Thursday, 10 April 2014

Boris Johnson Plans to Devastate Police Community Engagement in London.

Boris Johnson attempts to tackle Met crisis by silencing critics.
It’s an act so incredibly stupid as to defy belief; the Mayor of London has withdrawn funding for London’s locally accountable Community Police Consultative Groups (CPCG’S) and replaced them with a new body, local Safer Neighbourhood Boards.

Here I speak as veteran human rights, race equality activist, challenging police racism of some 30 years standing and as the longest serving Policing Director of London and a pioneer of police community engagement.

Given that Londoners will have little or no knowledge of how London police community engagement works or how much they have contributed to maintaining London’s peace and safety over the last 30 odd years, most people will be unaware of the real significance of this decision.

Their abolition by the Mayor will not, I suspect, make huge headlines given he enjoys  the uncritical support of some London media, nevertheless l believe this will rank as one the least known, yet most damaging decisions made by this Mayor. Much like the decision to stop dredging the Thames River, thought by many at the time to be innocuous, outside of a few knowledgeable specialists was, once the weather changed, a decision that proved to be critical.

Lord Scarman 
CPCG’s were created by Lord Scarman in response to the Brixton Uprisings that took place on Friday 11th April 1981. With over 32 boroughs in London some of these groups acted as gatekeepers largely uncritical of the police, whilst in other areas, particularly in inner city London, they were a dynamic force for good, fiercely independent and vigorous in holding police to account.

Brixton April 11th 1981
Back to the Brixton Uprisings, it is now some 35 years since the oppressive and brutal Police Operation SWAMP 81 that saw three thousand police officers, descend on central Brixton, stopping and searching over 1000 people and arresting hundreds in people in a 10 days period.

Operation SWAMP 81 triggered the open resistance of an entire community in response to what was seen then as a profoundly corrupt and racist police force. This uprising resulted in 299 injuries to police and 65 injuries to members of the public; over a hundred vehicles were burned, including 56 police vehicles; and almost 150 buildings were damaged, with 28 burned. There were 82 arrests.

The then Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw launched a public inquiry and in November of that year Lord Scarman was appointed to lead the inquiry. Six months later he published findings that identified, among many things, the disproportionate use of the massively oppressive and dreaded SUS law as one of the causes.

The Scarman Report, though ground breaking at the time failed to identify the institutionalised nature of police racism and stated that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest". 

His report highlighted problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline, warning that "urgent action" was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an "endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society". He cited the lack of community based forums that facilitated discussion, monitored police activity and ventilated complaints as key.

Scarman called for substantial improvement in police community communication and the establishment of local forums that ensured people could air their concerns, grievances and complaints against their local police service.

The Lambeth Consultative Police Group, was one of the first to be established. In the last 30 years this group has pioneered some of the leading community engagement and police accountability strategies in the county.

Leading the way on deaths in custody, domestic violence and rape, the illegal and unethical use of police informers as lead to the establishment of the now discredited 

Operation Trident, the placing of video cameras in police vans, and stations, the creation of independent custody visitors, mental health nurses in police stations, racial harassment monitoring, are all issues where LCPCG has distinguished itself as making a unique and valuable contribution to improving police practice and community relations. These initiatives were born out of deep police/community partnerships in the context of police service that accepted they were institutionally racist and in doing so provided the space for deep enduring partnerships. 

Today no such context exits and the post Scarman and McPherson settlements between the Government and black communities has been betrayed by those in power.

Let us not forget that CPCG’s have prevented any number of critical policing incidents escalating into serious disorder. Members are unpaid volunteers, often on the streets in the early hours of the morning mediating between communities and the police in potentially very dangerous situations.  I know I’ve been there, holding back armed police from rushing in where angels fear to tread and in doing so have helped positively resolved thousands of potential flash points.

They hold open public meetings once a month where anyone in the community can attend and hear about what local police are doing to tackle crime and challenge officers on issues such as deaths in custody or stop and search.

These open access meetings provide a unique safety valve, allowing a community to legitimately progress concerns and complaints in an open and public forum. CPCG groups also provide another unique function, borough wide analysis of policing performance, helping to identify trends in policing, asses the allocation of resources and police officers in the borough and evaluate overall police performance. Not only do these groups inform, they also educate both the police and members of the public, on the complexities of tackling crime, dealing with Police complaints whilst maintaining community confidence.

Boris Johnson is many things, but even as one of his arch critics, I didn’t think he was this stupid.

London is a fabulous multicultural city, with enormous strengths and weaknesses, huge contrasts and great inequalities. In such a city, ensuring that those who govern and rule are diverse is not just some ‘loony left’ cosmetic equality, tick box exercise, but a critical requirement for a world city, multicultural metropolitan city like London.

Those that govern London need to ensure we are a representative democracy, one that makes decisions that are informed by the differentiated experiences of distinct cultural, ethnic, gender and religious groups in the capital. One of the most important areas where such diversity is absolutely critical is policing and the administration of criminal justice.

Following the riots of August of 2011, in the aftermath of the shooting by the Metropolitan Police of an unarmed black man and father, Mark Duggan, one would have thought the Mayor of London would have ensured that the maintenance of effective police community relations would be one of his top priorities for London.

During the 2011 riots lives were tragically lost, people’s homes and businesses destroyed in addition to millions of pounds of criminal damage. At the time, the Association of British Insurers said they expected the industry to pay out, nationally in excess of £200 million. Estimated losses in London were in the region of £100m. Such losses, both human and financial were, entirely avoidable.

I believe that the absence in 2011 of anyone with the necessary experience and understanding of the fraught historical realities between police and black communities in the capital came at enormous cost.

This lack of diversity and cultural competence at City Hall and New Scotland Yard cost the country and London dearly. In a tragic error of judgment, no one in these two institutions was alive to understanding the context of the police shooting a black man from Broadwater Farm Tottenham.

All white is not alright. City Hall London
This acute political and professional failure to understand the wider realities of policing multicultural London, is a direct consequence of ideological hostility shown by Boris and the Commissioner for radical antiracist and equality policies that are central to giving effect to the critically important principle of ‘policing by consent’. Majority white senior management teams at City Hall and New Scotland Yard reflect a London of the 1940’s not the London of the 21st century.

Whilst the Commissioner talks of adopting ‘affirmative action’ type police recruitment policies, he has presided over a net loss of fully warranted BME police officers over his term of office. 

Whatever ones view about the real causes of the August 2011 disturbances, I think we can all agree that’s it’s a no brainer to conclude that ensuring that those areas and communities, where public trust and confidence in the police is dangerously low, should have assumed an urgent political priority for both the Commissioner of Police Bernard Hogan-Howe and Boris Johnson.

‘Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.’ Marcus Tullius Cicero

The public and professional reputation of Metropolitan Police Service is facing the most profound crisis in its 185 year history. A legion of high profile cases of serious police corruption, institutional racism and sexism, police brutality and indifference have all combined to deal, what I believe is a near fatal blow to London’s largest and most powerful public sector institution.

Suspicious deaths in police custody, Plebgate, racial profiling, stop and search, the shredding of masses of documents relating to police corruption, the scandals of their treatment of Daniel Morgan and Stephen Lawrence families, the mass criminalisation of black youth,  disproportionate use of police violence,  fiddling crime figures , , failure to prosecute domestic violence abusers and rapists, I could go on and on but I dare say you get my point, all these examples and a few more besides have added to the massive reputational damage  to the Met.

Now more than ever the confidence of communities need to be restored by effective engagement and that may well require us to fundamentally rethink and reshape institutions ranging from the Police to the Independent Police Complaints Commission

The replacement of CPCG’s with local Safer Neighbourhoods Boards is a monumental error.  Unlike CPCG’s they are made up of local Councillors , Chairs of the now dysfunction Safer Neighbourhood Ward panels, and a number of other organisations that will be vetted, nominated and agreed by Boris Johnson at City Hall.

Critically important groups such as the Stop and search working groups and Independent Custody Visitors (ICV’s) will now be handpicked by SNB’s locally, vetted and controlled by the Mayor himself, rather than elected in an open forum by local CPCG’s. ICV’s were given 24 hour access to police stations and suspects to provide reassurance to communities with concerns about the welfare of suspects in police stations. 

They have now been told by City Hall and local Borough Superintendents that cuts to officer numbers mean they can visit police stations once a month by appointment only.

SNB are not required to hold regular public meetings, nor is there any requirement for the public to have access to these meetings, nor are they required to publish minutes.

The Mayor has now assumed full responsibility for police community engagement in London. The decision to abolish CPCG’s is a wilful act of municipal vandalism that will increase black community anger and alienation towards the Met.

The Mayor and Commissioner both appear utterly clueless when it comes to these issues as demonstrated by this bizarre decision. The fashionable hostility against race equality policy, both agree that the Met is no longer an ‘institutionally racist organisation’, both have majority all white senior management teams, both are failing London.

When those critical policing incidents occur at the dead of night, it won’t be members of the SNB who come out to mediate between the community and the police. They will not have the commitment, the expertise, nor the community credibility to do so.

Whilst the Mayor seeks to restore the Mets credibility by removing a key platform where members of the public can raise grievances, get support and enjoy some level of real accountability, he should really be focusing on tackling the real crisis in the Met instead of shooting the messengers.

In Lambeth we intend to fight this incredibly dangerous decision all the way. It will be our communities that suffer when the Mayors idiotic plans fall apart. For London’s sake I hope we are able to convince enough people to support our case for retaining the principles of local accountability, full transparency, and public accessibility. We cannot allow the Mayor to destroy the legacy of both the Scarman and McPherson reports by removing one of the most effective mechanisms to improving trust and confidence in the police.

NB: I will be discussing these and other issue raised by this article on my radio show on between 7-10 am Friday 11th April 2014