Photo via flickr/UN Photo/Ilyas Ahmed
There seems to be a truly deep-rooted, culturally ingrained idea in white Britannia that the police force, much like sausage rolls and drizzle, are just part of the whimsical, benign furniture of this green and pleasant land. From the bumbling PC Plod in the children’s fictional series Noddy, to the cheeky chappy buddy cops portrayed by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the 2007 film Hot Fuzz, the long arm of the law is painted as a bucolic well-meaning figure just doing his best to keep the peace.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t imitate art, and police in the UK are more likely to hit the headlines for brutalising and murdering people than saving the day in Toytown. For example, in July 2017 alone, three accusations of death in custody were levelled at the police including for the death of Darren Cumberbatch who was punched by police 15 times, tasered, and hit with a baton; Rashan Charles who was grabbed from behind in a corner shop and thrown to the floor by an officer who then proceeded to sit on him beyond the point when Rashan was limp and unresponsive; and Shane Bryant who became “ill” after being restrained by an off-duty police officer in a supermarket. Just this month, Jason Lennon “fell illl” after being detained by police and later died in hospital.
“Priti’s announcement ushers in a new era when Section 60 can be authorised by much lower-ranking inspectors”
Given this context, a quiet announcement on Sunday by Priti Patel, the UK’s new Home Secretary, that a stop and search pilot will be rolled out to all 43 police forces and the British Transport Police in England and Wales is cause for grave concern. Previously, Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 meant that only a senior ranking officer could authorise a “stop and search” of a person who they thought was about to commit a crime, before the crime had been committed. Priti’s announcement ushers in a new era when Section 60 can be authorised by much lower-ranking inspectors and superintendents, giving expanded stop and search powers to 8,000 more officers in England and Wales. Her justification? Apparently that “stop and search works”.
Priti might want to take five and check her receipts, because stop and search has long been dismissed as deeply ineffective in its supposed purpose to prevent crime. In fact, decreased stop and search policies in recent years correlates with an overall decrease in violent crime, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. Even Theresa May herself, usually first at the buffet of any opportunity to criminalise communities of colour, said that stop and search was statistically a “waste of police time”.
“Careerist politicians trying to secure their bag in a bleak age of populist politics think that appearing ‘tough on crime’ will win them favour”
As always, the issue here is twofold. Firstly, people of colour – predominantly young black boys who are always the primary targets of stop and search – are being used as disposable pawns in a game as old as time. Careerist politicians trying to secure their bag in a bleak age of populist politics think that appearing “tough on crime” will win them favour with the voting public. One of the most notable historical examples of this is Bill Clinton and his 1994 Crime Bill (which he cooked up with the help of current Democratic favourite Joe Biden, let’s not forget), which green-lit the mass incarceration of millions of people of colour for minor infringements without parole. Bill’s dedication to being “tough on crime” and simultaneous harsh curtailments to welfare assistance played a part in winning him a second term in office in the 1996 election.
The second issue is the continued fabrication of benevolent “well-meaning” policing as a solid and indisputable concept. The idea that laws and the institutions that uphold them are inherently good, and law-breakers are inherently bad continues to lead us in the wrong direction, plunging us ever deeper into a maze of state-spun mythologies and ideologies. For the record, the institution of the police was created in England and the US in order to suppress crowds such as striking workers and slave rebellions, and to protect property. For example, the UK police force was formed in 1829, just ten years after the Peterloo Massacre, when soldiers charged into a crowd of 80,000 people who were living in poverty and had come together to protest and demand the right to vote.
Across the Atlantic, the first police institutions were gaggles of slave-catchers tasked with locating “runaway” enslaved people, and preventing uprisings. What we can ascertain from this chequered history is that bobbies on the beat were never intended to keep people safe – they were invented as agents of capitalism and white supremacy, and the legacy of this brief is alive and well in the present day.
“Priti is paving the way for increased profiling, harassment, and incarceration of people of colour in the UK”
In an interview with the BBC yesterday Priti said that the new measures are being rolled out because the police “need to be empowered,” a poignant example of precisely what happens when people forget that words have meanings. The institution of the police is quite literally already the most empowered body in one of the most powerful countries in the entire world. By increasing powers to conduct stop and search, Priti is paving the way for increased profiling, harassment, and incarceration of people of colour in the UK’s ever-growing prison estate.
After only 13 short days on the job, Priti is already meeting every expectation we might hold for a former tobacco industry PR who unwinds from a hard day of championing the death penalty by hanging out with genocidal Israeli Security Ministers. There is no “fair and proper use” for a policy like stop and search which is proven to target communities of colour. It is well-documented that ramped-up policing over the summer months has historically boiled over into riots and unrest; by throwing black people under the bus in a scramble for stickers on the star-chart of white supremacy, Priti is playing with fire, and only time will tell when these sparks will ignite.