The Metropolitan police haven't been winning the battle for hearts and minds lately. One minute they're spying on the family of a black teenager who was killed by racist thugs, the next they're taking food, blankets and personal belongings away from homeless people.
The latter was an example of Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe’s so-called “total policing” in action, or – if we're going to be honest and call it what it is – a case of cops stealing from people who have nothing. Elsewhere, Hogan-Howe has called for a “total war on crime”, and this militaristic language implies that brute force is the appropriate means with which to address crime and the social problems that underlie it. All too often, that includes a slippery rhetorical slope towards criminalising the poor. But it doesn’t stop there. In recent years, a toxic combination of post-9/11 security culture, health-and-safety “risk assessment” hysteria, rampant neoliberalism and the gentrification of inner cities has catalysed the creeping criminalisation of young people, ethnic minorities and political protesters.
All this simply underlines what we already know: that the Met’s policing is all too often political, that the Met arguably remains institutionally racist and that, despite all of this, it remains essentially unaccountable, above the law and out of control.
Let’s take a look at each of these points in more detail:
In the wake of 9/11, British and American authorities were quick to embrace more aggressive policing approaches and grew increasingly impatient and intolerant of political protest. The USA Patriot act and its British legislative equivalent, the Terrorism Act, both made it significantly easier for police to criminalise dissent and have each been routinely abused. While the Met and other police forces pay lip service to “facilitating peaceful protest”, any kind of political expression outside of the tick-box electoral process is treated with suspicion. Sure, you have the right to protest, but show up at a political demonstration and you run the risk of being kettled for hours on end, being aggressively photographed and filmed by police photography teams or just getting a good, old-fashioned kicking in the back of a police van.
I asked Val Swain of FITWatch, a group that monitors the policing of political groups, what she made of the recent revelations of undercover policing. She told me, “This isn’t just about undercover policing. The police treat protest as something to prevent, deter and disturb, so they’ve created an environment in which people are fearful of becoming involved in political protest and distrustful of those who are already are.”
Unfortunately, Val is right. The cumulative effect all of this among protest groups is one of crippling paranoia. People are too scared to even discuss protest tactics for fear of being put under surveillance or pre-emptively arrested, and so protest groups become little more than book clubs.
Cops don’t like protesters at the best of times, so, of course, if you're campaigning against police corruption – or institutional racism, in the case of the Lawrence family – the police aren’t going to be too keen to sympathise. When you think of it in that context, there's a depressing inevitability to revelations that the Met has been spying on its own critics, including the (fantastic) Newham Monitoring Project and other groups that campaign against police violence, the fabricating of evidence, racism, racketeering, drug trafficking and other stuff that the Met should not, by remit, be doing.
The Met remains overwhelmingly white and has only managed a four percent rise in black and ethnic minority officers in the past 30 years. Which clearly doesn't chime with their claims that they've made "good progress" in recruiting more people from ethnic minorities. What’s more, black people in London are now 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
I spoke to Newham Monitoring Project, a group that campaigns against police racism and the criminalisation of the black community in East London. They told me that children as young as 14 have been stopped and searched by police on the way to school for reasons as trivial as wearing a hooded top or as vague as “acting suspiciously”. On other occasions, the NMP says that school kids have been pulled off buses and had tasers pointed in their faces by police accusing them of being “drug dealers”. Unsurprisingly, people whose day-to-day experience of the police essentially amounts to racial abuse are often reluctant – too disaffected, humiliated or downright scared – to lodge formal complaints, and so the vast majority of police racism likely goes unreported.
Sadly, many young people see stop and search simply as a form of deliberate, ritual humiliation: an ugly, inevitable reminder of their ultimate powerlessness. With that in mind, it's hardly surprising that, according to one study, the single most significant cause of the 2011 riots was a deep-seated, visceral hatred of the police. And lest we forget the riots began after the police shot dead Mark Duggan, a young black man, in Tottenham (an area with a long-standing tension between the local black community and police).
In between trying to decide why they’d shot Mark Duggan and locking people up for stealing bags of basmati rice, the police still found time to assault another black guy, choking him, before telling him, “The problem with you is that you will always be a nigger.” Somehow, though, even after the abuse was recorded, the officer in question was cleared of racist abuse. It's almost as if the police were above the law. Who knew?
A few months later, a court heard how Met officers compared black men to chimpanzees and asked one of their black colleagues if she was “going home to cook bananas”. Again, the officers in question were cleared of racial harassment. Mind you, I guess calling black people “fucking monkeys” isn’t that racist when you really look at it, right? But wait, there’s more. Most recently, a black off-duty fireman was dragged from his car, racially abused, assaulted and tasered for seemingly no reason. (Presumably because he was black?) Unsurprisingly, to date, no police have been prosecuted.
However, by far the most sickening indictment of the Met’s endemic racism is that, since 1990, over 100 black and ethnic minority people have died either while in the custody of the Met or following contact with their officers. Even more shocking is that during this time not a single police officer has been prosecuted in London or anywhere else in the UK, even after police officers were recorded making monkey noises as a black man choked to death on his own vomit while handcuffed, face down on the floor in a police station.
COPS OUT OF CONTROL?
Are you noticing a pattern here? Part of the problem is that, despite appearances to the contrary, the Metropolitan police are essentially unaccountable. The official police watchdog in the UK is the “Independent” Police Complaints Commission (or IPCC). As of 2012, every single one of the IPCC’s senior investigators were ex-police officers, as well as half of its deputy senior investigators and a third of its investigators (but the IPCC tried to bury this in the appendix of their annual report). What’s more is that, although the IPCC was apparently set up to oversee the handling of complaints made against the police, in 2008/09 less than one percent were actually investigated by the watchdog.
Unsurprisingly, given the blatant conflict of interest evident in ex-police “investigating” their former colleagues, only a fraction of the cases that actually warrant an IPCC investigation result in anything more than a slap on the wrist. Despite having been repeatedly accused of using excessive force against members of the public – including racially abusing and punching a 14-year-old girl in the head – PC Simon Harwood, the riot cop thug who killed Ian Tomlinson, managed to avoid disciplinary proceedings by transferring between forces.
So what’s the solution? Firstly, despite all the evidence, I'm not from the ACAB school of thought. And anyway, since all of the revolutionaries are either too paranoid to organise or too busy being discredited by undercover smear campaigns, a crime-free, stateless, socialist utopia is hardly going to blossom overnight. In the meantime, we need the police – anyone who thinks otherwise is woefully naive or willingly ignorant – and we should strive for a police force that is equitable, just and accountable.
One solution to the IPCC’s blatant inadequacy would be the institution of a New York-style Civilian Review Board, a jury-style set-up tasked with investigating complaints about police misconduct. In fact, legislation has just been passed in New York to combat discriminatory policing and hold NYPD officers accountable, establishing a strong and enforceable ban on racial profiling. But in order for this sort of change to happen, we need to dispel the myth of “a few bad apples”, and the Met’s legacy of political policing, endemic racism and corruption needs to be dragged kicking and screaming out into the open for all to see. And, most importantly, groups like Newham Monitoring Project, FITWatch and Netpol need your support to do it.
Follow Theo on Twitter: @TheoKindynis
More times police have been dicks: