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A law unto themselves?

The police shoot-to-kill policy that claimed the life of Jean Charles de Menezes was introduced without any democratic debate. Oscar Reyes asks where that leaves the notions of community policing and police accountability

October 1, 2005
9 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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The killing of Jean Charles de Menezes by armed police on 22 July was more than just the tragic collateral damage of a campaign against terrorism. Those seven bullets to the head announced the shift towards a shoot-to-kill policy by British police – one which, had they not gunned down an innocent man, would no doubt by now have been re-branded, with Orwellian overtones, as ‘shoot-to-protect’.

The case raises far larger concerns about the accountability of policing in Britain. For without a parliamentary word being spoken, or a community organisation being consulted, the police were able to make a substantial change to the legal limits of their use of force. Law and order, it seems, trumps democracy; and, where ‘terrorism’ is at stake, the police seem to be a law unto themselves.

The British tradition of policing has long presented itself as being governed by the consent of those it serves: the impartial rule of ‘citizens in uniform’. But state power is rarely neutral and, from Britain’s first police forces in the mid-19th century, maintaining the peace meant keeping a watchful eye over the activities of the ‘criminal classes’. Upholding the rule of law required social control, and a significant part of the police’s role was to break up political meetings and spy on emerging working class movements.

Much has changed since then, of course. The local autonomy of the 19th century gave way to a nationalised structure, formalised by the 1964 Police Act, which gave the Home Office ultimate control. Methods of policing have changed too, shifting the emphasis from street patrols to detection, and placing greater faith in the efficient uses of new technology. In recent years, these trends have continued, with central government targets constraining the independence of Britain’s 52 local police forces, and the development of new national agencies to police serious crime. At the same time, there has been renewed emphasis on ‘local engagement’. ‘Community’ and ‘neighbourhood policing’ have become buzz phrases under New Labour.

When David Blunkett spoke of community policing during his time as home secretary, it was easy to conjure up the image of a modern day Victorian out to discipline today’s ‘criminal classes’. And when Tony Blair launched the Building Communities, Beating Crime white paper last November, he proposed neighbourhood policing as a way for the ‘law-abiding citizen in the community’ to take control against ‘the minority who want to cause trouble’. This is Blair’s vision of community: an essentially conservative population, which seeks protection from the dangers of today’s hoodied, ASBO’d youth.

But this should not blind us to the fact that, in principle, community policing should be good for democracy – if it were to provide a genuine way of holding the police to account – as well as being a relatively successful means of maintaining social peace. ‘Effective policing requires the support of communities,’ says Jenny Jones, Green Party member of the Greater London Assembly and a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. ‘If you don’t have the trust of the community you won’t get the information you need to combat terrorism, or to fight gun crime properly.’

So why is it, then, that community policing in Britain consistently fails to match up to this standard?

Law and order policies are an important part of the story – with ASBOs, fixed penalty notices, curfews and the like tending to address the symptoms of alienation rather than their social causes, as well as handing the police additional powers without adequate democratic safeguards.

But they do not tell the whole story. Another condition for effective community policing is that there must exist meaningful channels of democratic accountability. And the picture here is decidedly mixed.

On paper, London in particular has seen a great improvement over recent years, with the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) established in 2000. Prior to that, the home secretary had retained direct control of the capital’s policing, which allowed for no direct scrutiny by Londoners.

But, as Jenny Jones explains, making the Met more accountable has still been a struggle: ‘When the MPA first started we weren’t allowed to ask any questions, we just got a report.’ Five years on, authority members can now directly question Met commissioner Sir Ian Blair, but the police themselves have often resisted changes: ‘There’s a tendency within the police to keep things quiet, and they haven’t really adapted to the idea of open government.’

For Asad Rehman, chair of the anti-racist Newham Monitoring Project and spokesperson for the Justice4Jean campaign (see Day in the Life, page 8), the birth of the MPA is not much of a victory: ‘In the 1980s we were arguing that local people should be able to hold the police accountable for operational and policy issues, rather than just having to answer to a hand-picked or appointed group of people on the police authority. The response has been to give us the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the MPA, but they’re not robust enough to hold the police truly to account. Some people say that the new bodies have given the police another breathing space, because they can now say there are new arrangements, we should give them a few years, and so deflect criticism.’

At a more local level, Police Community Consultative Groups (PCCG), which are meant to give citizens a channel to discuss policing, come in for similar criticisms. Ruhul Tarafder of the 1990 Trust, a black community organisation, argues that: ‘A lot of the existing structures are talking shops. They’re mostly about managing and controlling the community rather than representing it in an equal partnership.’

Asad Rehman adds that with no direct power over operational policy or policing priorities, they are ‘little more than PR exercises’. Although some PCCGs have been able to forge an independent role for themselves, complaints abound that they remain unrepresentative, too close to the police – with local authority funding and staffing encouraging this hand-in-glove relationship – and even, at times, racially divided.

‘One of the biggest problems that the official mechanisms for police-community accountability suffer from is an imbalance of power,’ says Kevin Blowe, of the United Friends and Families Campaign, which works on deaths in custody. ‘There have been some real improvements in policing policy over the past 10 to 15 years, including on domestic violence and hate crimes, so in theory things have improved. But the real test of how people view the police is how they actually behave – and that has shown little change.’

Take the example of police stop and search powers, which have long been a flashpoint for police-community relations. The Brixton riots in 1981, although symptomatic of wider social and economic exclusion, were triggered by the racist use of ‘sus’ laws, a stop and search measure originally passed in 1824 to make vagrancy an arrestable offence.

The 1984 Police And Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) modified this, requiring that the police must have ‘reasonable suspicion’ before conducting searches. And the Macpherson Report, which followed the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, led to further transparency in the reporting of stop and search statistics. But these measures have so far failed to prevent the disproportionate targeting of minority ethnic communities. Black people remain eight times and Asians five times more likely to be stopped than white people, according to 2004 Home Office figures – proportions that have increased since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.

Statistics tell only part of the story, however. For Zareena Mustapha of the Newham Monitoring Project, ‘The problem with stop and search is not only disproportionate targeting but also the manner of the searches, which are often fraught with fear, suspicion and sometimes quite severe violence. For a lot of young black kids it’s routine, a part of their criminalisation.’

The MPA itself has recognised the problem, publishing a study in May 2004 showing that disproportionate stop and search has increased distrust, trampled on human rights, and ‘cut off valuable sources of community information and criminal intelligence’. It concludes that stop and search practice continues to be influenced by ‘racial bias’, ‘stereotyping’ and ‘institutional racism’.

Although most stop and searches are authorised under PACE, there has also been a significant increase in the use of Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act (see Guerilla Guides, July 2005). This measure has been used notoriously to curtail the right to protest against the DSEi arms fair in east London and at Fairford airbase in Gloucestershire. It has also been used increasingly against British Asians.

In the aftermath of the London bombings, transport police have been given operational orders to search suspects of ‘Asian, West Indian and east African origin’. As Ian Johnston, chief constable of the London Transport police, put it: ‘We should not waste time searching old white ladies. It is going to be disproportionate.’

The message seems to be that exceptional times call for exceptional measures. But there is not a shred of evidence that such tactics work – and there has never been a terrorism conviction resulting from a stop-and-search. All too easily, the exception can become the rule, undermining the possibility of community cooperation by criminalising whole communities.

‘There’s a real climate of fear at the moment,’ says Ruhul Tarafder, ‘with a community that’s facing a backlash. We need community policing that’s built from the bottom up, but how are we going to achieve that when we’re treated with suspicion by the media and politicians?’

The biggest block in the road to genuine community policing lies here. For all the consultations and scrutiny groups, the problem remains that the police exist to establish the ‘rule of law’ of a state that is not neutral because it is itself not under effective democratic control.

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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