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Not Just America

Police brutality is an ever-strong malevolent force in both the US and the UK. Institutional violence is intrinsic to policing and we need no less than major reform to address this

By Katie KenyonPublished 4 months ago 12 min read

While the Black Lives Matter movement has lead to greater acknowledgement of the need to address police racism and brutality, it has seen a frustrating division of opinion on the legitimacy of comparisons between US and UK police forces. Undoubtedly, there are structural differences between forces in the two countries (as there are between different forces within the countries), but ultimately they are all institutionally racist and rotten to their deepest core. I find it frustrating when, here in the UK, the angle that someone takes is ‘at least our police aren’t as bad as those in the US’. This is the position the BBC’s Emily Maitlis exhibited when discussing the BLM protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020. To be specific, on Newsnight she said to rapper and author George Mpanga (George the Poet), who’s friend, Julian Cole, a few days prior had had his neck broken by a Bedfordshire police officer, “you’re not putting America and the UK on the same footing…our police aren’t armed…the legacy of slavery is not the same”. The artist responded by saying that if this case of police violence against a black individual represents an ‘exception’, she would need to explain the myriad other cases of anti-black police violence, many of which have devastatingly resulted not only in life-altering injury, but death. Qualifying his remarks through the wider audience, Mpanga stated to Maitlis that he hopes “this is a learning point for the many people who think along the lines that you just expressed”.

Maitlis, as well as those who offer a similar argument, should also consider what level of brutality they would need to see before they placed UK police violence in the same category as that of the US. They may argue that it is the conditions that allow these acts of violence to be carried out which differentiate them from how the US police uses force, but actually, only minor operational details account for the differences between how the different forces tend to kill.

UK Police are as Racist as Ever

A look at even the most recent examples of UK police violence shows that in many ways it is as extreme as in the US; after all, both institutions stem from the same historical conditions and colonial inclinations to control and marginalise ethnic minorities. Today, people of colour make up a disproportional percentage of the victims of police violence. Officers of London’s Metropolitan Police Service are four times more likely to use force against black people than white. White people are least at risk of police violence; with all other non-white communities falling in-between these two likelihood ranges. Moreover, black people are twice as likely to die in police custody than their white counterparts. Despite the close comparability of these figures with the US, those treading the Maitlis line often assert that ‘we have stronger regulation and scrutiny of the police here in the UK’. This highlights features which, while in theory differentiate between the two countries’ policing structures, are actually in practice incompetent, inadequate and insufficient in monitoring the police. They simply fool the public into blissful ignorance, allowing them to believe that the police are sufficiently checked. In reality, a majority of the time, officers can trust that their positions will protect them before the law.

To elaborate: Aside from UK police forces - including the London Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police and Police Scotland - being officially classified as institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic - a label we could perhaps characterise as too little too late - the degree to which officers, for want of a better phrase, ‘get away’ with their actions in the UK is very similar to what happens in the US. There are many, many examples of officers involved with either murder or injury to people in their custody being explicitly protected from prosecution, or any consequence full stop. Here are just a few to exemplify the extremity of the issue:

In the UK, since 1969, there has been one successful prosecution of a police officer for either manslaughter or homicide. As of 2004, 827 people have died during or following police contact, yet there have been no convicted officers. One instance is the case of former Aston Villa football player Dalian Atkinson who died in 2016, ninety minutes after officers used a taser and forceful restraint on him at his father’s home in Telford. The two officers facing charges were initially suspended after being placed under investigation, and then allowed to return to work before any conclusion had been reached. Almost two years later, they were once again suspended and are currently on unconditional bail. So despite having been immediately flagged as potential murder and manslaughter suspects, these officers were re-instated in their jobs - the positions which empowered them to kill in the first place, and then have a better chance than anyone at evading responsibility.

The similarly shocking death of a black ex-paratrooper - Christopher Alder in 1998 - is unfortunately only one example of the most grotesque police neglect. After being taken to hospital following a fight, Alder was arrested and put in custody, during which time he was kicked and left unable to breath lying facedown in a pool of blood, while officers stood beside him laughing and making jokes. The father-of-two was found eleven minutes later with his trousers below his ankles. Five officers were cleared of manslaughter and misconduct four years later.

With the routine use of tasers amongst British officers exemplifying the unprofessional, erratic and careless expression of the authoritatively-acquired permit to use force, it was only a handful of months ago in March 2023 that we saw an eleven-year-old boy stunned by a 50,000-volt gun. Forget formal investigation, Police Scotland are yet to even apologise to the boy and his family. Clearly, the use of violence by the British police and in fact the state more generally goes almost entirely unchallenged. The deployment of a taser on a ten-year-old girl one year before this is yet to see any officers placed under criminal investigation. Later in 2022, a ninety three-year-old amputee with dementia died after he was tasered at his care home in Sussex. Once again, charges are yet to be made against any member of the police.

So those suggesting the adequacy of the UK’s police-scrutiny bodies may want to look a little deeper and re-assess their judgements. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the public body responsible for overseeing the management of complaints made against police forces in England and Wales, has proved itself to be categorically biased towards the police. Whenever there is a death in police custody, the IPCC must investigate. Those claiming that we have adequate police regulation in this country might cite the mere existence of this rule, however its effectiveness in practice is minimal: The body is not allowed to demand evidence from officers; it is historically very slow at reaching crime scenes on time; and is known to ameliorate police lies. All of this becomes less surprising when we are told that the majority of senior IPCC investors are ex-police. So much for ‘independent’. In one of the most well-known British cases of the police murder of a black man, Mark Duggan, the IPCC displayed this incompetence, promoting the lie that Duggan had shot at police first. So these are examples to give someone who downplays the impact of UK police brutality and corruption when comparing it to the US.

The repetition and frequency of these acts are themselves proof that officers feel protected and therefore confident to use violence whenever they see fit. It is clear to them that they are unlikely to face repercussions for their expressions of racism and savagery, beliefs and practices which are fostered by an institution built to oppress and divide.

…And Misogynistic

The evident protection of officers from the obsolete notion of ‘equality before the law’ nurtures other awful behaviours and normalises toxic attitudes too. We know this all too well with the abhorrent and abundant cultures of misogyny in forces across the country. The institutional context of one of the most extreme and public cases of sexual abuse and murder committed by an officer - the abduction and killing of Sarah Everard in March 2021 - demonstrates the normalcy of rape culture within the Met. What happened serves to entirely undermine the lazy and misinformed notion of a ‘bad apple’. Wayne Couzens was well-known amongst colleagues to have racist, sexist and homophobic views. If this wasn’t enough to flag him as unfit for supposed public service, he had also committed three acts of indecent exposure, to which he plead guilty. One of these took place only four months before he murdered Everard; police took no action at the time. He was also known to regularly 'joke' with other Met officers about rape and sexual assault. Many of these comments were exchanged over WhatsApp, in a private group that seemed to be dedicated to the discussion of sexually assaulting domestic abuse survivors, avoiding consent, and general depictions of violence against women and girls. The IPCC’s investigation found more than 6,000 messages with racist, homophobic, misogynistic and derogatory remarks about disabled people just in this one group chat. These grossly offensive WhatsApp messages came under investigation in late 2022 and saw one of those involved simply move to another force in a different region of the country, avoiding even the lightest of punishments, temporary suspension. So when Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley commits to ‘[rooting] out corrupt officers…to crack down on officers who carry out abusive behaviour’, he ignores the fact that they are already finding loopholes to avoid justice.

It appears that not only do these officers boast of committing rape and sexual violence, but unfortunately they are true to their word. In the Summer of 2020, two Met officers tasked with preserving a crime scene overnight (the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman), decided to violate these victims, stripping them of their “dignity in death”. They took unauthorised photos of the women’s bodies to share with fellow officers on multiple WhatsApp groups captioned with misogynistic language. The judge prosecuting the officers, who plead guilty to misconduct, decided they will serve only half of their respective sentences before being released on licence. It is difficult to refrain from sharing in detail each claim of police misconduct in the UK, but there are simply too many, even in the last decade. In the five years between 2016 and and 2021, more than 750 sexual misconduct claims were made against UK police officers.

But hopefully these examples clarify that the rot goes much deeper than a few isolated cases of ‘bad apples’. Former Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick showed her cowardice in avoiding to acknowledge this when she stated that “everyone in policing feels betrayed” after what Couzens did. Allowing the Met to distance itself from these actions and evade responsibility constitutes a major part of the institutional faults which allowed such cultures to evolve in the first place. It also suggests that this devastating brutality would need to be occurring on an even greater scale before any reform is considered.

This Violence is Intrinsic to Policing

Of course the rate of fatal police shootings is much higher in the US than the UK. Need the geographical and population differences be highlighted in acknowledging this. But I don’t think the numbers themselves are all that relevant when we are comparing the reasons behind both countries’ cases of institutional racism. To understand why fatalities in this context are exceptionally high in the US is of course extremely important - such lax gun-possession regulation undoubtedly explains this anomaly - as it does in accounting for exceptionally high school-shooting rates. But we should not let country-specific non-police-related details fool us into believing that the extremity of police violence is a problem exclusive to the US. It occurs for the same reason in the UK and any other country we choose to compare it with. The reasons why the police exist in the first place explain why these themes are consistent characteristics of policing worldwide.

In the words of former HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir John Woodcock, the police were established as “a mechanism to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes”. The first UK police force developed from the colonial desire to impose social control on the people of Ireland. This deployment of force on exclusively working-class communities spread across the country and into Europe, operating to protect the property of the elite. Similarly, the American police departments of today were spawned directly from patrol units searching for escaped slaves and defending white settlements in Mexico. While implementing Jim Crow segregation and protecting the white individuals involved in the lynching of over 6,500 African Americans, US police forces today continue their legacy of oppressive racial control, lynchings and social division. So to confirm, both the UK and US police forces - the exact ones operating today - were constructed specifically to be violent, brutal, prejudice and barbaric.

Writing for Novara Media, Connor Woodman quotes the UK’s leading scholar of police, Robert Reiner, who says that “wherever one looks at the origins of the police (and prisons), one finds they develop hand in hand with social inequality and hierarchy”. Policing in the UK serves to demonstrate this very well. Many people may focus on tan example of progress made in a very specific area, like the 1981 repeal of the ‘Sus Law’ after it became mainstream knowledge that the police were using it to specifically target black and ethnic minority individuals. They then mistakenly interpret this as an overall improvement in police conduct and positive evolution of the concept of policing. But they fail to recognise the fact that meanwhile, many broad police powers are currently increasing and how this will inevitably continue to disproportionately impact minorities. Moreover, in most of these cases where positive changes were made, improvements have been reversed and the police have been re-granted the same powers, simply through updated laws and modernised appeals to public ‘safety’. A very significant and recent example is The Public Order Act 2023, which comes close to criminalising protest and will likely lead to many more arrests while people exercise their right to do so. In essence the law sends a signal to the police “to encourage them to adopt a greater degree of intolerance towards protesters”, as well as allowing them to stop and search anyone without having to have ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspicion. Reminiscent of the 80s? Prominent events such as the 1981 Brixton riots highlight the extremity of police brutality, and so may lead people to mistakenly deduce that their cultural contexts were in such a state as to render the conditions only temporarily able to spark animosity. However, evidently the police violence on display during such events is always there. It represents a not only very consistent feature of policing but indeed the purpose itself.

Besides the unique characteristics of different police forces between and within countries, their collective existence serves as an ever-strong, suppressive, divisive and racist force. At the very least we need major institutional reform if any of these issues are to be addressed, both here and in the US.


About the Creator

Katie Kenyon

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