We can expect huge crowds at Carnival this year for Britain’s premier black cultural event. Each year the crowds grow by an average of 5% and this year Notting Hill Carnival will be policed by 20,000 police officers.
I have had extensive involvement and knowledge of Carnival and the biggest Mass on the road this year will be the Police themselves. Playing Mass with Mangrove Steel Band and as chair of the Mangrove Community Association from 1985 to 1995 and in the decades since, I have had over 20 years experience of policing and providing local stewards and community observers for the event.
The last year we saw this type of ‘swamp” policing was in the mid 1980’s and on that occasion disorder did break out. That year with Sir Paul Condon in charge 13,000 officers hit the street and the atmosphere was very tense, quite oppressive, aggressive and very claustrophobic. That year relations with the police and community were strained with the illegal and false arrest and eventual acquittal of Mangrove founder Frank Crichlow and the launch of Operation Eagle Eye, Sir Paul Condon’s anti street robbery initiative.
This year Carnival takes place in an environment where police and black community relations are at the lowest point since the 1980’s. For that I blame the Mayor and his Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority Kit Malthouse both of whom have systematically degraded all race equality community relation’s initiatives to the point where they have ceased to be effective or have credibility.
Their other critical failure is that both have presided over a dramatic increase in the number of deaths in police custody and black deaths in particular, in addition to a huge increase in the number of stop and searches targeting black youth. These combined failures along with the recent shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham have resulted in the most dramatic loss of trust and confidence between London’s black communities and the Metropolitan Police Service seen in years.
In the three years since Boris was elected in 2008, black community police relations have deteriorated to catastrophic levels. That’s a remarkable achievement for a Mayor who wears his multicultural credentials on his chest. The fact is things have never been so bad as they are currently. That sets the dangerous context for the Carnival and has to be a cause of extreme concern. It is at these times of acute tension that sensitive policing and excellent community relations are critical requirements and not simply the ‘swamp policing strategy’ that seems to have been agreed this year.
In 2000 after the murder of two young people at Carnival the Greater London Authority under Ken Livingstone launched the Notting Hill Carnival Strategic Review. The review focused on how to ensure the sustainable growth of Carnival whilst addressing issues of public safety and crime.
The overwhelming conclusion of the Review on the specific issue of public safety was that Carnival needed many more Carnival stewards to minimize the need for police interventions. Often police officers are drafted in from all over the UK. Most were unfamiliar with the event and had little experience of dealing with lots of young black people. This resulted in needless confrontations that were all potential catalysts for conflict. Another finding from award winning specialist crowd analysis company ‘Intelligent Space’ (who developed a simulated computer model of Carnival crowd flow patterns based on technology used for the Sydney Olympic Games), was that crowd congestion at Carnival was being made much worse by the arbitrary positioning of ‘sterile police zones’. These zones were both contributing to severe crowd congestion and as a result, lead to unnecessary conflict with the police.
Over the course of 18 months the Review panel consulted key stakeholders and organized many public consultation meetings on the future of Carnival. One of its key recommendations was to vastly increase the number of fully trained stewards. In 2000 there were less than 50 stewards to handle over 750,000 people and by 2007 that stewarding capacity had increased with funding from the Mayors Office to 400. Our own estimation was that Carnival needed over 1000 fully trained steward over the course of the two days of Carnival.
Carnival stewards received in depth crowd control training, were fully equipped with radios and had a core team of full time professionals who led and deployed these stewards into distinct sectors and as a result Carnival went off largely peacefully from 2001 to the present day. This huge increase in the number of stewards being deployed to cover routine stewarding tasks that were being done by police officers resulted in the lowering of the number of police officers needed and less confrontation.
The Carnival review noted
‘Carnival policing costs totaled £5,781,994 in 2003 with over 10,000 officers being deployed over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Whilst the level of stewarding has increased since 2000 due to the provision of funding from the GLA, the Review Group emphasised the importance of establishing a longer-term strategic funding programme that would develop the Carnival’s stewarding capacity.’
Not only did this make sense in terms of minimising police community confrontations but it also ultimately reduced crime and saved the taxpayer money.
We can now expect a bill of over £10 million as result of the announcement of over 20,000 officers are to be deployed. Whilst the Notting Hill Carnival Board has virtually no real effective stewarding capability as a consequence of losing funding form the Mayors Office and Kensington and Chelsea.
I have always argued and still believe that the biggest danger to public safety in Carnival was not crime but crowd congestion. None of the lessons learned from disasters such as Hillsborough were incorporated into Carnival planning.
In the event of a crowd stampede there is no real contingency to cope with the potential mass causalities and injuries that would inevitably follow. Carnival needs to reduce crowd density and increase the capacity for emergency front liners to respond to incidents by creating a larger Carnival footprint with more of the activities spread over a larger area. No chance for this year of course.
I only hope that good sense prevails and the Board even at this late stage is given the necessary funds to massively increase its stewarding capability. Put simply I believe public safety is being compromised at Carnival by a conspiracy of neglect that has lead to failure to recognize the strategic importance of stewards at Carnival.The Mayor, Kensington and Chelsea and the Metropolitan Police Service have failed to implement the recommendation of the Carnival Strategic Review. In the event of disorder or more likely panic causing a crowd surge the consequences will be profound. In the current context and set against the backdrop of a precipitous decline in trust and confidence between London’s black communities and the Met Police these errors could well be viewed as criminal.