In one of the bleaker parts of Stepney's Commercial Road, in London's East End, is a modern housing association building called Peter House. Just around the corner, on Sidney Street, stands another named Painter House. In late September 2008, the Metropolitan Police Federation and the Daily Mail managed to work themselves into a fury (see tinyurl.com/na4gve) at the
decision by Tower Hamlets Community Housing to name these properties in commemoration of one of the area's most celebrated anti-heroes and one of the most notorious incidents in east London's turbulent working-class history.
In January 1911, police hunting a Latvian anarchist gang, who had shot and killed three police officers in a jewellery-shop robbery, cornered three suspects at 100 Sidney Street. The siege that followed, famous locally as the 'Battle of Stepney' and known more widely as the 'Siege of Sidney Street', is remembered for the escape, disappearance and ensuing elevation to popular outlaw status of the gang's anarchist leader, Peter the Painter, a man who many historians now believe may not even have existed.
But the siege is also remembered for the controversial decision by the then home secretary - one Winston Churchill - to take personal charge of the police blockade, call out army reinforcements and then insist that the fire brigade stand by while the besieged building burnt to the ground and incinerated those trapped inside. Seldom has any sense of separation between political influence and the supposed 'operational independence' of the police been breached more blatantly, or more brutally.
Comforting fiction of consent
The possibility of a modern home secretary striding the barricades wearing a top hat, issuing instructions under gunfire, is of course ludicrous. Events a century ago are invariably held up as evidence of just how much has changed: the belief that the police are now our servants and their independence from the state guarantees their impartiality and accountability is an enduring one. It is summed up in the most often quoted maxim of Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Metropolitan Police, that 'the police are the public and the public are the police' and persists in support for the idea of 'policing by public consent'. There is little in the recent history of policing in Britain, however, to suggest this is anything other than a comforting fiction.
At times of civil conflict, mass unemployment, immigration, political demonstrations and industrial disputes, the actions of the police have repeatedly been front-page news and deeply mired in controversy. And like Sidney Street, place names become associated with more than towns or districts - think of Orgreave, Grunwick's, Brixton, Toxteth, Southall or Red Lion Square, each the scene of violent clashes with the police over the years. So while the debate begun in Red Pepper (June/July 2009) is welcome and timely, it is important not to get carried away with the idea that the police's brutal tactics during April's G20 protests in London, or the furore that followed, represents some sort of turning point. We have been here many times before.
We shouldn't forget that the left spent much of the 1980s highlighting the way that the supposed 'independence' of the police repeatedly failed to assure impartiality between divided communities in the north of Ireland or in the treatment of urban black communities. Through Labour-controlled police authorities, it also argued that the way chief constables dealt with industrial disputes, most notably the miners' strike in 1984-85, was violent and unaccountable. It was clear to the left that the police took sides with the most conservative view of society, and with a willingness to use physical force as a matter of course.
Campaigns that challenged the autonomy of the police in handing complaints about violence and misconduct helped create the Police Complaints Authority in the aftermath of the Scarman Inquiry into the 1981 Brixton riots (replacing the Police Complaints Board, itself a piecemeal attempt at reform following corruption scandals in the Metropolitan Police during the 1970s). But change seemed painfully slow while the Conservatives were in office; and the election of a Labour government in the 1990s made far less of an impact than many on the left might have been hoped or expected.
Since 1997, from the public inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, the botched anti-terrorism raid in Forest Gate in 2006, Ian Tomlinson's death at the G20 protests and the most recent allegations of the use of torture by drugs squad officers in north London, the police have been embroiled in one crisis after another. Paradoxically, however, these brief and intense episodes of media scrutiny over the last decade have largely failed to rein in the enthusiasm of the New Labour government for dramatically extending police powers through more and more draconian legislation.
Government and police
There have been many scandals, many calls for change and the creation of the third new police complaints body in 30 years, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). But few police officers, especially at a senior level, ever face any real threat of prosecution or disciplinary action - it feels as though the police are far less accountable now than they have ever been. Instead, Britain's senior police officers have somehow managed not only to ride out the intermittent storms of unfavourable media coverage but also to significantly strengthen their autonomy. How has this been possible?
Even though recorded crime rates appear to have fallen over the last ten years, one explanation may lie in the politicised use of crime as a battleground between the main political parties, the relentless focus on the apparent failings of the criminal justice system and the need to 'modernise' its institutions.
New Labour's communitarian approach to crime has blamed the collapse of a highly idealised past, in which informal social controls and individual responsibility supposedly maintained order, to justify an increasingly authoritarian future. The fact that many of those living in these 'ideal' communities, particularly women, children and minorities, would have found them stifling and oppressive, and lived in fear of crimes such as harassment and violence, has not stopped an emerging consensus on the need to redress the balance by investing heavily in policing (and the ultimate in failing Victorian institutions, prisons) as a panacea for society's ills. This zero sum approach has shifted the balance of the criminal justice system towards the 'law-abiding majority', from liberty towards security, and given us a rising prison population, anti-social behaviour orders, anti-terrorism laws and a total of almost a million people stopped and searched in 2006/7 alone.
No wonder Labour ministers and senior police officers became such good friends - it is unclear who exactly was politicising whom. But the impact on the police's alleged independence from politics has undoubtedly been profound. In its 2005 election mini-manifesto (Tackling Crime, Forwards, Not Back), Labour summarised its crime policy as 'We asked the police what powers they wanted and made sure they got them.'
In such circumstances, it is little wonder that senior officers such as former Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair attempted to cash in what is essentially a government blank cheque by actively supporting controversial proposals such as the introduction of ID cards (an idea associated with only one political party at the last general election). Contact between the police and New Labour has also taught senior officers many of the spin-doctors' 'dark arts', so they can now mislead and prevaricate like seasoned political operators.
The growing power within government of a well-funded, unaccountable private lobbying organisation, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), suggests even more that the police are now as much concerned with picking and choosing laws as they are in enforcing them. ACPO has, for example, led the way in publicly criticising the IPCC after the G20 protests and in the aftermath of the July 2005 London bombings.
It presented what amounted to a deeply partisan shopping list of controversial police powers that included 90-day pre-charge detention. The government's willingness to use senior Metropolitan Police officers to lobby backbench MPs in support of this particularly divisive proposal shows the extent of the cosy alliance between government and the police.
Faced with a pact between powerful political forces, public bodies that are charged with scrutinising impartiality and accountability, such as the IPCC and local police authorities, have struggled to keep up. In part, this is because they lack the powers to do so, or because they cling to the idea that the police are essentially benign and that scrutiny means acting as a 'critical friend'.
Take the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), for example. Its 'scrutiny' of the Met's conduct in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes focused on how well the police have 'learned lessons', not on holding senior commanders (whose employment the MPA oversees) to account. The same was true of its feeble investigation of media manipulation (see www.mpa.gov.uk/scrutinies/mediacommunications) in the aftermath of the 2006 shooting of an unarmed man during anti-terrorism raids in Forest Gate, east London. The MPA acknowledged the damage caused by false and malicious leaks about the families caught up in the raids, but chose to ignore the fact that unattributed briefings to the press came from within the ranks of the Met itself. Its recommendation? More 'learning lessons'.
It seems there is little chance that the MPA's new Civil Liberties Panel, set up after the G20 protests, will be any less supine. The MPA simply lacks the will to step beyond the narrow confines of what it has decided 'accountability' means.
Even the IPCC, with theoretically far more power than the complaints authority it replaced, has failed to live up to the promise of genuine reform. Its problem has been a government reluctance to upset the police by giving the IPCC the political support to carry out its role, coupled with a lack of backbone within the commission to demand it.
Back in March 2003, I met IPCC chair Nick Hardwick in the unlikely setting of a Thistle Hotel near Victoria station in London, as part of a delegation of custody-death families. Looking back on the notes I took during the meeting (see www.radicalactivistnewham.org.uk/uffc-ipcc-mar-03.pdf), the promises that were made about the new role of the commission seemed impressive. Hardwick pledged that IPCC investigators would respond immediately when a death in custody occurred, adding that if someone died in custody at 2am, investigators would 'be told by police no later than 2.10am'. He also said that chief constables had 'a legal obligation to co-operate with the IPCC'. Yet within only two years, both guarantees were thoroughly discredited by Sir Ian Blair's ability to delay for five days, with government support, the start of the formal IPCC investigation into the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. Vital evidence that might have helped determine the full truth of what happened was lost.
Unfortunately, even in this most serious and damaging challenge to the IPCC's credibility, Hardwick failed to face down the government by threatening to resign or by publicly criticising the Home Office for preventing his organisation from doing its job. There are many examples of this lack of nerve - the failure, for example, of the IPCC to insist that the Home Office overrule Humberside Police Authority and demand interviews with the five officers who refused to cooperate with investigation into the death of Christopher Alder. This made Hardwick's assertion in 2003 that it would be 'unacceptable for a police officer not to be required to give a full account of their actions' look hollow. Jump forward to the IPCC's sluggish response in April 2009 to Ian Tomlinson's death and it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish it from its discredited forerunner, the Police Complaints Authority.
Re-evaluating the police
What does this mean for activists and campaigners? On one level, we need to recognise that continually placing our faith and expectations in weak-willed and powerless official bodies like the IPCC or local police authorities will always lead to disappointment. However, it also means a fundamental re-evaluation of the position that policing holds in Britain.
The left's traditional view that the police are just the arm of the state is now far too simplistic. The past decade has seen the police emerge as a powerful political player in their own right. They are as innately conservative and as ready to use physical force as ever but more influential, more independent and more difficult to hold to account - a kind of Fifth Estate that is almost impossible to reform.
Faced with such a challenge, what little impact campaigners can realistically make lies in the ability to expose - but we also need to begin a radical shift in our thinking. A starting point would be to accept that, no matter how many times the words 'policing by public consent' are trotted out, the police are no more our servants than corporations or the media. If it is possible to envisage a different world in which our global economic and financial systems are fundamentally transformed, then it must therefore be possible to question the way we think about the issues of policing, crime and security and to imagine alternatives. Red Pepper offers us an opportunity to develop this important debate.
Kevin Blowe is an activist with the Newham Monitoring Project, east London
Kevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.