Open up! The need for more transparency
in policing

By Jamie Brooke

On August 4, 2011, Mark Duggan was shot and killed by armed police in Tottenham. The killing has been mired in controversy, with accusations that the police closed ranks unduly.

Two days later, friends, relatives and locals marched on Tottenham Police Station chanting ‘we want answers’, demanding the police inform them of the circumstances of his death. They did not – a factor which in part prompted the London Riots, spreading rapidly nationwide. For a fleeting moment it must have appeared to the outside world as if there was really was Anarchy in the UK.

The case has now moved into the courts but the Home Office, having seen the danger illustrated all too clearly if secrecy is allowed to prevail, has made moves to seek public consultation on room for reform.

The 29-year-old father of four was pursued by officers working in Operation Trident, tackling gun crime in the Afro-Carribean community. Established in 1998 following a number of shootings in London, the Operation has utilised a number of both soft and hard power measures to achieve its ends, ranging from gun amnesties and advertising for the Crimestoppers anonymous emergency line to Mr Duggan’s fatal shooting.

As the facts of his death come to light, the public has at last begun to be granted a say in the area of stop and search powers, the grounds used to intervene in Mark’s case. Groups such as South London based Family Services UK have been amongst the  outspoken critics of some of the police tactics used. One of the services they offer is advising on rights in the event of a police stop and search.

There are currently two relevant pieces of legislation before Parliament; the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill sponsored by Home Secretary Theresa May, and the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill.

The section of the former statute applicable in this instance is S.100 (3). The endemic faults within the Operation were made clear as far back as 2004, when it was observed that only 16 of the 300 officers working on the Operation were black. This is not to suggest institutionalised racism is prevalent in the Metropolitan Police, only to acknowledge a potential cultural ignorance from some of its members which may warrant challenging.

Stop and search powers are derived from a number of sources including but not limited to; The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984; the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA (originally introduced in green paper form as the Misuse of Drugs Misdemeanor Act)); and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJPO). Both PACE and the MDA contain provisions for ‘reasonable grounds’ as a basis for stop and search, and do not require authorisation from a senior officer, however models of best practice, laying out what those reasonable grounds are, are not currently publicly available. The CJPO does require authorisation from a senior officer if a stop is to be made.

In the year 2011/ 12, there were 1,200,000 people or vehicles stopped and searched,  however only nine per cent resulted in arrest. The conviction rate is farcical, indicating that the power is too often abused. Oversight of the police is a divisive issue, doubly so in Scotland, prompting Scottish Liberal Democratic leader Willie Rennie to say; “By removing the formal right of local councillors to scrutinise local police complaints, the SNP Government’s police reform legislation slammed the door shut on local accountability.” 

There is a correlation between police abuse of power and increased crime, as vigilantism may be perceived as being preferable to seeking the assistance of police regarded as being stand offish to minority groups. There is of course the legitimate right to perform a citizen’s arrest in certain circumstances.

Justice is incredibly subjective and without a level of faith in law enforcement institutions – that people would take this stance is not entirely incomprehensible. If serious criminals are given lenient sentences there may be those on the fringe of society, with an often nihilistic outlook, who may possess important knowledge of criminal activity, who do not turn to the police to share it but instead look to take action themselves. This is a far from ideal situation for British society to find itself in.

The same fraternity that exists within non-violent gangs also exists within the police – relationships of trust and honour – though the extent of that bond can’t be gauged unless you’re in one of the parties. It is the legitimacy granted to the police by systems of oversight and the broader community’s support that differentiates the two, but when deaths are unsatisfactorily accounted for even this legitimacy may reasonably begin to be called into question.

The use of the word ‘gang’ does in itself show, in many circumstances, a certain cultural ignorance. There are, presumably, cases in which the right to freedom of assembly under Article 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) have been breached. What it is that differentiates large groups made up of minority members of society from groups of majority members of society has not been made entirely clear.

Why it is that a group of hoodlums in sweatpants drinking copious amounts of liquor in a barren South London wasteland would be dispersed, but a group of rowdy drunken businessmen in upmarket Mayfair would not be – is just as opaque. An arrest for assault, a long established offence in law, may be used where there is the genuine perception of intimidation due to an individual’s conduct within or outside of a group. When bringing cases against people whose lives have been defined by hardship and subject to hyper-masculinity, their life experiences must be considered during sentencing as the ‘egg shell skull’ rule can apply. It is though often difficult to establish causation.

The Labour government under Tony Blair’s somewhat dogmatic premiership introduced the Human Rights Act in line with European standards, yet simultaneously allowed it to be completely undermined by the indiscriminate usage of antisocial behaviour orders – tearing families apart – and the indiscriminate usage of powers designated for terrorism offences.

Policing by statistics became a Labour hallmark, as arbitrary targets and non-disclosure became the norm. ‘Antisocial’ is a highly subjective term. The Conservative stance has historically been to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’, which does allow room for intuitive discretion, especially where minors are concerned and where commonly espoused moral family values are taken into account.

When there is a fear of, or contempt for, the police as an institution it is harder to isolate individuals within it who may be at some fault. There is a three stage formal process for police dismissal; generally ending in gross misconduct charges.

Labour’s Jacqui Smith was an abysmal Home Secretary. Her fear of the unknown and xenophobia led to a string of terrible decisions at a disquieting cost to public safety. Her drug policy consisted of the sentiment that ‘drugs are wrong’. Clearly knowing the score – her profound insight into the intricacies of neurochemistry cannot fail to amaze.

Her execrable policy on terrorism was to deny people their fundamental liberties for 42 days without charge whilst her malevolent boss drove them to the brink of insanity with his overtly aggressive foreign policy. She looked to retain DNA samples without any proof of criminality and to introduce identity cards at an unthinkable cost to the public. In essence – Jacqui Smith really fucked up.

Her dissolute successor, Alan Johnson, did just as badly. In October 2009, he subverted the independent nature of a government advisory body, The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, after Professor David Nutt accused the government of unreasonably politicising drug policy. Johnson, contradicting himself wrote; “It is important that the government’s messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them.”

He then set his sights higher by subverting the independence of the judiciary. Esteemed Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, claimed that the security services existed within a ‘culture of suppression’ which, naturally, prompted Johnson to attempt to cover up the flagrant breach of human rights in the case of the torture of Binyam Mohamed.

Credit where it’s due – Jack Straw (an unparalleled statesman in the Labour Party)’s Freedom of Information Act has gone some way to breaking the veil of secrecy that defined the Labour government’s time in office. The fact the Coalition has been responsive to concerns raised is cause at least for some approbation, but the fact that the disparity  between public opinion and that of those in Westminster has become so disjointed is undeniably troubling and an abrupt retort must now be formulated.

Speaking back in May Tom Winsor, Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said he wanted to review how the police record crimes as doctored statistics and the downgrading of serious crimes caused him significant concern.

The importance of ensuring police accountability for the hash that is stop and search proceedings, as they stand, should not be underestimated. Systems of local scrutiny, be it by councillors, community leaders or journalists have the potential to not only improve overall safety, but also to reintegrate people who may feel somewhat outcast from mainstream society into the political process, in keeping with Mr Cameron’s vision for a Big Society.

Bedlam on the streets of London is not desirable for anyone, but for the rule of law to work – its enforcers must be properly monitored and trusted both by the political class and by the public at large. Police Crime Commissioners (PCC’s), introduced this term, are intended to serve as the link between the police and the public, however, there are fears that are yet to be suitably allayed that the role may be overly politicised. PCC’s upon taking office are required to swear an oath of impartiality, which includes the sentiment ‘I will not seek to influence or prevent any lawful and reasonable investigation or arrest’.

The police cannot claim total innocence from profiling since the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005. It is acknowledged that this was in the wake of the London bombings, feasibly blow-back from British actions abroad, in which 52 people lost their lives. It was reportedly a case of mistaken identity, so a level of sympathy must be granted. Equally, communities consisting predominantly of people from minority cultures have a similar burden on their consciences – as turning a blind eye to serious criminality can lead to unnecessary deaths like those of Agnes Sina-Inakoju in 2010. Surely enough blood has been spilt.

Theresa May has taken a different tact to her deplorable predecessors – demonstrating a willingness to open up the debate and to listen to public concerns. After the death of Jimmy Mupenga at the hands of staff of the potentially criminal contractors G4S, the Home Secretary wisely amended the draft Policing Bill, so S. 116 now attaches the same behavioural protocols to private contractors as to the police.

The higher causes of liberty and justice are nearly universally valued, but when one part of society fears another – or is simply incredibly pissed off – and this fear is magnified and sold as a marketable commodity, the very underpinning of society becomes contorted.

Whilst there is a duty to keep the public informed, it is not for the media to act as judge, jury and executioner. To do so risks the integrity of live trials and debilitates the courts. The pursuit of the family unit, community and of carving out a positive role in society are traditional British values worth retaining regardless of political persuasion. The police do have a difficult job – often done well, but the mythical golden age of policing is sadly a long way behind us.

Mark Duggan’s family have taken the mantle of challenging what may potentially be an abuse of power in the name of transparency and accountability, a virtuous goal and a cause which will undoubtedly spark much needed debate.

The ball has now landed in the courts of Tory heavyweight Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; and Damien Green, the Minister of State for Police and Criminal Justice. Both the police and Parliament have taken steps towards progressive policies to try to meet the standard the public expect of them. However, what it is that is the right thing to do is still far from being lucid.