police: Ban the use of tasers, rubber bullets and water cannons. Reinstate the division between arrestable and non-arrestable offences. Abolish the Territorial Support Group.
4. Reform the IPCC: All IPCC investigations should be public unless requested by the complainant. Make the IPCC commissioners directly elected, not appointed by the Home Secretary, with powers of recall initiated through a process that involves complainants creating a petition. Enact the proposals made by INQUEST’s Response To IPCC Stock Take Consultation 2008.
The way things are now, the police do not act as a public service for all. For many they are a brutal, malicious force who use their powers in both arbitrary and despotic ways, punishing individuals without due process. As such they are, as we can see, intensely resented not just by the individuals who directly experience this but also by their relatives, friends and contacts who live in fear of the police, a classic and familiar consequence of despotism. It is certainly a very long way from policing by consent.