29 January 2014

What does the Duggan inquest tell us about relations between the police and the BME community?

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In the wake of the Duggan verdict, StopWatch Policy Group member Kojo Koram explains why BME communities have lost faith in our criminal justice system, and why stop and search reform is key to building a system that is not inherently biased against them.

Photo: John Stillwell / Press Association

"The inequality that exists throughout the criminal justice system demonstrates that many from the black community are subject to substantially different treatment than those from the white community. Not only does this disproportionality harm individuals policed and prosecuted for minor drug offences, but this potentially seriously impacts on the trust and confidence these communities will have in the police and the criminal justice system."

The quote which prefaces this article is drawn from: The numbers in black and white: ethnic disparities in the policing and prosecution of drug offences in England and Wales, published by Niamh Eastwood, Michael Shiner and Daniel Bear in 2013. Both the quote and the report’s findings demand renewed attention in the context of this month’s verdict at the Mark Duggan inquest, when a jury concluded by a majority of 8 to 2 that Duggan was lawfully killed by armed police in August of 2011. Famously, it was the reluctance of the police to provide Duggan’s grieving family with an adequate explanation for why the father of six had lost his life which sparked violent protests in Duggan’s hometown of Tottenham, subsequently lighting the blue touch paper for the nationwide riots of that summer. Duggan’s family and community refused to believe the official story that this man, with no serious criminal convictions, had initiated a shoot-out with armed police, a narrative lazily regurgitated by the media at the time. That story disintegrated over the course of the inquest, however despite the jury accepting that Duggan did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, it was decided that he was still lawfully killed. It is a decision which has once again left the people of Tottenham confused and angry, delivering a further hammer blow to the already fractured relations between that community and the police, relations which have been described as only getting worse since the riots.

Commentators like Henry Smith, a Conservative MP, have sought to emphasise that this was a decision delivered by a ten person jury and if we are to have any faith left in our criminal justice system, the jury’s decision should be respected and the matter should be put to bed. What this perspective overlooks is that as a result of decades of disproportionate treatment at the hands of the police and the courts, as evidenced in the Release and LSE report, communities such Duggan’s already have no faith in our justice system, The reason for the fury at Mark Duggan’s death was not just because he had been killed but because his death was the final chapter of a storied history of confrontations between the police and the people of Tottenham stretching back to before the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. As opposed to feeling protected by the police, they feel hunted by them. As Mark Duggan’s aunt Carol stated: “Every young man in Tottenham is in fear of the police and it is wrong.” The current practice of stop and search facilitates this atmosphere of harassment, due to its disproportionate application. As gang mediator Ken Hinds says “the key to the problem is stop and search, which is simply racial profiling of black men aged between 15 and 40". Duggan was of course mixed-race but as anyone who has read any Stuart Hall will know, race is a social construct as opposed to a biological construct and after his shooting Duggan was firmly aligned with the social category of ‘dangerous, violent young black male.’ This characterisation of Duggan as a gangster is the crucial undercurrent to this case. It was the narrative fed to the public at large by the constant publication of menacing photos of Duggan which carefully cropped out the grave of his daughter he was standing by, lest the public have any empathy for him. It was a narrative that drew upon an image already embedded in the public consciousness of young black males as criminal-in-potentia, the same image that fuels and reinforces of stop and search practices. With drug law enforcement the main reason behind stop and searches, accounting for over 50%, and with only 7% of drug stop and searches across England and Wales ending in arrest, they too often leave the individual feeling unfairly victimised and instills mistrust and resentment towards the police. This unjust treatment continues after an arrest is made as judicial decision making then result in higher rates of BME people being imprisoned for drug offences and receiving harsher punishments when compared to white people committing the same offence.

The result of all this is that communities like those in Tottenham will not be able to accept decisions such as the Duggan verdict until they believe that the criminal justice system is not inherently biased against them. They will not be able to believe that the criminal justice system is not biased until stop and search practice is reformed. And for stop and search to be reformed, recognition is required of the fact that the UK’s drug policy is flawed and encourages disproportionate treatment throughout the criminal justice system of those from BME communities.