Richard D. Walker (The UCL Student Human Rights Programme)
Cries of “Police State” are commonly met with an exaggerated rolling of the eyes. The problem for the sceptics now is that there’s probably a statutory instrument somewhere that has outlawed this response or worse, left it up to an unaccountable, target-driven mob to police.
Is “mob” unfair? Well yes and no according to Harriet Sergeant, author and research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, who remarked that something forces “ethical public servants to perform unethically” and that the police are not immune to this phenomenon. Something causes the kind of stupidity that has our police confiscating tent poles and similar apparatus at peaceful environmental rallies like those organised by Malcolm Carroll, spokesperson for Plane Stupid. Something drives our police to stop a man for being stationary in a moving group or for photographing himself. Something leads our police to prioritise the ejection of a handful of peaceful football fans with several quad cars under helicopter surveillance, as Steve Powell, director of policy for the Football Supporters Federation describes.
But what could possess our police to rudely exclaim that it is not their concern if in ejecting Stoke fans from Manchester they also eject a Mancunian Stoke supporter (who then having complied has to travel all the way home)? What permits our Bobbies to manhandle and incarcerate vulnerable people and, as Cilius Victor (representing the Jean Charles de Mendes campaign) informed us, to establish a shoot to kill policy without any democratic scrutiny?
Well, the panel assembled by the Convention on Modern Liberty had two main answers to go with their plethora of startling anecdotes: one, government targets and two, the lack of accountability.
Sergeant’s role as researcher for the police trade union, revealed the extreme futility in targets for individual officers. Officer’s candidly admitted to acting in ways totally contradictory to how even they believed the police should act in order to meet targets, she exclaimed. One officer headed straight for a university to pick up his final sanction. It was likely, he had said, that a few stop ‘n searches would uncover some prohibited substances. Nice. It is now reasonable to suspect, without more, anyone in the vicinity of a geographical area commonly known as a campus to be in possession of illegal narcotics. Worse still was the tale of a young man being advised of the ease of accepting a caution compared to risking magistrate’s court, having been arrested for attempting to board a closing lift. Apparently he breached some by-law. Is anyone else tempted to add an “e” to that compound noun after the “y”?
Very worrying is the fact that officer’s receive equal points for targeting both minor and serious ‘offences’. Indeed, the second best point drawn out by the audience was that, an officer still keeps his points even if the person to whom the points relate is acquitted. Clearly this does not motivate our police to only arrest the guilty – especially when they can persuade an innocent, but frightened person to just accept a caution.
A lively debate between Sergeant and one eminent attendee was a stark reminder that by seeming to be accountable to many, the police are actually accountable to no one. Sir Robert Peel’s “principles of policing” puts it beyond argument that the one group to whom the police should definitely be accountable is us. Sergeant contended that the police swear allegiance to the crown and are supposedly scrutinised by the Police Authority, but in practice are very much at the whim of the Home Office. In difficult patches it is not uncommon for each of these factions to blame another. This quagmire is crying our for transparent resolution, and certainly seems to be more of an emergency than the apparent confusion that has led to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords becoming the Supreme Court.
To these twin flaws of UK policing, our audience may add a third: ineffective recruitment. Or in plain English, it seems like the police force hires people unfit to represent such a worthy institution of the people. It lets racists and cold, impatient, aggressive, power-hungry, irresponsible individuals slip through its recruitment net. Just look at the statistics of the disproportionate amount of ethnic minorities stopped by the police, announced one attendee: reasonable suspicion seems to be satisfied by “black and walking”. Try to swallow how one middle-aged, white, train-spotting attendee, was recently forced to stop and delete all of his pictures under Terrorism legislation. Equally unsavoury is the use of police cells as ‘safe’ places for the mentally handicapped!
The cumulative effect is that public are being alienated by yet another institution that was dreamt up to serve it. This alienation is at the heart of the definition of a police state argued Sergeant. Where the police emphasise them and us over them for us, the spectre of a police state is raised. Moreover, Victor reminded us that a whole generation are being criminalised by this target-driven unaccountable rabble. He said, very often bad policing may lead to a minor altercation, that in turn leads to an arrest for assault and an appearance in a magistrate’s court (which boasts a 90% conviction rate). Yippee!
The most notable point of the day, drawn out by a particular attendee in the audience however, was that some of the powers that we are complaining about, have existed in some form for many years. The difference now, he pointed out, was that the police are no longer content with bullying the lower classes. The sons and daughters of the middle classes and the intellectual elite attend the campuses vulnerable to stop ‘n search. The photographers arrested for indirectly assisting terrorism are the middle classes who can afford their fancy cameras.
In short, such is the alienation of the public by the police that it really is us and them. For the middle and upper classes don’t even control them. And as the raiding of a particular Tory MP’s office brought out, neither do the politicians.