Policing by contempt

Est. read time: 15 min
Credits: "Stephen Lawrence memorial", by Darryl_SE7 (Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0)

Credits: “Stephen Lawrence memorial”, by Darryl_SE7 (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

So, finally the home secretary is ordering a judge-led inquiry into the activities of undercover police and their corrupt practices. We in the black community have argued since the 1960s that there is a thin dividing line between the police’s illegal and abusive treatment of black people and the racial violence and murders committed by white racists.

In the case of Stephen Lawrence, we have always claimed that from the very outset the Metropolitan Police were key players in a ‘joint enterprise’ with known hard core criminals to thwart the apprehension of Stephen’s murderers and pervert the course of justice. The report by Mark Ellison QC simply confirms what we already knew or otherwise rightly suspected.

At times like these, politicians no less than police top brass express shock and outrage at revelations of corrupt and illegal practices on the part of the police, thus confirming that the historical complaints communities make about the myriad ways in which police abuse their powers and break the law have been roundly ignored by the state.

The harsh reality is that the experience African and Asian communities have had of policing in Britain since the beginning of the 20th century and especially since post-war immigration is of policing with contempt, never mind all the familiar rhetoric about policing by consent.

So, how have we got here?

Police forces across the land did not just push against long established boundaries and conduct their affairs without regard for the professional standards the public expects. Ever since the 1960s, at least, magistrates courts, crown courts, juries, prosecution lawyers and home secretaries have endorsed and rubber stamped police mendacity, corruption, perverting of the course of justice and criminalisation of black people, while letting white criminals, racists and otherwise, go free.

In the decades before Stephen Lawrence was murdered, it was customary for the state to infiltrate community organisations, radical and militant political organisations and pressure groups and campaigns within black communities in London and elsewhere. Communities and campaigns such as the Stephen Lawrence Campaign that were exercising their democratic right to demand justice and hold the police to account were routinely labelled as subversive and a threat to peace and social order if not to the state itself.

The state therefore employed all sorts of dirty tricks to undermine such campaigns, including infiltration, surveillance and manufacturing ‘evidence’ that could discredit those campaigns and their leadership.

The question all of this raises is why should anyone expect that the police and the state would have behaved differently in the case of the Stephen Lawrence Campaign, police investigation and judge-led inquiry?

With no disrespect to the anguish the Mark Ellison revelations have caused the Lawrence family, I say it is good that Ellison has reported as he did. Good in the sense that the state clearly believed that having canonised Doreen Lawrence and made her a Lady of the Realm, it had beaten its breasts, cried its ‘mea culpas’ and come to a settlement with Stephen’s mother after the abysmal way she and her family had been treated since 1993. The state was in redemption mode and as evidence of the totality of the reconciliation, it had brought the wronged and aggrieved Doreen Lawrence into the fold at the highest possible level, i.e., Baroness and Lady of the Realm.

READ MORE: Racism, tokenism and totemism: the disturbing case of Doreen Lawrence

What the Ellison report does is to remind the British state and the rest of us that when dealing with systemic oppression and institutionalised discrimination, privatised solutions to public ills are nothing more than vulgar forms of cooption and of collusion on the part of the co-opted.

The fact that the state has colonised Doreen Lawrence does not erase the practices of the police towards families such as hers in communities up and down the land. The state has made a private settlement with one bereaved mother whose grief and righteous sense of injustice was caused by the response of the police and leaders of state to the racist murder of her son;  response of a kind which continues to oppress and deny justice to the black community to this day, despite Doreen Lawrence’s canonisation.

The fundamental problem is that for the last 50 years, at least, rather than holding the police to compliance with a set of professional standards that would help to safeguard the public and uphold their rights, successive governments and the judiciary have simply caved in to police demands for more and more powers to curtail people’s freedom, harass them through ‘stop & search’ practices, and prevent their legitimate expression of protest.  As such, they have all nurtured a beast that reinforces their ‘law and order’ rhetoric and uses it to win ever more powers for itself, supposedly ‘to protect the public’.

The reaction of Mr Hogan-Howe (video above), the MPS commissioner and of politicians, including Theresa May and David Cameron, to Mark Ellison’s report would have us believe that those corrupt and disgraceful practices by officers in the Met are the residue of practices which have pretty much been eliminated within MPS and the police service in England and Wales. As such, they should not be thought of as defining the relationship between the Met and the people of the Capital, black people in particular.

Problem is that governments change, MPS commissioners change but endemic racism within the police service in London and elsewhere remains embedded, with the black communities across the land experiencing its brutal manifestations day by day.

The state might think it has succeeded in extricating Doreen Lawrence and her family from those political ‘agitators’ in the black community who continue to demand justice and insist that senior command in the Met be held to account for undermining the Lawrence murder investigation, for deaths in custody, for the killing of Mark Duggan and much more besides. The fact is, however, that there is clear evidence of a pattern in policing black communities, in the courts’ attitude towards the police and in the way justice is denied people in those communities; evidence which could be identified in every decade since the 1950s.

READ MORE: Guns, Young Black Males and the Two-Headed Monster

Take for example the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill in May 1959 and the insistence of the police that there was no racial motive and that the stabbing to death of Cochrane was in the course of ‘a robbery or attempted robbery’. The police clearly took a decision that one year after the infamous ‘Notting Hill race riots’, it was not in the public interest to bring charges against a white man for murdering a black man. A Socialist Worker review of Mark Olden’s book, Murder in Notting Hill, notes that:

‘Throughout the police investigation there was a split. Community activists demanded that the killing should be treated as a racist murder, while the police and the establishment tried to make sure that it was not.

All this took place at a time when the governments of the West Indies were trying to assert their independence. The Colonial Office called a meeting with representatives from the West Indian colonies to discuss the case.  Participants were particularly worried by the role of the Interracial Friendship Coordinating Council. This was organised by veteran communist activist Claudia Jones and had raised the £257 to pay for Kelso’s funeral.

“It was generally agreed that the West Indian members should dissociate themselves from the activities of the Council,” read the minutes of the meeting. “It was, however, essential to time this action carefully if the Council was to be discredited.”  (My emphasis)

And then one decade later, in 1969, there was the case of Clement Gomwalk, First Secretary of the Nigerian High Commission in London, who was arrested and beaten up by the police in Brixton on 15 November that year, while shopping with his wife and two small children, for allegedly stealing the diplomatic car he was driving. He was later released in the police station after he had finally been allowed to reach into his pocket and produce his identity card.

Hansard records that on the Monday after that Saturday, Home Secretary James Callaghan condemned Mr Gomwalk’s conduct and the civil disturbance that followed his arrest purely on the basis of the version of events supplied by the police. Callaghan told the Commons:

‘…The police certainly endeavoured to deal with this matter in a manner which would have caused the minimum damage to any relationships either with any government or with any diplomat, or, indeed, with any normal member of the public. If this gentle man had co-operated with the police by telling them what was rthe nature of the ownership and had answered a few simple inquiries, the whole matter would have been over very quickly.  Alas, Mr Gomwalk did not do so’.

The Nigerian Government was outraged by this and a fortnight later, the Nigeria High Commission delivered what it called a ‘strong protest’ note to the Foreign Office. The note said Mr Gomwalk’s treatment was ‘unjustified and uncalled for’ and added:

‘Although he maintained that the car was he and offered to produce documentary evidence to that effect, he was not given the chance by the police.  Instead, he was grabbed and dragged out of his car into a waiting police car.  Once in the car he was handcuffed and beaten up while being taken to Brixton police station’.

The diplomatic note rejected ‘the spirited defence of the brutal action by the British Home Secretary, Mr James Callaghan, as a negation of British justice by condemning Mr Gomwalk without hearing his side of the story’.

In May 1969, two Leeds Police Officers, Sergeant Ken Kitching and Inspector Geoff Ellerker, who had been brutalising a Nigerian vagrant, David Oluwale, for at least one year, finally pounced upon him in the early hours of the morning while he was asleep in a shop doorway and rained blows upon him with their truncheons. He was last seen running away from them towards the River Aire. His body was recovered from the river two weeks later and he was given a pauper’s burial. His death was not treated as suspicious.

In 1970, a young police officer reported to his seniors that he had heard rumours about Kitching’s and Ellerker’s treatment of Oluwale.  An inquiry followed which eventually led to those two being prosecuted for manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm. It emerged during the inquiry and trial that Kitching and Ellerker would regularly beat and kick Oluwale, humiliating him by making him kneel before them and then crawl on all fours. They would kick his hands from under him so that he would crash on to the floor on his face. They would racially abuse him and write his nationality as ‘wog’ on police records.

Despite all that, there was no reference to racism in the charges brought against the two officers.  The focus of their misconduct was on police brutality.

The trial judge directed that manslaughter charges be dropped. Ellerker was found guilty of three assaults against Oluwale and Kitching of two assaults. Both were found not guilty of causing grievous bodily harm. Ellerker was sentenced to three years in prison, and Kitching  27 months.

Between 1971 and 2014, there have been scores of deaths in custody. Yet, the trial of Kitching and Ellerker was the first and last time any police officer was convicted in relation to a death in custody. If one were to examine the detail of those many deaths in custody, there will emerge evidence of cover up, senior officer collusion with such cover up, officers refusing to give evidence against colleagues whose brutality and malpractice they actually witnessed, an insistence on the part of police and the CPS alike on displacing ‘race’ and ‘racism’ from the circumstances and behaviours leading to those deaths, and courts and juries attaching no significance to the widespread practice of police officers sitting together to corroborate one another’s witness statements and version of events.

No chief officer in any force in which such deaths occur can ask the public to believe that they are unaware that these practices occur on their watch and still expect to be taken seriously.

So, important though the Stephen Lawrence murder and investigation undoubtedly was, the state should not be allowed to treat the issues as if they are confined to Stephen Lawrence’s murder. If it is accepted that the police do conduct themselves in ways which Ellison’s report suggests, then there needs to be the most far ranging inquiry into police practices, police led investigations and IPCC practices with respect to deaths in custody.

Credits: Metropolitan Police officers at Occupy London Finsbury Square (by James Mitchell - Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Credits: Metropolitan Police officers at Occupy London Finsbury Square (by James Mitchell – Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is to be done?

Police abuse of power, police brutality and police practice of covering one another’s backs are matters which have denied justice to communities for at least half a century. Governments tinker, make noise and continue to believe that the police could and would self regulate when it comes to dealing with corruption, abuse of power and serial lying.

One group of people involved with the law with whom police regularly interact is solicitors. I have just completed a study for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) on the causes of disproportionality in regulatory action and outcomes for BME solicitors. This disproportionality is evident in both the adjudication done by the SRA internally and the number of cases involving BME solicitors that are prosecuted by the SRA in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT). The latter has the power to strike off solicitors, shut down their practice, impose heavy fines and attach conditions to solicitors’ practising certificates.

The case of Bolton v The Law Society [1994] 1 WLR 512 is often cited by the SDT as it provides important guidance and sets out the fundamental principle and purposes of the imposition of sanctions by the Tribunal:

“Any solicitor who is shown to have discharged his professional duties with anything less than complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness must expect severe sanctions to be imposed upon him by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.”

“… a penalty may be visited on a solicitor … in order to punish him for what he has done and to deter any other solicitor tempted to behave in the same way …”

“… to be sure that the offender does not have the opportunity to repeat the offence; and”

“… the most fundamental of all: to maintain the reputation of the solicitors’ profession as one in which every member, of whatever standing, may be trusted to the ends of the earth … A member of the public … is ordinarily entitled to expect that the solicitor will be a person whose trustworthiness is not, and never has been, seriously in question. Otherwise, the whole profession, and the public as a whole, is injured. A profession’s most valuable asset is its collective reputation and the confidence which that inspires.”

(Sir Thomas Bingham, then Master of the Rolls)

If this applies to solicitors and is regularly invoked when the SDT is determining the seriousness of regulatory breaches and therefore the sanctions to be imposed upon the offending solicitor, it is difficult to see why this should not apply in its entirety to police officers. They, after all, have considerably more power than any solicitor to curtail people’s freedom, ruin their reputation and careers and even take their lives. Yet, police accountability for their conduct and evidence of the professional standards they observe is altogether opaque.

After decades of campaigning for an independent police complaints investigating system, we ended up with the IPCC which too often operates as the remote arm of the police and is generally incompetent and a huge part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Deaths in Custody, Duggan, Plebgate, Phone Hacking and Corrupt Practices involving Journalists, let alone the Ellison revelations, point clearly in my view to the need for a robust regulator of the police with a remit to clean up policing and engender public trust and confidence in a manner that neither Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary nor the IPCC can do. Unless that regulatory function is taken away from individual forces and from their professional standards branches and a culture of anonymous complaining and whistle blowing is actively built, no number of public inquiries will root out corruption, racism and thuggery from the police service.

It would be music to many people’s ears to hear:

“Any police officer who is shown to have discharged their professional duties with anything less than complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness must expect severe sanctions to be imposed upon them by the Police  Disciplinary Tribunal.”

“… a penalty may be visited on a police officer… in order to punish them for what they have done and to deter any other police officer tempted to behave in the same way …”

“… to be sure that the offender does not have the opportunity to repeat the offence; and”

“the most fundamental of all: to maintain the reputation of the police service as one in which every member, of whatever standing, may be trusted to the ends of the earth … A member of the public … is ordinarily entitled to expect that the police officer will be a person whose trustworthiness is not, and never has been, seriously in question….”

Pigs may well fly!

Photo (home): “Metropolitan Police vans” by (Mick Baker)rooster (Flickr – CC BY-ND 2.0)

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2 Comments on "Policing by contempt"

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A very interesting piece. I like the title, so often when the Police feel under pressure they start quoting the Peelian “Policing by Public Consent” I worked for the Police and saw the good and the very bad side, that is why I am no longer working for them. Too often as the Public were being told how things had changed they had not. Every time I tried to point that out I was attacked on Twitter as being Anti-Police. From what I experienced the culture is when the Forces are being accused of Racism and Homophobia they adopt rules… Read more »
Toyin Agbetu
It is refreshing to read such well researched and reasoned arguments on an issue that has plagued British policing and African communities for so long. We live in a media environment dedicated to quick sound bite analysis so this authoritative analysis stands out like fountain of clean water in an arid political desert littered with the carcasses of innocents picked upon by scavenging politicians looking to score cheap pre electoral points. It would be too easy to succumb to ill-judged attacks on a mother who in the fight for justice rightly or wrongly, chose a path of less resistance. But… Read more »

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