18 August 2011

Learning the wrong lessons

Kam Gill's avatar

On Tuesday 9 August, Runnymede Research and Policy Analyst and StopWatch member, Kam Gill, accompanied a delegation to attend a a two day transatlantic conference on police initiated stops at John Jay University. Kam discusses the difference between the US and the UK when it comes to stopping citizens. Considering both the policies and the regulation of police in this area, he draws some conclusions about what the UK can learn from the US example.

In the US and the UK (England and Wales for practical purposes) police initiated searches of the public are one of the most sensitive topics of modern policing. Police forces in both countries insist that stop and search (UK) or stop and frisk (US) is a vital tool in the fight against crime. Meanwhile, critics claim that it is an intrusion upon a citizen’s freedom that can only be justified in the most specific of terms. Regardless of principle, one must also consider the nature of the encounter and the massive ethnic disproportionalities that exist in the deployment of the various powers.

As a member of StopWatch I recently joined a group of police officers, academics, legal experts and activists at a roundtable conference on police initiated stops at New York’s John Jay College. The conference covered a wide variety of topics: from the legal basis for stops in both countries, the sociology of stereotypes and “shooter-bias”, to the efficacy of litigation over legislation and grass roots organising. I would like to focus on a recurrent theme of the conference for me and, I suspect, for other attendants. Prior to leaving for New York and reading all of the papers submitted by panellists, I had assumed that the US would be worse than the UK in terms of police practice (particularly stops), the regulation of police actions and legal protection of citizens. Stories of the brutality of American police forces, and their apparent impunity led me to assume that we had little to learn and much to teach our colleagues in the US. This assumption was qualified by the death of Mark Duggan on Thursday 4 August, months after the as yet-unexplained death of reggae star Smiley Culture and following on from the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009 and Jean Charles De Menezes in 2005 (to name but a few). Nonetheless it was pretty securely in place when the conference began on Wednesday 11th.

In some ways, my assumption was correct. In terms of levels of violence inflicted upon citizens and the degree of accountability they face for such violence, British police forces are a world away from the likes of the New York Police Department (NYPD). One of the most significant explanations for this is that policing in America is massively decentralised. The vast majority of police work is performed by one of 17,000 localised police forces. This means that any federal laws which might restrict the scope for discrimination or violence on the part of the police are difficult if not impossible to enforce at state or city level. Despite this there are two features that seem to unite police forces across the America. The first is that their focus is overwhelmingly on enforcement with little concept of policing by the consent of the community. This is a vital component of UK police work. The second is that policing tends to be highly political. The political nature of policing means that even if a force wishes to be less draconian, they can find themselves prevented by the tough platform of their elected commissioners.

Attempts to reform policing in the UK have been primarily driven by legislation in the wake of scandals and uprisings; the Stephen Lawrence case is a good example of the first, the Brixton ‘riots’ are an archetypal example of the second. Often these reforms have derived from recommendations by establishment figures such as Lords Scarman or Macpherson; whose investigations followed the Brixton riots and the Stephen Lawrence murder respectively. In America this type of top-down reform is simply not possible. Regulations against, for instance ethnic profiling may or may not be vigorously enforced within federal authorities but as if they are not enforced at a local level this will have no bearing on the policing that most citizens experience.

In response US activism has focussed on grass roots campaigning at a local level, and individual litigation to drive change. Primarily this occurs when a community or civil liberties group – for instance the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – brings a case to court, or succeeds in convincing the Department of Justice to do so. This technique has been the cause of some notable victories but it has limitations and requires sustained effort to ensure that any progress is enforced. Despite numerous efforts and repeated examples of brutality on the part of the NYPD: ranging from the 41 gunshot killing of Amadou Diallo in 1991, to the 50 shot fatal shooting of Sean Bell in 2006, as Darius Charney stated on the panel ‘Strategies for Change’: “Simply put, there are currently no meaningful systems for ensuring the transparency and accountability of the NYPD.”

However there are restrictions on US policing that make the UK look lax in comparison. Similarly US regulation is sustained by a committed advocacy that makes the UK appear complacent. There are no laws in the US which grant police carte blanche to stop and search anyone without the need for reasonable suspicion; there are two within the UK (Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000).

As a result of the licence granted to police, particularly in cities like New York, a group of citizens has sprung up that are far more active in tackling police brutality than anything seen in the UK. We visited one such group: Cop Watch who specialise in filming police as they patrol the streets to ensure that citizens rights are respected. Cop Watch exercise their rights in a manner which few UK citizens have found necessary. However they have a distinct advantage; the right to observe and film the police is not simply legally enshrined but is actively defended in the courts as well as on the streets. In the UK protesters, photographers and citizens have reported harassment and even confiscation of footage.

I do not think that there are simple correspondences to be drawn from these discussions. The most useful thing that I have drawn out of the experience was a clear idea of where I don’t want policing to go, and a positive idea of the activism required to prevent it. On returning from New York, I and many of my colleagues were dismayed to hear that the government was seriously considering appointing Bill Bratton, New York’s “Robocop” as an advisor on policing. Their motivation seems to be entirely driven by a desire for a macho, zero-tolerance policing model which is alien to the UK’s consensual model. A more subtle, but pressing danger is the dispersal of responsibility. Currently this does not apply in the UK. However, plans to institute elected police commissioners threaten to politicise policing and to shatter what coherence exists within the system. This exponentially increases the difficulties faced by those who would hold the police accountable for the way they patrol our streets.

The response to this is a more positive, and community based form of activism. Movements like Cop Watch and even the ACLU are intrinsically tied to communities and this sustains them even after national outrage at a given scandal has faded. As one representative of Cop Watch said “When your movement loses touch with the block, it’s finished”. Cop Watch is an impressive solution to a desperate situation, and I am not suggesting the UK is there yet. However, in the light of proposed changes to policing in the UK this style of activism offers a promising method of holding those who police our streets to account.