Tot­ing guns, ram­ming mopeds: this is no way to build trust

A lack of faith in our forces is lead­ing to more law­less­ness on the streets. Un­til re­sources are found to re­store it, more dam­age lies ahead

The Observer - - News - Roger Graef Roger Graef is a film­maker and crim­i­nol­o­gist

In the wild west, a Colt sin­gle-ac­tion ri­fle was known as “the peace­maker”. The Metropoli­tan po­lice com­mis­sioner, Cres­sida Dick, hopes for the same ef­fect by propos­ing to de­ploy armed of­fi­cers on foot pa­trol in ar­eas plagued by knife crime and other vi­o­lence. But might this make a bad sit­u­a­tion worse?

The need for trust is es­sen­tial for the so­cial con­tract of polic­ing by con­sent to be ef­fec­tive. De­spite fic­tional ac­counts of heroic de­tec­tives, most crimes are solved by the pub­lic pro­vid­ing vi­tal in­for­ma­tion. The need for fam­i­lies and friends to trust po­lice to re­spond ef­fec­tively and ap­pro­pri­ately is key.

But, like friend­ship, such trust can­not be achieved quickly. It takes time to over­come mu­tual sus­pi­cions and col­lec­tive mem­o­ries of cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and me­dia an­tag­o­nism. For some com­mu­ni­ties, the po­lice are seen as oc­cu­py­ing armies. For some po­lice of­fi­cers raised in places with few or no mem­bers of eth­nic mi­nori­ties, their views are based on war sto­ries about hard times on the streets. Po­lice of­ten feel no­body ap­pre­ci­ates them or their role as the thin blue line against dis­or­der and vi­o­lence.

What’s more, po­lice are only hu­man. They make mis­takes. When firearms are in­volved, they can be fa­tal. In the 80s, when guns were handed out more freely, Stephen Wal­dorf, a film editor, was shot re­peat­edly in west Lon­don in mid af­ter­noon be­cause he looked like an es­caped pris­oner. He was se­verely in­jured but sur­vived. The case led to re­stric­tions on the use of firearms.

More im­por­tant still was the case of Cherry Groce, the mother of some­one sus­pected of hav­ing a firearm. The po­lice raid on her house in 1985 by ex­hausted of­fi­cers led to them shoot­ing her and leav­ing her paral­ysed. The riot that en­sued was the sec­ond in four years in Brix­ton, in south Lon­don, with dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for the area and for po­lice and pub­lic trust.

We could look to the United States for a warn­ing. Lethal po­lice mis­takes there come to our at­ten­tion with ter­ri­fy­ing reg­u­lar­ity. On Fri­day, the Dal­las po­lice of­fi­cer who shot an un­armed black man in his own flat be­cause she thought it was hers was fi­nally in­dicted for man­slaugh­ter. This is rare in the US, where sim­ply a fear of be­ing threat­ened is ac­cepted as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for killing un­armed peo­ple.

In Lon­don, that ver­dict prompted ri­ot­ing after the of­fi­cer who shot Mark Dug­gan in Tot­ten­ham in 2011 was ac­quit­ted, de­spite the weapon be­ing found yards from the ve­hi­cle in which he was in.

Re­spect for the whole crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is af­fected by such events; it can re­flect deep mis­trust be­tween the eth­nic-mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties and the po­lice, made worse by harsh eco­nomic con­di­tions. In this con­text, an­other new Met pol­icy of ad­dress­ing moped rob­beries by knock­ing rid­ers to the ground could have fa­tal con­se­quences.

For sup­port­ers of tough polic­ing, such events are merely col­lat­eral dam­age against a ris­ing tide of law­less­ness on our streets. But for com­mu­ni­ties used to decades of po­lice ha­rass­ment, each such in­ci­dent sym­bol­ises what is seen as an abuse of power. It sets back gen­uine po­lice ef­forts to im­prove pub­lic trust.

The re­turn of what is known as “slow ri­ot­ing”, in which po­lice cars are at­tacked by crowds of young peo­ple, is a wor­ry­ing in­di­ca­tion of the cur­rent at­ti­tude to­wards po­lice among that age group. They are most vul­ner­a­ble to vi­o­lence be­cause they are on the streets more than the rest of us. A crowd of youths at­tack­ing Durham po­lice try­ing to help a girl at a bus stop has gone vi­ral and will worry po­lice around the coun­try as well as the rest of us.

The Brix­ton ri­ots led to the cre­ation of com­mu­nity polic­ing to ad­dress deeper causes of un­rest. But crime pre­ven­tion has never been val­ued in po­lice cul­ture as much as crime fight­ing, known as “real” polic­ing. Feel­ing col­lars or sub­du­ing vi­o­lent of­fend­ers makes bet­ter sto­ries than a quiet time on the beat or find­ing lost old ladies. Yet con­sis­tently low de­tec­tion and con­vic­tion rates show that crime is not their strong­est suit. What po­lice are good at is solv­ing prob­lems. This is a ma­jor re­source in terms of build­ing lo­cal trust.

After ri­ots on the Meadow Well es­tate in North Shields, in North Ty­ne­side in 1991, the chief con­sta­ble as­signed a sergeant and 12 PCs to an eco­nom­i­cally de­prived es­tate that was deeply sus­pi­cious of the po­lice. The sergeant, Alan Evans, sent his PCs house to house to ask what they could do to help them. Ini­tial sus­pi­cions gave way to trust, which led to flows of in­tel­li­gence that helped re­duce crime. Some par­ents even turned in their own chil­dren in the hope that po­lice could save them from a life of crime. There were two in­ter­est­ing out­comes from that ex­per­i­ment. The other of­fi­cers in North Shields re­garded the vol­un­teer PCs as traitors. And the neigh­bour­ing New York es­tate asked: do we have to burn our­selves down to get the same level of ser­vice?

But prob­lem-ori­ented polic­ing has never been prop­erly val­ued by politi­cians ei­ther, partly be­cause it can­not be counted in key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors – “the stick with which to beat the po­lice”, as one home sec­re­tary de­scribed it to me.

In fact, pol­i­tics is hav­ing se­vere con­se­quences for po­lice and pub­lic re­la­tions. Po­lice num­bers and bud­gets have been cut rad­i­cally, while de­mand for them to do more about a wide range of crimes such as do­mes­tic and sex­ual vi­o­lence, peo­ple-traf­fick­ing and fraud has risen ex­po­nen­tially. Gov­ern­men­tal de­nial about the im­pact of cuts on polic­ing is not only mis­guided. It fails to recog­nise how youth crime is af­fected by the clo­sure of lo­cal au­thor­ity sup­port: from Sure Start to youth clubs and other re­sources to pro­vide refuge.

The need for a joined-up ap­proach to crime and its causes has long been recog­nised more in the breach than in the ob­ser­vance. Un­til, and un­less, re­sources are found to re­store com­mu­nity polic­ing, to pro­vide le­gal aid for those caught up in the jus­tice sys­tem, and for prison of­fi­cers to do more than lock peo­ple up for most of ev­ery day, the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is at risk of cre­at­ing more dam­age than it pre­vents.

Pho­to­graph by Reuters

An armed po­lice­man in Lon­don. Po­lice of­ten see their role as ‘the thin blue line’ against dis­or­der and vi­o­lence.

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