Thursday, 9 April 2009

Help, Police

The video seems fairly damning. A man, walking away from the police, is struck with a baton and then shoved to the ground, shortly before he dies of a heart attack. It seems massively unlikely that this is a coincidence, although I understand that courts work to a slightly higher standard when they're determining causality.

The policeman in question looks to be facing a criminal trial: possibly for assault, possibly for manslaughter. This is something that will be determined by the courts, one way or another. Meanwhile, the police, as a whole, are facing a crisis of public confidence. This will be determined, in large part, by what the police do next. There are two separate concerns: one is the police response to public order, and the proportionate use of force. The second, more serious issue is the ability of the police to confront their own failings.

Regarding the first, there does seem to be a culture that embraces the use of force to corral and control protesters. The comments on The Policeman's Blog give some insight into the insider's view, although clearly it's hardly a representative sample. Various (presumably) police attitudes include:
  • Protesters are dirty tax-dodging hippies;
  • If you go to a demo and get shoved about by the cops, it's no more than you should expect;
  • "Kettling" works: compare May Day 2001 with 2000 - much less violence, property damage etc. precisely because police did actively and forcefully control the crowd;
  • Crowd dynamics and control are not precise sciences; treating people as a herd rather than individuals is therefore necessary;
  • Public order is not community policing: it is all about using force to achieve your ends;
  • The officer who struck Tomlinson is damned unlucky - this happens all the time and it's only a problem because he had a heart attack;
  • The officer who struck Tomlinson was acting completely out of order and should be disciplined.

A mixed bag, but coupled with the comments about the police being "up for it" beforehand and you're left with the distinct impression that, to say the least, the police and general public have somewhat differing perspectives on the use of force at protests. (That is, depending on who the force is being used against.) For me, one of the most worrying aspects of the video is that the assaulting policeman has covered his face with a balaclava that (presumably) is part of standard gear. I have no doubt that this helps immensely in a) making riot police look more intimidating and b) giving those police confidence. But the decision to project that image reveals quite a lot about the relationship the police have or want to have with demonstrators.

There is an important question of public policy here: as pointed out by a commentator at the Policeman's Blog, once you've established that attending a demo carries a strong risk of being detained, corraled or even assaulted then you've had a more or less chilling effect on political protest. The overall attitude is not that the protest will happen, and the police need to keep an eye on troublemakers: the protest is trouble, and the police need to control it and minimise it.

Police self-policing has long been acknowledged as a bit of a paradox; it takes a very rigorous adherence to principle for a body devoted to law and order to treat its own members as potential criminals. But it already looks like the various lessons that could have been learned from the Menezes shooting have been given a miss: the police already stand accused of giving out misinformation, attempting to control the media reporting and being very reluctant to consider that they might be at fault. The IPCC also seems to have been slow to decide that this needed independent investigation. Trust in the police is crucial to the whole concept of policing by consent; it's built on knowing that the police can and will self-correct when they get it wrong.

No comments: