January 2022: The year of trust
Hype about cannabis decrim is a diversion from the main issues, while peers land some important wins over PCSC Bill
This newsletter finds us a month into a new calendar year, with a slew of fresh police controversies to add to existing scandals.
As Laura Hutchinson writes in Politics Home (25 Jan):
Many police forces in England and Wales would have been glad to see the back of 2021, a year of changing COVID restrictions and bad press. None more so than the Metropolitan Police which, according to its commissioner, experienced some of the ‘most dreadful events’ in its 190-year history.
But this year is unlikely to be much easier for the nation’s largest police service as it braces for the release of at least two high-profile reviews into the Met’s conduct, culture, vetting, and training.
And so it is proving already. Topics in this newsletter include:
Newspaper wrongly hypes up London mayor’s diversion plans as a form of decriminalisation
Latest on the PCSC Bill as it reaches the end of its time in the House of Lords
INQUEST points out a trend towards greater secrecy in police misconduct and abuse cases
And in Terrible tech the new ICO boss arrives, as does the return of live facial recognition in the capital.
All this ‘decrim’ talk is a diversion
2022 began with the revelation that London mayor Sadiq Khan is to take the unprecedented step of decriminalising drugs in the capital (The Telegraph, 03 Jan).
Sensational as this appears, in truth, the article read as less and less of a scoop with every paragraph, and the substance of it, especially under the heading ‘Young people “diverted” to drugs courses’, explains Khan’s actual plans.
As the mayor and his team were quick to point out (and all drugs campaigners and policy heads know), this is nothing new: half the police force areas in England and Wales have already trialled this in some form or other.
In fact, the only novel thing to arise from the article is a glimpse into the extent to which even the slightest moving of the needle towards a less punitive approach to drugs by a political figure is an act of bravery in itself: the tone of article seemed to both imply it would ‘spark debate’ while lighting the torchpaper marked ‘Moral Panic’.
Indeed, ‘Moral Panic’ is what drives Metropolitan police officers to perform drug swabbing exercises in the name of protecting women in the night time economy.
The Huffington Post reported that 15 people were searched in total and ‘one woman was arrested on suspicion of possession of Class A drugs’ (04 Jan). If that is the kind of safety the police meant, then it must come as a surprise to them that women across the country are not thanking them for their efforts in seizing 25% more cannabis during the pandemic compared with the previous year (i, 25 Jan).
Ian Hamilton, senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York identifies ‘the context for this invasive type of operation’ as part of the government’s new policy on drugs in which ‘it wants to see a “generational shift in attitudes to recreational drug use”’ (Independent, 04 Jan).
But the scientific literature – added to by a new study of 11 European countries including the UK – is still yet to find an association between cannabis policy and recreational use (PLoS ONE, 12 Jan). In fact, looking at official trends on drug use, it seems as though the government may risk invoking a sort of Streisand effect from its efforts to suppress street possession.
Besides, the public-at-large cares less about criminalising low-level cannabis possession than the media coverage may have us believe, according to a survey published by crime consultancy Crest Advisory (19 Jan). Of 2,000 adults polled, 45% backed out-of-court disposals for cannabis possession (such as community resolutions) versus 25% against. For young offenders, it was 41% for vs 32% against.
So perhaps we should have a more responsible conversation about cannabis regulation? This is the question Release pose in a new policy paper aiming to build on the social equity models of cannabis regulation developing in parts of the United States, with 14 principles which must be included in the discussions around cannabis reform in the UK (12 Jan).
Admittedly, with leaders of both political parties vehemently opposed to any such change to drugs policy, parliament ain’t ready for that conversation yet. And that is dangerous, because connected to part 6 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (on cautions) is a policy that threatens to limit the use of community resolutions for low-level cannabis possession.
Ostensibly, the government seek to formally replace most existing out-of-court disposals with the diversionary caution and the community caution. But in their 2017-21 strategy document, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) guidance to forces on the use of community resolutions (which remain outside of legislation) advises that using community resolution for the same crime family offence within 12 months ‘would not generally be appropriate (unless there are exceptional circumstances)’.
We anticipate the NPCC to consult on new guidance soon, which we believe should review the 12-month rule to allow for greater flexibility in policing cannabis possession and to prevent needlessly dragging individuals into the criminal justice system’s clutches.
At national level, our politicians show no inclination towards adopting a progressive stance on drugs policy. But there is leeway for police bodies such as the NPCC to get things right where the others get them wrong, and free up their officers to deal with serious societal harms.
PCSC latest: Less #KillTheBill than #WoundTheBill
One of the important stories this month was the continuation of the long-running saga that is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. On third reading in the House of Lords, peers voted on many amendments put before them.
Stop and search provisions came in two parts. One related to Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs) ‘in respect of offenders convicted of offences involving knives or offensive weapons’, backed by police stop and search powers ‘to target those subject to the orders’, the word ‘involving’ potentially doing a lot of heavy lifting in the process (please read our briefing paper for more detail).
Of the many amendments to halt the broadness of the SVROs proposal, the ones related to the pilot passed (Hansard, 10 Jan), meaning SVROs can only be introduced properly once the pilot is put before parliament and agreed upon by both houses, subject to the publication of ‘all reasonably available data… relevant to the effect of the operation’. In effect, this amendment will hold the home secretary to higher standards than they might otherwise have wanted.
On the stop and search provisions relating to protest, peers voted down all amendments introduced by the government during the bill’s passage through the Lords, a more positive outcome for those of us campaigning to stop the needless expansion of stop and search.
However, as Liberty policy and campaigns officer Jun Pang says, ‘the fight isn’t over’. As it stands, almost all of the wins achieved by peers against the government (and more) could still be overturned when it returns to the House of Commons, as one news outlet warned, telling campaigners ‘not to get too excited’ (The Canary, 19 Jan).
Justice secretary Dominic Raab said as much on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (Largs and Millport Weekly News, 18 Jan):
In relation to noise, of course we support the right of peaceful and rambunctious protest, but it cannot be allowed to interfere with the lives of the law-abiding majority.
But other cabinet members may have noted the strength of ill-feeling registered towards the bill. Write to them, let them know that the peers’ insurrection over the bill was not a one-off! 2022 has so far shown that resistance is not futile; we remain hopeful that good things can come out of opposing this oppressive legislation.
Police officers accused of domestic abuse and sexual offences are using ‘defensive tactics’ to dodge responsibility and safeguard the force’s reputation, INQUEST’s Deborah Coles told The Independent (03 Jan). ‘We have seen a rising trend in police officers requesting anonymity. Anonymity is becoming the default’, Coles observed.
Police forces are quick to bring down that veil of secrecy against any scrutiny, even through official channels such as council meetings, as Manchester Evening News journalist Jennifer Williams reported on Twitter (11 Jan).
And it goes right to the top politically, as The Independent’s Lizzie Dearden noted when the Home Office rejected her freedom of information request for the release of an equality impact assessment about the relaxation of section 60 safeguards (05 Jan). They said:
Disclosure of information that is intended for policy making can be misinterpreted and unhelpfully stimulate inaccurate and negative discourse, which is not in the public interest especially where trust and confidence in policing is important.
The comment seems a bit rich, considering police forces’ form for abusing our trust for years:
Police officer dismissed after 'sustained and repeated' domestic abuse campaign [over 18 years] (Daily Mail Online, 26 Jan)
Then supporting those who abuse the said trust:
Police ‘turn a blind eye to colleagues who break rules’ (The Times, 10 Jan (£wall))
And whole units of officers closing ranks over the physical abuse they mete out to any civilian brave enough to demand fairness and justice in their actions, such as Dr Konstancja Duff, who had to wait for almost a decade for an apology from the Met for an illegal and violent strip-search resulting from her rightful intervention in a stop and search (The Guardian, 24 Jan).
Sergeant Kurtis Howard, who ordered the search, was cleared of gross misconduct in 2017. As far as anybody knows Howard is still with the force, continuing to act with impunity derived from getting away with abusing Duff.
This impropriety runs deep within the ranks of the force too, as the spycops saga shows. Investigatory Powers Tribunal judges awarded Kate Wilson significant damages for breaches of 5 of her human rights from her ordeal with undercover officer Mark Kennedy and five other officers into Kate’s life and political movements (Police Spies Out of Lives, 25 Jan).
It comes as no surprise that the public will have trust issues with the police when these sorts of incidents are revealed all too frequently. So what will it take for the state to admit that the people are perfectly capable of handling the truth about the police? We suggest that if the government believes disclosure will cause trouble, then they’d probably want to do something about the troublemakers.
Deaths from police contact, cases old and new
The chief constable of West Mercia Police has apologised to the family of ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson over his death (ITV News, 27 Dec 2021). Atkinson died in 2016 after PC Benjamin Monk kicked the 48-year-old in the head at least twice and used a TASER on him during an arrest.
Pippa Mills acknowledged that there was an ‘obligation’ for her to write to the family on behalf of the force to ‘acknowledge and accept’ that Atkinson’s human rights were breached in this case.
She said: ‘The chief constable’s acknowledgement that a police uniform does not grant immunity is especially pertinent in a year that has seen other terrible examples of deadly police violence.
‘With the first conviction of a serving police officer on a manslaughter charge connected with his policing duties in over 30 years, it is hoped that this will serve as a deterrent, and also embolden those who seek police accountability.’
Mohamud Hassan and Mouayed Bashir
A year on from the deaths of 2 black men in South Wales who came into contact with the police, the families of Mohamud Hassan and Mouayed Bashir speak exclusively to BBC Wales Investigates reporter Mo Jannah (BBC, 17 Jan).
The programme also examines what police forces are doing to tackle concerns over claims of racism and the disproportionate use of force.
An inquest into the death of Jason Lennon began at Walthamstow Coroner’s Court (INQUEST, 17 Jan).
Lennon was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was subjected to a period of restraint by security guards at London’s ExCeL centre on 31 July 2019. The Met police then arrived at the scene to continue restraining him before realising that he was unconscious. They administered CPR until the London Ambulance Service arrived. He was taken to hospital but pronounced dead a short time later.
Mental health impacts of stop and search: BBC tells the story of Huugo, who was handcuffed and threatened with a TASER when stopped and searched in June 2020 (BBC News London, 04 Jan). Officers involved found nothing on him. He said the experience left him scared and worried about any future interactions with the police.
Law on sale of knives to young people to be tightened: Tighter new restrictions will make it harder for young people to buy dangerous knives and corrosive products as part of the government’s continued efforts to tackle youth violence under its Beating Crime Plan (Police Professional, 18 Jan).
The new measures, which are being lined up to come into force this April, will tighten up age verification both at the point of sale and delivery, introducing specific requirements on the labelling of packages containing knives and corrosive products to prevent them from being handed over to someone under the age of 18 on delivery.
‘What is drill music and does it hurt?’ asks the CPS: The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is updating its guidance on the use of drill music as evidence in criminal trials, following concerns from defence lawyers and academics who believe it can stop defendants – often young Black men – getting a fair trial (BBC News, 24 Jan).
Although the CPS claim not to have heard any instances of this happening, they have invited various academics, barristers, civil liberties campaigners, and youth groups to participate in a ‘listening exercise’ with them.
* The Institute of Race Relations calendar of racism and resistance presents a comprehensive list of policing articles.
Section 60 watch*
Wandsworth (18 Jan)
Cardiff (18 Jan)
* This is not a comprehensive list
Terrible tech: Who is the new ICO boss?
The Register have produced a handy summary of the new Information Commissioner, the regulator British citizens can go to over police data breaches, and will be working with the government over proposed reforms to the Data Protection Act (04 Jan). Selected quotes below:
Top of his in-tray will be helping the government square the EU’s data protection rules with its desire to create a new, more ‘pro-innovation’ regime.
Well before he started his new job, Edwards promised it could be done…
While legal experts have warned of the dangers of the UK straying too far from the EU's General Data Protection Directive – or risking the adequacy decision which currently allows data sharing between the UK and the EU to support business as usual – his message is don’t stop believing.
The government's consultation on its new proposals for new data protection laws has also provoked alarm among data privacy and ethics campaigners based on its proposals to remove individual’s rights to challenge decisions made about them by AI.
Meanwhile, live facial recognition made a comeback to the capital’s streets (28 Jan). Here’s hoping the new ICO boss will scrutinise its deployment for effectiveness and transparency, as well as other new gadgets police forces are so desperate to use.
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Stay safe (but don’t party too hard),