Changing times for security forcesWednesday, January 15, 2014
Police: a mix of repression and circus troupe
For The Herald
LONDON — Working for the Metropolitan police force today must be a thankless task. Essentially employed to work several jobs at the same time, ranging from traffic directors to security experts, and from park attendants to protest breakers, the police force is in the unenviable position of enforcing laws in a civil society that is getting more effective at making its voice heard.
Depending on where one stands, the police force can represent at times a repression unit and at other times a circus troupe. It is difficult to take the force truly seriously, which is worrying considering the enormous power the police holds in society.
This is a problem. The police should represent a force for good in civil society, the extension of a fully functioning justice system. And yet, as recent events have shown, all too frequently the same force through its own actions puts itself in a position that plays into the hands of critics.
Although the police force is a big and easy target, it is frustrating that this group struggles to avoid forming part of the media narrative. The police can and should do better.
The clearest example of this failure to live up to standards was exposed last week at the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan. On August 4, 2011, Duggan, 29, was shot dead by Metropolitan police firearms officers after a car chase.
The subsequent protests morphed into what has become known as the London Riots, a sustained period of street violence and looting in the week following Duggan’s death. Therefore, the inquest into Duggan’s shooting by police firearms officers was always likely to inspire much interest in the public.
The inquest determined several points, including the fact that Duggan was unarmed when shot (despite reports from the time of a shootout between him and police and the later discovery of a gun near the scene of the crime). Allegations suggested a gun had been planted on the scene by police officers.
A verdict was reached by the inquest jury, who on January 8 announced, to the surprise and dismay of Duggan’s family and their supporters, their findings of lawful killing.
There are two immediate causes for concern posited by the Duggan case in terms of police conduct. First, there is a lingering and widespread accusation of racism guiding the actions of the police force. The phantom of the Stephen Lawrence murder case, where police officers were accused of racial bias in handling the investigation and allowing several suspects to evade prosecution, still hovers in the background.
The Met Comissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe was shouted down last week when trying to make a statement after the verdict, and later struggled on Newsnight when faced with accusations that racism is still an issue for the force. Stop and Search, the infamous police tactic through which suspicious persons can be stopped and frisked by officers, has been widely criticized for focusing predominantly on young black men — who some reports allege are 28 times more likely to be searched than other groups. This tactic must be reconsidered.
The second cause for concern is perhaps the most obvious: if Duggan was unarmed, how can a police execution truly be lawful? The use of firearms by the police has always been a contentious issue, but it has been difficult to escape the precedent set by the lethal killing of Jean Charles de Menenzes, a Brazilian immigrant mistaken for a terrorist and shot dead on an underground train in July, 2005.
As a society, the UK has not recovered from the combination of unease and outrage at this act by the police, appointed to protect society yet occasionally spectacularly failing to do so. Duggan’s death also follows on from the accidental killing of Ian Tomlinson after being pushed by police at a G-20 protest in London in April 2009. A worrying pattern emerges.
It would be inappropriate and unfair to describe the Metropolitan and all police forces as possessors of lethal tendencies, but the truth is that any death caused by the police is problematic for society.
Duggan’s killing had been justified by stating that he was a dangerous gangster who had possibly been involved in an armed altercation with police officers. When it comes to life and death, this cannot be justification enough.
Deaths caused by police are permanently at the sharp end of negative focus, but this week has also shown indications of police misbehaviour in other areas. An incident that occurred in September 2012 saw police officers allege that Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell used demeaning language against them at the gates to 10 Downing Street. The incident, which became known as “Plebgate” and which cost Mitchell his job, sparked a wider investigation when it became apparent that police statements did not tally.
The investigation, which included further instances of apparent police reinterpretations of events, produced numerous arrests of officers on allegations of having framed a member of the Cabinet.
On January 10, Keith Willis, one of the officers involved in the original incident, pleaded guilty to falsely claiming to have witnessed the argument. Hogan-Howe responded with an apology to Mitchell, stating that “when officers break the law, they must be brought into account.”
The Plebgate affair, which will continue as four other officers face misconduct charges later this year, is an embarrassing shambles for the police. The investigation has wasted a considerable amount of time and money (£237,000 by September 2013, according to reports) and has so far proved little except that serving police officers considered the framing of a top politician to be a viable course of action.
It doesn’t end there. Barely a week goes by without another article alleging dodgy police activities: on January 13, cases against two students arrested at protests in London in 2011 were thrown out and the police ordered to pay £20,000 in compensation after video evidence undermined the police case.
The propensity to blunder shown by the police is a legitimate concern for a society that needs the force to protect it.
It is true that the current commanders are working to improve how the police force conduct itself. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe’s efforts after the Duggan verdict was announced on January 8 are to be commended, as he sought to defuse tensions and offered to apologize in person to the Duggan family.
However, the police, a vital working part of our modern society, are too often shown to be at best out of touch and at worst, dangerously so. It is an all too easy media narrative to slip into, but the police must work to show that they are indeed a force for good.