What can be learnt from the riots in Tottenham this weekend? There have been many controversial police shootings in recent years but this would not appear, on the face of it, to be one of them. The matter is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and from my experience that might be part of the problem. There are also deeper issues that need to be addressed.
Local people are apparently complaining that the police have not talked to them or the family of the deceased about what happened. Most police officers have learnt the importance of police community relations and how important it is to share as much information as possible with the community as soon as possible after a controversial incident. I have been the police commander when there has been a death following contact with the police. A Gold Group of community leaders has been immediately convened. The idea is to ensure that those with influence in the community are given the facts in order to prevent false, malicious and damaging rumours from spreading. In addition, a Family Liaison Officer has been appointed to ensure the family are kept informed of developments.
The difficulty I have faced in the past is the reluctance of the IPCC to fully understand the importance of such consultation in preventing community tension and their almost exclusive emphasis on conducting an independent investigation. As the police could potentially be ‘suspects’ in such a shooting, the IPCC are reluctant to share information with the police or the community and have even prevented the police from sharing information with the community in the past.
We do not know in this case whether the complaints of a failure to communicate with the family of the man who was shot or with the community are justified or whether any such failure lies with the police or with the IPCC. What is inescapable is that underlying tensions remain within the black community that must be addressed. Many have lost their lives at the hands of the police in the past without such a violent reaction from the community. Whilst this incident may have been the spark, you need a volatile atmosphere before there can be an explosion.
When a young white man loses his life on the streets of London, which happens too often but irregularly, the media coverage is disproportionate compared with the tragically frequent murders of young black men, which hardly get a mention, devaluing black lives. There are also concerns about the witness protection provided by the police to black witnesses in murder cases, giving rise to concerns that the police don’t really care. And you are still more than seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you are black than if you are white, more than 20 years after the Brixton riots.
More widely, many people, including me, have serious concerns about the investigation of complaints against the police, where the impression given is that police officers escape prosecution in circumstances where members of the public might be expected to face trial. Recent allegations of corruption, where police officers have allegedly been taking money from newspapers in exchange for confidential information will not have helped public trust and confidence in the police. The apparent failure of the police to investigate phone hacking, questionable hiring of former employees of News International and the resignation of senior police officers over apparent errors of judgment, will further undermine police community relations and negatively impact on police morale.
The Metropolitan Police Service desperately needs strong and decisive leadership from someone who has experience of dealing with similar issues in an equally difficult and volatile situation. The Mayor of London and the former Home Secretary failed to appoint him last time, instead appointing someone who got out of the kitchen as soon as the heat was turned up. Boris Johnson must not make the same mistake again and have the courage to appoint Sir Hugh Orde this time around. London also needs a Mayor who knows about these issues, who is not afraid to hold the police to account and who can give the new Commissioner the political backing he needs to take decisive action.
This article was written before the further outbreaks of violence in London last night.