Ferguson is not another country…


The town of Ferguson, Missouri where the shooting of a black man led to rioting  may seem a long way away and it is easy for us in the UK to shake our heads at some of the things that go on in the USA despite our common language and heritage. On the other hand I am sure that there are many members of the black community irritated if not angry, that there had been so much coverage of the disturbances there while some of the issues of racial disadvantage in this country are not so well covered. They feel that while there are correspondents on the ground in the US to give first-hand accounts not only of the riot but the underlying issues the level of alienation among many of the members of our deprived communities is not so well explored.

Ferguson is at one level the story of a militarised society with an incredibly high level of gun ownership and where increasing instances of multiple killings through use of firearms just leads to calls for more firearms to be available to the ordinary citizens and for less control on open carrying of weapons. One US police chief has seen greater gun ownership as the best way to combat increasing numbers of house burglaries. Various court rulings have endorsed the rights of citizens to stand their guard and shoot first if they fear a “stranger” We can only give thanks for the very tight gun laws in this country and the fact that we have a police force which is routinely unarmed but on the other hand we must be realistic that there is still a significant problem with criminally held guns.

Ferguson and the other cases involving black people and the police in the US is however also the story of an overwhelmingly white police force and an overwhelmingly white criminal justice system exercising power over neighbourhoods that are overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly socially and economically deprived. It is the story of  a country where the prison population is disproportionately made up of black people. It is the story of a country where black people are underrepresented amongst politicians and the media and where many people in deprived neighbourhoods do not bother to vote or engage in the political process.

The problem is of course that while all these are features of the USA they are also features of our country. Black people are significantly over represented in our prison population and underrepresented in the police force, the judiciary and in the students at university. The progress in making the police force more representive is at best glacial. The ethnic makeup of our cities is changing rapidly but the time that police forces will reflect that diversity is so far in the future to be in the Star Trek era. Yes a small number of black officers will fight their way to the top echelons of policing but it will be one or two and we have to be brave enough to say that fine words and sentiments do not break glass ceilings and doing what we have always done will not produce the change we need. To be clear this is not about political correctness or targets it is about operational effectiveness and the sort of workforce we need to build confidence and legitimacy, gather intelligence and information and just understand the population that we are serving. There needs to be a change in employment law to allow forces to balance  the needs of the community and the health of the organisation with the rights of applicants.

Ferguson is also the story about a crime control form of policing in the US which has become increasingly militarised. The terrorist threat and concerns about officer protection has led American forces to procure military specification hardware including armoured vehicles. Many Americans have expressed concern that they did not recognise the Ferguson response as their idea of policing. In the UK we have also seen some of this trend with the adoption of Tasers and more robust protective gear for officers which can look like combat standard. It is right that we protect our staff and for me anything below a gun is better than having more armed officers but through this the routinely unarmed nature of UK policing must be preserved along with the notion that an officer’s best protection is their mouth and powers of reasoning to calm volatile people and situations.

There are many good example of community policing in the USA but at its worst it can seem that the role of the police in some American cities is to keep the “bad ” people in the ” bad ” areas. Some American cities are highly economically segregated and some commentators have described the “doughnut city” where there is a gleaming city centre, pleasant affluent suburbs but an inner city scarred by deprivation that the “haves” drive through on their way to work or entertainment while bypassing the “have nots”. We have to be careful that this does not happen by default in our cities. The focus of the public service reform programme in Greater Manchester is to enhance the skills of the residents and reduce the numbers who suffer from complex dependency and are trapped in worklessness and welfare. This is a critical issue of social justice and even includes how businesses are committed to develop innovative programmes to employ local people and engage in projects which develop skills and reduce the reliance on benefits.

This is also about the position that policing occupies in our society particularly at a time of growing inequality and at a time of continuing cuts in funding to police and other public services. We could easily retreat to a crime control and suppression model where the police focus on their core responsibilities and go back to the fire brigade models of policing I experienced when I joined policing in 1981. Over the subsequent years policing made a fundamental shift to the neighbourhood policing model which is much more than just a locally based beat officer but is about a shift in the balance of power where local teams work with local people to solve local problems rather than do policing to them. This is far from perfect. Surveys still show that Afro Caribbean’s have a lower level of confidence in policing than other ethnic minority groups but matched with other initiatives such as greater local accountability and the commitment to deal with hate crime and more black officers is the best hope we have of fairer policing and greater trust.

Simplistic crime control models tend to feed more and more people into the prison system incurring huge cost and often making them better criminals when they come out. Now let’s be clear dangerous and serious criminals need to be punished and need to be detained for public protection but there many others on that conveyor belt of poor upbringing, poor education, drug and alcohol use and offending where we need to break the cycle at an earlier stage. When police are measured on simplistic crime and detection targets then again this tends to reinforce social deprivation and lead to greater use of stop and search and removes the discretion of individual officers. Some of the simplistic zero tolerance approaches so lauded in the USA has led to large numbers of young black men being imprisoned which further destabilises some inner city areas because children are growing up with no fathers and no positive role models.

Crime will always be a key part of police work and the criminal law is a crucial part of any democratic society.  The role of the police however should be broader and I would argue should be about working with other agencies and local people to make areas better places to live in through reducing crime and criminality but also reducing dependency and promoting social justice including promoting equality between different ethnic groups. This is also the best way to reduce the demand on public services long term, through reducing dependency and getting the public to take more responsibility and ultimately being able to sustain what will be the significant spending cuts in the future.

This notion of social justice is also about what the police see as priorities and how those priorities are framed. Crime is defined through legislation and often whether something is a police responsibility and priority depends on whether it is a crime or not. I would argue that the police role should be broader in working with other agencies and local people on what is causing harm in that community. Now often the police role will still be to concentrate on crime but if what is causing harm in the community is for instance loan sharks or the level of truancy then this should be a police priority. If there is an issue which is reinforcing social disadvantage and alienation then the police should consider the role that they can play in tackling this.

An example of this is that the police can be proud of the part they have played in promoting the use of cautions and restorative justice and their contribution to the Youth Offending Service which has seen a huge drop in the number of young people including young black people being sent to custody. This has not led to an increase in youth crime indeed the very opposite.  In Greater Manchester we are working on a project to reduce the number of women sent to prison. As black women are disproportionately more likely to be sent to prison then this will disproportionately have a positive benefit for them.

We also know that certain issues have been the focus of complaint from ethnic minorities particularly stop and search and deaths in police custody. Improving the use of stop and search is about improved training and accountability of officers but also better intelligence systems which ensure that activity is directed against those who create most harm and remove the practise of officers randomly targeting young people on the basis of appearance. Sadly many deaths of black people in custody have been about those suffering from mental illness being taken into police custody because there were not alternative health facilities. Work that we have carried out in Greater Manchester with the NHS has led to a 90 per cent reduction in the number of people being detained because of mental illness and use of Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.

The Americans have put great store by the introduction of body worn video cameras to increase the accountability of police officers. Others have pointed out that some of the tragic encounters in the US between police and black people have been captured on video but this has not made much difference to their behaviour or accountability in the criminal justice system.  There is some evidence that body warn videos mean that officers use less discretion and common sense because they fear how the camera might interpret their actions and this could have a negative impact on the public. On the other hand there have been many critical incidents scarred on the history of policing where the availability of video evidence may well have clarified matters at a far earlier stage. So much of this is about the perception and the use of body worn video gives a strong perception of accountability and creates safeguards for the public and for police officers.

No one can challenge that officers must be accountable under the law in the  same way as any other citizen. The reality however is that the law does provide protection to any citizen trying to defend themselves or making an arrest and a police officer has no more protection than any other citizen. There has to be some consideration however of how we ensure justice for families, drive higher standards for police officers and fundamentally learn lessons for the future. The trouble too often is the learning of lessons is often lost in the heat of blame, hurt, suspicion and legal advice and the pain of families and their personal experience is lost. In other situations alternatives have been tried such as truth and reconciliation commissions and this needs further consideration. In Greater Manchester the Police and Crime Commissioner has introduced an independent ombudsman to provide another element of oversight into the investigation of complaints and it is good that the Home Office now recognise this as a possible way forward.

The austerity is a real threat to social justice and community cohesion. Research shows that ethnic minorities have suffered disproportionately during the recession and it is not a political argument to say that over recent years inequality has grown and the use of food banks and other signals of deprivation have mushroomed. The austerity will see further cuts in public services and neighbourhood policing is under serious threat due to staffing reductions. We can head the American way and end up with a more crime control form of policing and other public services can retrench to the core activities which will inevitably see deprivation , alienation and racial disadvantage grow or we can seize the opportunity to organise the public services including the police in a different direction to focus on the underlying causes and to promote social justice.

A key issue in reducing the alienation felt by many deprived communities is to increase  the degree to which people get involved in local community life, to encourage volunteering and to regenerate local democracy. We have to be concerned not only at the low number of people who vote in some elections in socially deprived areas but also the number not even bothering to register for voting. Public services need to join up at the local level in a way which engages local people, community groups, charities and faith groups and gets local people solving local problems. The recently agreed devolution of power to Greater Manchester is a step in that direction but clearly needs to carried through to local streets so that residents feel that they have a say and are drawn to get more involved so that we don’t have the level of alienation that we see in Ferguson.

So drawing together my arguments what needs to be done –

  • Amendments to employment law to allow the significant under representation of black people in the police and criminal justice system to be addressed by allowing greater consideration of the need to balance the needs of the community with the rights of individuals.
  • Joining up the public service at the local level to work with those families and individuals trapped in the cycle of poor upbringing, poor skills, worklessness and the revolving door of prison.
  • To allow the police and other public services to focus on the broader role of promoting social justice balancing the need to cut crime and criminality with the need to address those issues local people see as causing most harm in their neighbourhoods.
  • To recognise the damage caused by simplistic measures and targets which through  their narrow focus can draw certain types of crime and offending into the web while bypassing others and through this reinforce economic disadvantage.

Addressing those issues which historically have brought police and ethnic minorities into conflict by keeping the vulnerable out of police cells, seeking alternatives to imprisonment where appropriate and eradicating random use of stop search in favour of more targeted multi agency approaches to persistent offending.

Developing a more effective speedier way of investigating those critical incidents which cause significant damage to the confidence of communities focussed more on learning lessons but with no reduction in the accountability of individual officers but also recognising where police forces need to take organisational responsibility for the systems staff work under.

A conscious effort to devolve power and responsibility to the local level of get more people involved in the life of their community to reduce alienation and to strengthen cohesion between different groups.

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