openJustice: Opinion

Policing during the pandemic: an insight into racism in the UK

The policing of lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests demonstrates the insidious nature of racist policing in the UK.

Michael Etienne
30 June 2020
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Just before the UK’s May bank holiday weekend, at the height of lockdown, two events occurred which provided us with an almost real-time illustration of the disproportionate risk of encountering the police and being subjected to a use of force if you are Black than if you are white.

Starting first with a street party being held in the Cheshire town of Warrington in full view of BBC News cameras to celebrate VE day. It saw people, who appear to all be white, engaging in a “socially-distanced” conga, holding onto a long rope. No police officers can be seen and the happy party was able to continue without interruption. Despite the footage clearly showing a prima facie breach of the legal restrictions on gathering in groups and some apparent concern by others about the risk of covid-transmission, there was no hint that attendees would be fined for breaching the Lockdown Regulations.

Zooming out and moving only a few miles North to Stretford, near Manchester and we are confronted with a very different scenario – also caught on film. A Black man called Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarar is being questioned by two white police officers, it transpires, for driving offences and a breach of the Lockdown Regulations. It is not clear from the footage why he is then suddenly tasered, within arms-reach of his five-year-old son. The little boy can be heard screaming “daddy!” and crying hysterically at the site of his father incapacitated on the forecourt of the petrol station.

The fact that Mr Mombeyarar went onto admit to his offences does nothing to answer the question of why he was tasered in the first place, nor does it tell us anything about what consideration, if any, was given to the potential impact on his son of his being tasered in such close proximity.

That was followed quickly by reports that police officers in Tottenham had tasered another Black man, Jordan Walker-Brown, as he jumped over a wall, days earlier. Jordan has been paralysed as a result. The officer responsible may yet have to explain himself to a jury, as a criminal investigation continues into the possibility of a charge of causing grievous bodily harm.

On a much larger scale, fewer than three weeks later in Minneapolis, in the US state of Minnesota, the world was confronted with the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man killed by Minneapolis Police officers who now face murder charges. It is hoped that the latest spark of global protests against police brutality and institutional racism, will mark a decisive turning point in the US and all around the world.

The UK police was found to be “institutionally racist” two decades ago, yet the fundamentals of policing of Black communities remain unchanged

We are now two decades on from the UK’s own promised 'turning point', following the murder of Stephen Lawrence – the Black teenager who was killed by a racist gang in 1993. In addition to the horrific murder itself, there was a different sort of violence in the fatally flawed investigation that followed. The investigation treated Stephen’s family and friends - including Duwayne Brooks, who barely escaped the incident with his life, as if they were suspects rather than victims. It was an investigation which set about infiltrating and spying on those campaigning for justice in the hope they might find some 'dirt' to discredit them with. The turning point came on 24 February 1999 when Sir William Macpherson, in his report on the murder investigation, concluded that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”.

For many, Lord Macpherson’s finding was a statement of the obvious – a retrospective confirmation of truths that had been spoken for decades before by those resisting racism: from Brixton to Bristol and Bradford and beyond. But the hope that this time things might change was irresistible – at least for some. It is true that many things did change. That included a change to the old rule that a person could never be prosecuted for the same offence twice – the rule against Double Jeopardy – which meant, thanks to new evidence, at least two of Stephen’s murderers could be convicted and sentenced to life in prison, in 2012– two trials and nearly 20 years late.

But certain fundamentals of everyday policing, particularly of Black communities (and particularly in the context of the so-called War on Terror, some Asian communities) have remained: disproportionate rates of stop and search, a greater likelihood of arrest and prosecution as a pre-cursor to longer, more punitive prison sentences.

What has also remained is a stark failure of justice following the death of Black people at the hands of the police. According to the charity INQUEST, since 1990, more than 1700 people have died in state custody; a disproportionate number of those people - 10% - were Black. In none of those cases has there been a single, successful prosecution for either murder or manslaughter against a police officer (or other State agent). That is despite a series of highly critical inquest findings, including findings of unlawful killing by inquest juries. This was described recently in this piece by journalist Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi.

A young Black man subjected to a racist assault: treated first as a suspect and then left to fend for himself

Returning to our Covid microcosm: The difference in treatment of Black people by police was again cast into stark relief by the policing of UK BLM protests. On 6 June 2020, mounted police officers appeared to charge protestors opposing racism in Central London. Other protestors were kettled for several hours. When the police began to contemplate releasing people from the kettle, legal observes reported to the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) that this was initially on the condition that individuals had images taken of them. This was in direct contravention of a High Court ruling which makes it clear that compelling someone to submit to recording is unlawful. Similarly, people were reportedly told that they had to provide their names and addresses, even though the only lawful basis to require this is where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the individual whose details are being taken is or has been engaged in “anti-social behaviour”.

The following weekend, on 13 June 2020, the Metropolitan Police imposed restrictions on the route of any march (“procession”) “promoted by “Black Lives Matter and associated groups”. The conditions specified the route of any march and required it to finish by 5pm. A breach of those conditions would have been a criminal offence.

It might be said that equivalent conditions were applied to 'counter-protestors'. Now, putting to one side the potential implication of 'counter-protestor' that the acceptability of racism is a matter of legitimate debate, it is only superficially true that equivalent conditions were imposed on all sides. The only group specifically named for police attention in these conditions was Black Lives Matter – even after the official march had been cancelled due to concerns about people becoming targets for racist violence.

Whilst the police referred to any march or assembly promoted by “the right wing and associated groups”, no specific group was identified. This rendered the already perilously vague conditions virtually unenforceable.

If the stats are anything to go by, law enforcement was noticeably low on the agenda that weekend anyway. For all the videos of far-right supporters goading and physically assaulting police officers there were only “100+ arrests.” It would be interesting to know just how many (or few) of those were of people “associated with the right-wing”.

Meanwhile, a 16 year old known only as “Gerard” was reportedly set upon by a group of far-right supporters and attacked with a broken glass bottle which could have blinded him. When he approached a police officer for help, Gerard was subjected to a stop and search. The legal basis for the search was said to be the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1996 s.60.

In the strongest tribute to the sus laws used disproportionately to criminalise generations of people of colour, including the migrant families called to Britain via the Windrush, s.60 of the Public Order Act is a power to stop and search that is 40 times more likely to be used against Black people in England and Wales than white people. It does not require reasonable suspicion that a person is or might be involved in the commission of any offence. It is enough that they are in an area to which a s.60 order applies.

The purpose of the power is stated to be to help officers to locate weapons or other “dangerous instruments” in the context of actual or potential, large-scale public disorder. On what rational basis it was thought that a visibly bloodied 16 year old who was the victim of what the police now see as a racially aggravated assault might be carrying weapons remains to be seen.

A seemingly cursory assessment of his injuries deemed they were not serious. The officer also reportedly refused Gerard’s request for help to be taken to somewhere he could be safe because he “had to” assist other police officers.

We may be two decades on from Macpherson but as Gerard described it to Channel 4 News’ Symeon Brown, this incident captures much of what remains the same: a young Black man subjected to a racist assault, treated first as a suspect and left to fend for himself in the immediate aftermath; worthy of a search but not a police escort to safety: emblematic of a community that still feels and knows it is over-policed and under protected.

In the last few days, news broke of two police officers being arrested on suspicion of misconduct in public office in connection with the murder investigation that was opened into the killings of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry on 5 June 2020. It is alleged that the officers took “inappropriate” photographs of Nicole and Bibaa’s bodies at the crime scene. These are allegations which the IOPC has described, in uncharacteristically strong terms as “sickening.” If those allegations are true, The opportunity to deliver the sort of justice delayed and denied to so many others must not be lost.

It is with these very British examples in mind that the response of some UK policing authorities to the murder of George Floyd falls to be read. Responses like this from Mike Cunningham, the CEO of the National College of Policing, who tweeted on 29 May 2020:

“The current events in Minnesota are chilling. The British policing model is built on the principle of legitimacy. It requires the continuous building of trust with the communities we serve. Without it we fail.”

Last week, Cressida Dick the Met Police Commissioner broke her notable silence of the last few weeks to insist that the Metropolitan Police is not institutionally racist and that to describe it as such is “unhelpful”. And already, the mere discussion of defunding the police – a central call of Black Lives Matter – has been summarily dismissed as “nonsense” by Sir Keir Starmer, who took a knee professing solidarity with the movement he now describes as a “moment”.

This is why it remains essential to underscore the reality of police brutality in the UK. There are many, including those who not only know better but who have the power to do better who are intent on denying the reality of it. B.L.M is a demand, in three letters from America, that has as much resonance here as it does across the Atlantic.

For more, see the Lammy Review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the Criminal Justice System; or the Angiolini Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents as just two of the Government’s own reports into these issues, both published in 2017.

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