“The need to re-establish trust between minority ethnic communities and the police is paramount… seeking to achieve trust and confidence through a demonstration of fairness will not in itself be sufficient. It must be accompanied by a vigorous pursuit of openness and accountability.”
— Sir William Macpherson, Macpherson Report
The murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, after being caught on camera and viewed by millions on YouTube and elsewhere, subsequently sparked protests around the world. Ever since, society has finally begun to look at the issues of racism, police tactics and even the writing of history.
While the death of a black man at the hands of white cops is sadly not a new phenomenon, the reaction has been different this time, perhaps in part because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, keeping people contained at home where they see the news every day.
Previous protests waxed and waned. Demonstrations brought awareness, a racist reaction and then it all — for white people at least — disappeared with the next news cycle. Now, however, the issue is not going away. This is, in part, because the issue of racism is being addressed across many fields such as academia, politics, and entertainment and not just in police departments.
Even history now has a different point of view. Yet this must not allow the catalyst incident to be lost in the momentum. Police violence is in the here and now and continues to happen, regardless of the strength of the media spotlight. Countries have begun to look inwards, not just at the United States, but also to the UK, to criticise its police behaviour. The UK is sometimes considered incomparable with the US, since UK police officers do not carry guns. Yet in reality this does little to stop very real problems existing within the police system.
Historically, police forces in the UK consisted of officers assigned to a parish, or area, the number depending on the financial contributions of that parish. Richer neighbourhoods could afford more police protection, the poorer ones less so. As with many police forces across the world, the original intention was to protect the interests of the wealthy.
It was not until 1820 and the forming of the Metropolitan Police by Sir Robert Peel, that the even distribution of police forces occurred. While there was initial uproar from the wealthier parts of society, who objected to the idea of paying for someone else’s protection, the plan held. This did not prevent the police from continuing in their previous duty of protecting the elite.
Police forces, while protecting the public from crime at large, also carry out work at the behest of the government. During the miners’ strike in the 1970’s and 1980’s, police were regularly involved in brawls with miners. In the Battle of Cable Street, when anti-fascists confronted Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, the police were there protecting the British Union of Fascists demonstrators.
Police regularly defer to landowners groups, such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) when dealing with activists, or with hunt saboteurs. The psychology behind this is complex. Associating wealth with power, the Conservative Party in power and its connections to the wealthy elite, business and landowners, all play a part in determining the DNA of the police force.
Viewing things from a statistical perspective is important with this issue. Black people make up 3.6% of the UK’s population, which can have a bearing on interpreting stats. According to statistics from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice for 2018-19, use of force occurred in 447,337 incidents involving white people and 94,222 involving black people. Yet this equates to use of force for 450 per 10,000 black people but 90 per 10,000 white people as black people make up 3.6% of the UK’s population, which can have a bearing on interpreting stats.
In the same time, the Mental Health Act was used to detain 23,770 white people and 1,858 black people. This means that 48 per 10,000 white people were detained compared to 89 per 10.000 black people. Black people are almost twice as likely to be detained using the Mental Health Act.
In stop and search incidents, white people were stopped at a rate of 37 per 10,000 while for black people it was 315 per 10,000.
Experience is relative to the individual. Some white people will experience police brutality; some black people will have positive experiences with police forces. Public perception, though, sees these examples through the collective experience, which tends to focus on the worst aspects. Black people are more likely to be on the receiving end of police brutality in the UK; the facts speak for themselves.
There is a difference between saying the police are racist and proving that the whole institution is racist. Individual or group behaviour that damages the reputation of the police does not necessarily represent the police as a whole. Yet the consequences of such actions by the police have bigger repercussions.
When 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by police officers in 2011, the initial police report stated that Duggan had fired first, yet no gun was recovered at the scene. The result was mass demonstrations eventually leading to the London riots, which spread to other cities. Police officers were seen as corrupt, carrying out illegal actions and lying to protect themselves.
The same situation happens in reverse, too. The murder of PC Keith Blakelock in the Tottenham Riots resulted in the police engaging in behaviour which had residents accuse them of exacting revenge on black people in the area, who they perceived as being the same as the murderers. Because of such a self-perpetuating cycle, distrust remains on both sides.
The murder of Stephen Lawrence truly exposed a flaw deep in the heart of the Metropolitan Police. From the very beginning, there were suspicions that detectives and officers were suppressing, or not processing, evidence and statements from the public. A whistle-blower alleged that one of the lead detectives had been receiving money from the father of one of the suspects to purposely mislead and obstruct the investigation.
One undercover officer was encouraged by senior officers to smear the name and reputation of the Lawrence family in order to end campaigns seeking a more effective investigation. The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review revealed corruption and links with the murder of a private investigator.
Within Black communities in the UK, the name Stephen Lawrence conjures up strong feelings to this day; the very notion that police deliberately undermined the investigation of a black teenager, and that those in charge sought to smear the family name to protect their own public perception is incredibly damaging.
The levels of corruption within an institute that repeatedly expects the public to have trust in it have left a legacy of mistrust. The public inquiry into the investigation in 1998 concluded that the Metropolitan Police Service was “institutionally racist”.
In 2014, the public knew very well the actions of the Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS) of the Greater London Metropolitan Police force. The force had agreed to pay a settlement sum to a woman who had fathered the child of who she thought was a fellow protestor, but had in fact been an undercover officer.
The SDS had been created in the late 60s to infiltrate left-wing protest and action groups. The same unit had allegedly been asked to smear the Stephen Lawrence family. Officers regularly infiltrated groups and began sexual relationships with female members to make the membership seem more genuine.
What these two cases show is a police force running unopposed; that is to say, nobody challenged them on their actions at the time, and it was only following exposure that apologies or acceptance of culpability were ever made. The key issue is that the police acted in an illegal manner. In the case of Stephen Lawrence, the motivation was money and racism.
In regards to the SDS, while not specifically aimed at BAME communities, the police nonetheless allowed officers to engage in behaviour that — if it had been investigated — would have likely led to the closure of the unit. It appears to be a case of trying to ‘get away with it’, instead of behaving in the correct way in the first place, and the reason that this happens is because individuals are acting on instinct, driven by personal motivations.
Police forces are rarely in the news because of the good things they do as individuals. Crime busts of organised crime get coverage, but not as much as failures of the police do. The media will sensationalise such events, which in turn generates a negative image of the police. From then on, those exposed to such negativity will expect bad treatment when they encounter police, and even potentially behave in a manner that provokes a negative experience.
The reverse is also expected. Police officers go into situations expecting the worse of people they encounter. Killings of police officers, black and white, do occur, and the suicide rate is higher than amongst other professions. However, the difference is in the sense of expectation.
Training equips police officers with the ability to be able to deal with difficult scenarios and, as an authority representing the people, do what is right and not behave as a law unto themselves. Therefore, when social media displays videos showing police officers threatening members of the public, acting unprofessionally and abusing their powers, it should not come as a surprise to them that many of the public do not place a lot of trust in them. Those who disagree which such distrust tend not to have encountered or needed the police in their life.
To claim that an entire institution is racist is patently false. Not every police officer is racist, and many want to make a positive difference. What makes an institution racist is the enabling of racism. Protecting officers who have done wrong, simply allowing older detectives to resign, or blaming the fog of war for mistakes or tragedies, is an institution enabling racist individuals to get away with crimes.
In the end, the expectation is for the police force to hold itself to a higher standard. Both individually, and as a whole, police around the world should serve and protect the public.
All professions have individuals who exploit. Yet in law enforcement, there is protection for such individuals who evade justice. This is what destroys the public trust in such institutions. Justice should be equally applied, and it must apply all levels of society — most definitely for those who are our protectors. Trust goes both ways, but when those in charge betray the trust of the people, it is much harder to get that trust back.