Following Sarah Everard’s murder in March, the police’s tactical response was evidently a disproportionate response to the situation where members of the crowd were arrested and forced to the ground. Intended as a respectful vigil and communities coming together to mourn Sarah’s passing, it cannot be described as a rambunctious or disruptive protest. Yet, the police treated it as such.
Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball defended the heavy-handed actions justifying them as “the overriding need to protect people’s safety”. Social distancing was respected as per the law, meaning this justification seems questionable.
Sarah’s vigil is not the first instance where UK police have handled sensitive events with a lack of tact. The Black Lives Matter protests which swept the UK in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 perfectly illustrate that demonstrations will not eradicate institutional racism in the police. “The UK is not innocent” – we must be reminded.
This is not to say all police officers are discriminatory. However, excusing the confrontational nature of policing as mere lapses in judgement is inadequate. This explanation has been worn to the bone, exposing police brutality and deep rooted racism in the UK as not a whisper, but a more common thread underpinning the structure of the police service. Latest government data published in February 2021 shows that between April 2019 and March 2020, there were six stop and searches for every 1,000 white people compared to 54 for every 1,000 Black people.
Furthermore, the deaths of UK minorities following police contact cannot be glossed over. Consider Rashan Charles in 2017, forcibly restrained and choked on a package of caffeine and paracetamol which claimed his life. Think of Sarah Reed’s death in Holloway prison in 2016, a victim of police brutality in 2012, grabbed by the hair and repeatedly punched on London’s Regent Street. The responsible officer was merely dismissed from his position and sentenced to a 150 hour community order for common assault.
An officer has not been successfully convicted of the death of a victim in custody since 1969, suggesting clear protectionism. Indeed, the widely preferred terminology of ‘service’ used to describe the police instead of ‘force’ grossly fails to reflect the reality in practice.
Even how the police treat missing person cases highlights the depth of racism in British policing. Consider 19-year-old student Richard Okorogheye, missing from his home since 22nd March 2021. Police allegedly informed Richard’s mother “if you can’t find him, how can we?”. Meanwhile, over £12m of the public’s purse continues to be invested into locating Madeline McCann after her disappearance in 2007 – sickening to say the least.
What then of reform? Hope of change in the near future seems dim following the controversially proposed Police Crime and Sentencing and Courts Bill. The Bill contains various threatening measures such as promising to extend police powers and declare any protest illegal which the Home Secretary considers a “serious annoyance to the public”.
The Bill reflects the government’s approach of a legislative cancel culture of peaceful gatherings in a bid to silence dissenting opinion, risking violating the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Thus, it is better described as Priti Patel’s ‘anti-protest’ statute.
If passed into law, this legislation will also prove counter effective against deepening inequality in the UK’s criminal justice system and public alienation caused by police. The government itself even recently admitted the proposed measures are likely to be indirectly discriminatory, disproportionately affecting members of the BAME community. Especially when using predictive policing technology to isolate hotspots, which may not be neutral given previously biased policing.
Ultimately, Boris Johnson’s declaration in June 2020 stating the UK is “not a racist country” is farcical.
The nature of reform needed is long-term strategies aimed at rebuilding trust between the public and police. Increased implicit bias training, greater engagement with community youth projects, and scrutiny of predictive policing systems to tackle racial stereotypes and prevent influencing policing.