Image Credit: Taymaz Valley
Recent events in the US have sparked a conversation that has until now been mostly avoided. Essentially: could defunding police forces be a better option than reform in ending police brutality? It has become clear through the sheer volume of cases that the issue is not merely ‘bad apples’, but structural problems whereby policing itself begets extreme violence. In response, there have been calls to defund, even to abolish police departments. Already the city council of Minneapolis has pledged to dismantle its police force.
Given the structural nature of these issues, we should also engage with this debate in the UK. While instances of violence and death at the hands of police in this country are by no means equivalent to endemic occurrences in the US, the broad problems I have outlined above are still applicable. There is also a relationship between British and American policing in terms of strategy, and its original function at the point of foundation.
More than 1,700 people have died in police custody in the UK since 1990. According to the government’s own statistics, nine times the number of black people were subjected to stop and search scenarios in comparison with white people. In the London Met’s ‘Gang Matrix’ 72% of the individuals included are black, despite their own figures showing that only 27% of instances of serious youth violence is committed by black people.
While government ministers erase the reality of racist British police brutality, we should shout the names of those who have fallen victim to this violence, often without justice: Jimmy Mubenga, Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg, Mark Duggan, Christopher Alder, Leon Briggs, Jean Charles de Menezes, Anthony Grainger, Leon Patterson, Demetre Fraser, Cynthia Jarrett.
The reasons for these injustices are structurally common with the US. Forces in the US work broadly according to the ‘broken windows’ model, which emerged from neoconservative thinkers in the 1980s. This theory suggests that the solution to quotidian crime in destitute environments is a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach, whereby retribution is favoured over the funding of public services. If a car is left with broken windows, so the analogy goes, it is more likely to be more seriously vandalised.
This style of policing leads to harsher stop and search policies, heavier fines and ticketing, and a more militant mindset among rank and file officers. One of the major problems is that, in spite of the encouragement of a more antagonistic approach, officers are called upon to deal with issues that should be matters for health and social services, for example—given the fact that the impetus for this strategy is disinvestment. While the broken windows model is not explicitly in place in the UK, ten years of austerity combined with a consistent ramping up of police powers in the community have resulted in a similarly harsh and classed form of policing as public services are stripped bare.
Looking back to the roots of policing on both sides of the Atlantic, it is clear that from the first instance its institutions have functioned to punish marginalised groups. In the northern states of the US the forerunners to modern police departments were founded in response to ‘rioting’ workers, before labourers had recourse to unionised strike action, effectively acting punitively against workers’ right to organise. There was also a legislative effort to incentivise the capture of slaves across the whole country. Placed in context, it is not difficult to see why policing works the way it does today.
In the UK, the story is remarkably similar in substance if not in form. Consider the Thief-takers, a precursor of the Bow Street Runners and the Metropolitan Police. These were private individuals who would pursue the perpetrators of petty crimes associated with poverty, like theft, prostitution, or low-level political dissidency. They also pursued migrants, after the wave of immigration which led to large population growth, for example the persecution of Irish women who turned to prostitution.
It is striking to note that this practice of private policing bodies to persecute migrants still occurs in modern times. Jimmy Mubenga, who was deported to Angola after being charged for a minor scuffle outside a nightclub, was killed on a flight out of the UK after three G4S guards restrained him using unreasonable force. His last words were ‘I can’t breathe’. The guards were subsequently cleared of manslaughter due to insufficient evidence while the UK Border Agency terminated its contract with G4S, only to replace the firm with a different private contractor.
Robert Peel, the father of British policing, founded the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary. The latter organisation was notorious for its systematic persecution of Catholics, a sentiment adopted from Peel—who passed the bill granting Catholic emancipation only because he feared insurrection.
Peel’s legacy includes the widespread use of rubber bullets (an invention of the Ministry of Defence), which were employed by the successor of the RIC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Throughout the Troubles, 17 people were killed by rubber bullets—the first being an eleven-year-old boy. These same weapons, officially classed as being ‘less lethal’, were used on protesters outside the White House recently as Donald Trump addressed the press. Contrary to Victoria Derbyshire’s recent claims that us Brits have no idea about weapons like rubber and plastic bullets, it remains the case that last year the Met tripled its spending on plastic bullets.
Although the calling card of those who defend British policing is the fact that, unlike in the US, most officers do not carry guns, this does not mean that weapons are never used. During the protests against tuition fees in 2010, one student's blow to the head from an officer’s baton caused bleeding to the brain, almost killing him. While police in the UK do not have immediate access to lethal weapons, there is still a propensity for aggression and brutality within the structure of policing, and it remains a fact that batons and tasers are still weapons capable of damage.
The case of protests and riot-policing also raises alarming points about British policing. Last weekend, protesters in London were charged at by mounted police before being kettled at Downing Street. The Network for Police Monitoring has alleged that this course of action was unlawful, as the few hundred who were kettled had their details taken and their faces filmed under powers which should not have been applied in the circumstances of a demonstration. Combined with the tactic of utilising horses, the actions of the police should be considered not as part of their frequently proclaimed desire to protect the public through policing by consent, but as evidence of their modus operandi of policing by force.
There should be no doubt that mounted police are deployed in scenarios like this almost solely to intimidate protesters. By the Met’s own admission the demonstrations in central London were peaceful, until officers turned up to charge through Whitehall at protesters. It remains unclear what provoked this response, but the majority of video and photographic evidence of any violent encounters between police and the public seems to have been recorded after this initial charge.
Once again, these strategies have their historical precedents. The South Yorkshire Police is infamous for its historic use of unreasonable, quasi-militarised force during the miner’s strike at the Battle of Orgreave, in 1984. At that time, rioting could potentially be punished with a lifelong prison sentence. The South Yorkshire force, reinforced by members of other departments from across the country, met miners on the picket-lines at Orgreave with a swarm of 6,000 officers, police dogs and nearly a hundred mounted police. Many of the striking miners were beaten in skirmishes instigated by officers, and the South Yorkshire Police was later forced to pay out thousands in compensation. But, still, there has been no inquiry—in spite of the implications of the investigation into Hillsborough that some officers were present on both occasions.
Today, riot police continue to be at the centre of controversy, with particular emphasis on the Met’s highly controversial TSG wing—some have called for this to be abolished already. It has been reported that riot cops are “kitted up and ready to go” ahead of the ongoing BLM protests in London. Surely this is an immoderate, overly militarised manner of policing that does more harm than good for both the public and cops. There has to be a deeper examination of how this works systemically, or it will become more and more difficult to distinguish the UK from the US.
I hope that I have illustrated here the ways in which policing in the UK is more similar to that of the US than many would like to admit, and why we should therefore consider the structural solutions currently being discussed in America as well as addressing the specific problems of contemporary policing in our own country.
There should be no more Orgreaves, no more Jimmy Mubengas or Mark Duggans, no more needless stop and searches of innocent young black men, no more cases of mentally ill people left brutalised and dying in the entrance of a police station. The time to act is now, which is why I believe it is time to defund policing and direct public funds towards services which work in the interests of everyone.