Such is the nature of policing that, as officers marshalled protestors in one part of London out campaigning against police brutality, just a few miles away in Harlesden another unit was out saving lives by rushing on ‘blues and twos’ to the scene of a horrendous crime involving the gang-related shooting of a two year old child and three adults.
As with all calls to stabbings and shootings police will frequently not know whether they will be confronted by an individual wielding a knife or a gun or engaged in rendering life-saving first aid. In London, the likelihood is, as determined by the Mayor’s office and Met stats, that the victims of such attacks will disproportionally be black.
In Liverpool, to name but one British City, such victims will be white; in other parts of the country Asian. The common link; demographics and socio-economic conditions
There can be few persons in the UK who would not have seen the dreadful footage which showed the tragic death of George Floyd during a police arrest. On police social media here in the UK the reaction, as soon as the footage emerged, was one of shock, disbelief, anger and sadness.
As the understandable furore broke in the USA, concerns that contentious issues would be transposed to the UK proved accurate. Diane Abbott led the way with an article in the Huffington Post and soon police across the US and the UK became aware that many would hold the view that all officers were collectively responsible for any controversial death involving police.
In the UK, as riots were taking place in the USA, not only were previous deaths in police custody being quoted but the issue of stop and search became prominent, as indeed it frequently does. Abbott quoted the figure of 1,741 individuals who had died in police custody over the past 30 years. Deaths in custody include police contact and frequently involve circumstances over which police have little control; a heart attack 24 hours after being released is but one example. She points out that a disproportionate number of the deceased were black.
Indeed, the issue of disproportionality features in the most recent set of figures for England and Wales, yet when viewed over a year, don’t seem quite so alarming although any death in these circumstances is, in itself, a tragedy.
Familiar names of those who died in police ‘custody’ were again to be seen at protests and on social media. The fact that these can stretch back as far as 35 years doesn’t of course extinguish the flame of outrage felt by relatives and supporters.
It is probably of no consolation that from each death, lessons are learnt. Just a few months ago I assisted the British Transport Police with an arrest at Waterloo Station. The man, who was black, was taken to the floor face first. He was struggling and cursing and anyone with a mobile phone could perhaps have been forgiven for filming that which they assumed would be another example of racist policing.
However, during the very short period he was face down, two words kept repeating themselves in my head; positional asphyxiation. I had never heard of this threat to the safety of prisoners until relatively late in my career yet deaths caused by restraining those face down resulting in them being unable to breathe caused a tidal wave of awareness and a change of procedures.
The male, referred to above was, incidentally in possession of stolen goods, cannabis and a knife and had been originally detained by a security guard who was also black.
Since 1990, there have been on average around a million arrests a year; each arrest is an exercise of force and of course there will be other cases where police have had to use restraint without a formal arrest such as when an individual with mental health issues is taken directly to hospital or when police are called to a hospital where a patient is being disruptive. Despite the fact that each death is a catastrophe this needs to be seen against the simple reality that policing can be an extremely violent occupation. 1,741 deaths set against 30,000,000 arrests over 30 years is too many but there have been improvements over the years as lessons have been learnt and procedures tightened.
Quite how pressure on George Floyd’s windpipe ever became an approved restraint technique in the states can only be wondered at.
“Over-policing” and “hands in pockets.”
Black Lives Matter will say that the black community suffer more than any other from police ‘harassment’ and ‘over-policing.’ However, is that the fault of police, or successive generations of politicians who have failed to deal with the socio-economic inequalities such as education, employment opportunities, health care and housing? As police will only be too well aware, areas of London and elsewhere that are impacted by these issues will tend to be ‘high crime’ and it is the police who will have to paper over the cracks.
Those officers policing such areas accept their lot but feel that from within the community they are subjected to constant criticism, rarely praise. Each knife or firearm taken off the streets, frequently by stop and search, is regarded as a potential ‘life-saver’ by the officers involved.
Yet there is no praise but criticism, some justified, such as when a stop and search is poorly executed as we have seen recently on social media. Surely, officers would argue, negative or ‘over-frequent’ stop and search is preferable to dead or permanently disabled individuals.
I always say….. where would you rather a cop had has hands? In your sons pockets, or in his chest cavity?— Blue Templar (@JohnJospech) May 26, 2020
Little praise too for the work in detecting and safeguarding youngsters involved in poisonous county lines activity. The placing of an angry 14- year- old boy into a police van recently, after being searched, was hugely criticised on social media yet the possibility that he could be a missing, vulnerable child being corrupted by county lines wasn’t even considered by police critics.
Help over the decades
Despite the criticism, those within the black community will still turn to police for help which will be given. I remember the Brixton riots of 1981 and being rushed across London. After just a couple of hours sleep, I was back in Brixton on foot patrol partnered by an attractive female Brixton officer. I was amazed at how friendly the locals were, perhaps slightly influenced by my smiling colleague, who told me how busy they were on a daily basis. There were always queues at the station counter, the phones never stopped ringing and 999 calls came thick and fast.
Despite the tensions, the black community of Brixton were still asking police for help on a daily basis; help which was gladly supplied. I suspect, despite the tensions that exist, the same is true across poor, inner city areas in both the USA and the UK.
Much UK police time is now spent in dealing with those suffering from mental health issues. Studies are now being undertaken as to why mental illness disproportionately (that word again) affects black males while generally mental health services are struggling due to cuts. In the interim however, pending improvements to the system, where the illness gets beyond the control of the individual, police will have to step in regardless of that individuals background. This will happen numerous times during the course of a single day and in just about every case they make a good fist of it, frequently pulling those in distress back from the brink. Again, praise is rare other than occasionally a very welcome thank you from the individual concerned.
Last night, PC Millyard assisted in talking a suicidal male down from a bridge. Today, he came to the station with some flowers to say ‘thank you’ for her efforts. pic.twitter.com/82cU0Lztv8— Warrington Police (@PoliceWarr) September 2, 2018
Those who feel that many police officers are essentially racist will perhaps have forgotten the total devastation inflicted on much of the Caribbean in 2017 by Hurricane Irma. It was decided to send UK police officers out to the Caribbean to assist in the immediate aftermath. This was to be no ‘jolly’ staying in luxury hotels; conditions would be primitive and the work unpredictable yet officers across the country volunteered in droves quite simply because they wanted to help.
With the Covid-19 crisis followed now by renewed allegations of racist police brutality added to the mix of increased assaults on officers, policing is surely going through one of the most challenging periods in its history. I’ll leave you with the thoughts of one despairing officer:
I’m done I cant take the toxicity, I’ve fought until exhaustion to stem the flow from a knife wound to a young black lad, I’ve given CPR in front of a family to a young black father cruelly taken by illness, I favour no skin colour, I took an oath to serve all..— EX-MET 😢 (@responsebod) May 31, 2020
RIP George Floyd