February 2023: The mission to restore 'policing by consent'
Last summer, the new head of the Met claimed it was his mission to 'renew the uniquely British invention of "policing by consent"'. Six months on, that goal has never looked more out of reach.
This month, British police forces reminded us of their unrivalled capacity to exist as both ruthless enactors of state violence and as wholly incompetent.
This duality was exemplified time and time again throughout this month’s news stories: from disturbing new analysis from INQUEST showing that Black people are seven times more likely to die following police restraint than white people (The Independent, 20 Feb), to the story that police in England and Wales managed to botch more than 1,500 DNA samples (The Guardian, 9 Feb) simply by failing to seal swab bags correctly (the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner said it was ‘very frustrating for all involved that the forensic science cycle continues to fall down at what must be the simplest stage’). Similarly, we heard from the ongoing spycops inquiry that undercover officers ‘regularly deceived women into sexual relationships because of a culture of “endemic” sexism within the Metropolitan police’ (The Guardian, 21 Feb), while news also emerged that the Met had mistakenly written to ‘hundreds of retired officers with misconduct records’ asking them to return to the force as part of a new ‘enhanced return scheme’ as their recruitment targets look increasingly unattainable (The Times, 31 Jan).
But we’ve also seen two significant victories won this month: first, peers voted to reject the government’s plans to extend suspicionless stop and search powers – among other measures designed to clamp down on protest – as part of the Public Order Bill. The legislation ultimately suffered a total of eight defeats in the House of Lords this month (The Guardian, 21 Feb). The second success was the result of legal action taken by Liberty and JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association), which led the Crown Prosecution Service to agree to monitor racial bias in joint enterprise prosecutions.
This month at StopWatch, we’ve been putting together resources on SVROs (Serious Violence Reduction Orders), which are due to be piloted this spring – so stay tuned. We also attended the launch of the Public Law Project’s new ‘tracking automated government’ register, ‘revealing details of 41 secretive algorithms used by government to make or inform decisions on a range of sensitive policy areas, included how people are policed’ (Public Law Project, 9 Feb).
Topics in this newsletter include:
The longstanding myth of ‘policing by consent’
Dozens of cases of police-perpetrated sexual violence
And the thrilling tale of PC Watson, ‘Britain’s fastest cop’…
Please enjoy our roundup of stories below.
Is the myth of ‘policing by consent’ finally losing its magic?
What is ‘policing by consent’?
When the announcement was made last summer that Sir Mark Rowley would be taking over as head of the Met, Rowley made it clear that he would make it his mission to ‘renew the uniquely British invention of “policing by consent”’ (Home Office, July 22). Throughout the first six months of his tenure as commissioner, Rowley has referred to this idea of policing by consent repeatedly – as have the media, politicians, and the police themselves, who cite it as the philosophy underpinning policing in the UK.
The idea tends to be attributed to Robert Peel – the man who founded the Met almost 200 years ago – in conjunction with the nine ‘Peelian principles’ for police legitimacy and effectiveness (however, there is no evidence that the most commonly cited articulation of these principles was composed by Peel – rather, this was the work of historian Charles Reith in the 1950s). The seventh principle features the maxim that ‘the police are the public and that the public are the police’ (Home Office, Dec 2012) – essentially, the notion that the legitimacy and authority of the police stems from public trust and confidence, rather than from fear or force.
As the venerated principle goes, when public trust and confidence in the police breaks down, so too does the legitimacy and authority of the police. And there’s no doubt that over the past few years, public trust and confidence in the police has indeed begun to break down in a pretty spectacular way. This isn’t just a hunch: not only have government officials and senior police officers admitted it, but the stats back it up too. Research from YouGov published this month showed that in 2023, the majority of Londoners don’t trust the Met. 22% of respondents said they did not trust the Met ‘at all’, while only 6% said they had ‘a lot’ of trust in the force.
So, what happens to the nation’s police forces when (by their own admission) this all-important public trust and confidence simply doesn’t exist? (There’s also an important point to be made here about the social groups who for good reason have never had any trust in the police.) Well, officially, not much happens. Beyond strongly-worded (but not too strongly-worded) condemnations from politicians, performative launches of reviews, and leadership shake-ups, there are no consequences for the police and their wide-ranging powers. Why? Partly because the hallowed principle of policing by consent – at least in the way it is extolled by those in power (implying that a lack of trust equals a lack of legitimacy) – has never been that simple.
Withdrawing consent, refusing trust
As a 2021 Abolitionist Futures article argues, the concepts of ‘the public’ and of ‘consent’ (especially in the context of modern capitalism) are far from straightforward to unpick. While public disapproval and dissatisfaction will not prevent the police from using their unique powers in grossly violent and unjust ways, maintaining public support (even passively) is in undoubtedly in the interests of the police.
[…] the police can’t take the public’s consent for granted; they must continuously work for it. […] And, as part of the work of building consent, each egregious act of police violence that hits the news is followed by a fresh round of commitments to ‘restore trust’ in the police and ‘rebuild the relationship between the police and the community’.
This would explain some of British policing’s recent (rather desperate-looking) attempts to convince us (a) that in the wake of multiple high-profile scandals, they really can and will change for the better, and (b) to join the police ourselves.
Increasing public reluctance to take the bait of ‘renewing consent’ and ‘restoring trust’ casts doubt on the feasibility of Rowley’s mission. And – perhaps more importantly – it also raises questions in relation to the Labour party’s almost identical proposals, particularly as the likelihood of their winning an election rises. This month, the party pledged to increase police numbers and resources, and to implement law-and-order style policies such as ‘respect orders’ (The Telegraph, 19 Feb) as part of their renewed commitment to a ‘tough on crime’ approach to criminal justice.
But when one in every 100 police officers in England and Wales face potential criminal charges in the space of just one year (The Guardian, 25 Feb), when they have a proven history of suppressing movements working for social justice and liberation, when they use their powers to commit heinous acts of sexual violence, and when even the country’s religious leaders feel compelled to call out the ‘something rotten in the culture and structures’ of UK policing (Manchester Evening News, 2 Feb), why should the public even want trust to be restored or consent to be renewed with such a rotten institution? As Chantelle Lunt argued in a piece for the StopWatch blog last year (among countless other campaign groups and activists):
Public confidence is at an all-time low and the police are facing a crisis of legitimacy that they cannot recover from. As far as social experiments go, UK police forces have been a resounding failure. It’s time to withdraw consent.
What does it really mean to ‘withdraw consent’, then? ‘To withdraw our consent from the police would mean abandoning demands for better policing, restored trust, or a force that better represents the people it polices’ (Abolitionist Futures, 2021). And crucially, withdrawing consent is something that has to be done proactively: monitoring the police and their how they use they use their powers (both legally and illegally); filming them and challenging their behaviour during stop and search encounters; being open-minded towards alternative solutions to social issues that bypass policing and reject punitiveness as the answer; and most crucially of all, refusing to accept the claim that if only the police were given more powers, more funding, and more resources, they would be able to fulfil their benevolent objectives of protecting the public and preventing harm.
Deaths from police contact, cases old and new
Joshua Ball, 26, died after being restrained by Staffordshire police in May 2018. Now, an inquest aims to establish the full circumstances of his death. Joshua’s father said: ‘I am grateful that the inquest is finally happening. I want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to come out about how my son Joshua met his death’. (INQUEST, 2 Feb)
Shaun Aherne, 42, died after he was arrested by Derbyshire police and detained at Chesterfield police station in January 2018. Earlier this month, the inquest jury returned a narrative verdict that Shaun died due to the physical and psychological stress of being restrained in police custody. (BBC News, 7 Feb)
Unnamed man, Greater Manchester
The IOPC is investigating after a man in his 20s died shortly after being arrested. The man became ‘seriously unwell’ following the arrest and was given medical treatment but died at the scene, the watchdog said. (BBC News, 15 Feb)
Joseph Sneddon was admitted to hospital during a mental health crisis in April 2022 and died following a prolonged period of restraint by police officers. The heavily redacted post-mortem examination report obtained by Joseph’s family showed that he had been restrained for ‘at least a four-hour period’ and had been very agitated and ‘extensively fighting’ against the restraints. ‘All I want is answers as to what happened to my son and why he isn't at home with me and his family’, Joseph’s mother said. (The Independent, 16 Feb)
‘Britain’s fastest cop’ claims to have 100% success rate chasing down and detaining suspects: PC Luke Watson said, ‘If we’re in an area where drug dealing takes place I’ll conduct a stop-and-search and sometimes people like to run away. For me, it’s instinctive. Personally, I feel I can’t afford to lose them. I find myself thinking, “I’m going to catch you and teach you a lesson”.’ (The Times, 3 Feb)
City of London Police investigates 32 cases of possible misconduct by officers over the last 18 months: In a report filed to the City of London, the force said it was investigating ‘police perpetrated domestic abuse, sexual misconduct, misogyny and violence against women and girls’ among other incidences (MyLondon, 6 Feb)
Two of David Carrick’s Met colleagues ‘sent victim sexually suggestive messages’: Two of David Carrick's colleagues sent one of his victims a series of sexually suggestive messages and pictures of them posing in their Metropolitan police uniforms armed with guns. One of the officers contacted the victim three days after Carrick's arrest in October 2021. (Sky News, 8 Feb)
Serving Met officer charged with rape by Essex police: PC Jordan Pascal is due to appear at Southend Magistrates’ Court next month. (The Independent, 9 Feb)
Met officer tied up flatmate who thought she was going to be raped: PC Sam Grigg, who pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and assault, asked his victim, ‘Who are you going to tell? I am the police’. (Sky News, 11 Feb)
Nearly 50 Police Scotland officers evade accountability by leaving the force during complaints cases: 47 officers in Scotland have resigned or retired during misconduct proceedings against them since 2009. If an officer leaves Police Scotland, misconduct proceedings are automatically scrapped. (BBC News, 14 Feb)
Ex-West Midlands police officer struck vulnerable man in hospital bed and described him as ‘simple minded’: A misconduct panel ruled that the former officer would have been dismissed for punching the man, who was detained for a mental health assessment, in October 2022. (Express & Star, 15 Feb)
Probe after police officer and schoolchild involved in ‘very troubling incident’ at Birmingham school: The ‘isolated incident’ involving a 14-year-old boy who was ‘restrained’ by a police officer is under investigation by the West Midlands police Professional Standards Department. (Birmingham Live, 16 Feb)
Wiltshire police’s use of force in custody ‘concerning’, inspectors say: The oversight of use of force ‘hasn't improved since our last inspection and is now a cause of concern’, their report said. (BBC News, 17 Feb)
Black people 7 times more likely to die after police restraint than white people in the UK, new analysis by INQUEST reveals: The charity’s report says no officer has ever been found to have acted in a racist or discriminatory way following the death of a black person after contact with the police. (The Guardian, 19 Feb)
Met officer who shared Sarah Everard joke lied in the high court: Giles Kitchener, who was sacked over a joke about Sarah Everard’s murder, was a veteran of the Met who continued his policing career despite telling lies in the high court. City of London police published a statement about Kitchener’s dismissal in January, omitting details of the former detective sergeant’s behaviour – including that he had taken charge of a domestic violence case after drinking alcohol while on duty. (Evening Standard, 25 Feb)
Police chiefs call for constables to be given the power to charge suspects: The controversial change is being called for by the chief constables of the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire forces, respectively the second, third and fourth biggest in England after the Met. (The Guardian, 27 Feb)
Section 60 watch*
Ellesmere Port (9 Feb)
* This is not a comprehensive list
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