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Nothing will change until police are held accountable

By Temi Mwale (Originally featured in The Independent):

After a police stop of a vehicle in which Dawn Butler was a passenger this Sunday, you would think the prime minister’s office would at least hold back from categorically denying assertions that the Metropolitan Police is institutionally racist. Unfortunately not. According to Boris Johnson’s spokesman, “that view of the Metropolitan police” doesn’t align with his views.

Let’s be clear about this. The Met’s repeated claims of policing without “fear or favour” is a baseless sound bite. Johnson has said policing must be done with “fairness” and “equality” – but it isn’t. So, what will he do about it?

Black people cannot go anywhere without being viewed as “suspicious” by the police. The fact that 21,950 searches were carried out on young black men and boys during the Covid-19 lockdown supports this assessment. As Butler herself said, stop and search “works the way it’s designed to work. It is designed to be discriminatory”. I agree with her. Stop and search powers have been abused for too long and for all the claims that they save lives, they also damage lives and our communities. We must revoke section 60 stop and search powers, they have been abused for far too long.

While concerns around the police use of stop and search powers often dominate the conversation about policing and the disproportionate treatment of the black community, they are only the tip of the iceberg. We are also concerned about the routine use of handcuffs, a use of force which must be justified. We are concerned about the routine use of strip searches and intimate searches, which many deem to be state-sanctioned sexual assault. We are concerned about the use of tasers, which have left 62-year-old Millard Scott traumatised and 24-year-old Jordan Walker-Brown paralysed from the chest down. We are concerned about the scale of racist practices and serious incidents exposed via video in our communities that we find neither acceptable nor justifiable. Unfortunately, the official police line seems to be that these encounters are.

I supported the organising of a peaceful protest outside Tottenham Police Station this weekend to mark the ninth anniversary of the killing of Mark Duggan and the unrest which took place across the country. Worryingly, the concerns, conditions, issues and circumstances which led to these events in 2011 are more present today than they have been over the last nine years. We heard from the bereaved families of those who have been killed by police, the victims of excessive force and the change-makers dedicated to re-imagining what safety can look like for our city. Collectively, we demanded an end to the over-policing of black communities, an end to the use of excessive force and an end to police unaccountability.

The disproportionate treatment that black people face is a result of direct discrimination which derives from police discretion, compounded by leadership that would rather ignore us than address our intergenerational concerns. Police should protect, not harm. And when they do cause harm, they must be held accountable; a system which lacks accountability is incapable of stemming that level of destruction. Sadly, nothing that looks remotely like justice has been available to the tens of thousands of people who have experienced police violence.

There is a growing sense that the police have impunity – and for the public who are not targeted by them, the police appear infallible. This is about more than bad apples. If the institution is not willing to hold its officers to account then the tree itself is rotten. It is not only disrespectful to deny institutional racism, it is dangerous. If Cressida Dick will not accept that institutional racism is a reality for her organisation, how can we trust her to lead it? I am not alone in calling for her resignation.

The community forums and mechanisms that exist to hold police accountable are not fit for purpose. I have chaired an Independent Advisory Group. I have chaired a Stop and Search Community Monitoring Group. I have deputy-chaired a Safer Neighbourhood Board. None of them have the power to hold the police responsible for their conduct. We have no confidence in these mechanisms. We have no confidence in the Met’s own internal processes. We have no confidence in the Independent Office for Police Conduct. We have no confidence in the ability of our political leaders to hold police accountable. With no faith in the system, all that’s left is sheer hopelessness.

The institution of policing is, in my view, inherently violent. The idea that the police can provide protection and support to our communities while inflicting such suffering is ridiculous. An unaccountable institution cannot be the gatekeeper of peace, justice or safety – particularly considering the impact on public perception. As long as the police continue to act with impunity, the fear, distrust and unwillingness to engage or cooperate within our community will escalate. The campaign to defund the police aims to solve that issue by re-prioritising resources and investing in accountability, safety and harm reduction.

The truth is, institutional racism is woven into the very fabric of our society. It is not a comfortable truth to accept, but to turn a blind eye is to be complicit in this system which literally costs lives. While report after report may shine a light on the violence that this policing and other institutions inflict, there is an urgent need for meaningful action to rethink the very structures of our society. We must build our community response infrastructure and more reliable mechanisms to support us when we suffer violent and abusive experiences – whether as survivors, bystanders or those who have hurt others. These mechanisms must address our immediate and ongoing safety; create space for transformation as well as developing individual and collective healing.

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