Violence begets violence; we have witnessed shocking scenes this week from the other side of the Atlantic, as Minneapolis erupted into flames as protests and riots broke out following the circulation of a video showing the death of George Floyd in Police custody. Actually ‘custody’ is too dainty and dignified a word for what was actually being done to George at the time of his death; a Police officer (now identified as Derek Chauvin and charged with third-degree murder) can be seen pinning him down on the ground by kneeling on his neck, and refusing George’s desperate pleas, and the pleas of numerous passersby, to let him breathe. Floyd’s crime, it seemed, was suspicion of attempting to use a forged cheque in a grocery store. Another Officer stands nonchalantly behind Chauvin in this very distressing video footage, hands in his pockets, apparently utterly unconcerned at his colleague’s actions. In a time when hundreds of thousands of people across the world are struggling for breath as a result of Coronavirus infection, it is tragic to witness the same type of suffering being inflicted by one human to another, and the fact that the violence was being inflicted by a man in a Police uniform against an unarmed black man is even more depressing.
Here in the UK we have, I believe, a similar problem of Police Officers (generally white) reacting with excessive force towards ethnic minority individuals, although fortunately (if we can put it that way) our Police Forces are not as heavily armed with weapons designed to inflict ‘lethal outcomes’ upon suspects and so at least on this side of the Atlantic, the results of a Police Officer’s brutality does not often cause a fatality – though there is no doubt about the severe physical and emotional scars it can leave.
In the last month I and my colleague John Hagan have blogged about recent cases showing Police brutality against an unarmed black man in a Manchester petrol station (Desmond Mombeyarara, tasered without warning right in front of his young son) and also a 15 year old client of mine, whom an officer first punched in the face and then viciously kicked as he lay helpless on the ground.
I am heartened by the fact that the IOPC is investigating my client’s case and other related matters in the Birmingham area; it has come to light that the same Officer who assaulted my client (and who has now been suspended from the West Midlands Force) was apparently also caught on CCTV footage the previous day dragging a 44 year old black man from his bicycle, and tearing off the man’s coronavirus mask. Media reports state that the video shows the assault then escalating, with a female Officer holding the black man down as the male Officer punches him repeatedly.
Yet further footage has also emerged from February of this year – shockingly showing what appears to be the very same male Police officer ordering a 30 year old black man (Trevalie Wyse) in the Handsworth area of Birmingham to get down on the ground, although he was not a suspect to crime, but rather a witness to a car crash. When Trevalie refused to comply with this outrageous command, he was then shot with a taser. Sometimes, words just escape you…
I also welcome the announcement made earlier this month that there will be a general review of taser use across the whole of England and Wales, lead by the IOPC in response to a need for greater transparency and scrutiny of the weapon’s continued ‘roll out’. Whilst the Government plans to arm up to 10,000 more Police officers with these ‘stun guns’ in the near future, Worcestershire Coroner Geraint Williams, investigating the 2017 death of 30 year old father Marc Cole, following his being tasered by Police multiple times, issued a warning in April that “future deaths will occur unless action is taken.”
There is increasing evidence of disproportionate taser use against black men, and also people with mental health issues. Taser incidents in England and Wales rose by 30% during 2018- 19 to a total of 22,000. It is manifestly obvious that there was not a 30% increase in violent crime during that same period.
20% of those incidents involved tasers being used or threatened against black people – who make up only 3.3% of the population.
Let us hope that on this occasion the IOPC will live up to its media billing as the Police ‘watchdog’ and not, frankly, behave like the poodle it often is when reviewing Police crimes and misdemeanours…
As I have made clear on many previous occasions in this blog, I am concerned about the widespread ‘roll out’ of tasers to the majority of frontline Officers, as introducing a ‘paramilitary’ ethos into British Policing which I strongly feel is both unnecessary and counter- productive. This is a country with a largely passive and law-abiding population – witness how obediently the government’s Lockdown rules were followed by the vast majority (with the exception of Prime Minister’s advisers, of course). I am concerned that the more Police Officers are armed with weapons – even ‘less lethal’ ones like Axon Corporation’s increasingly ubiquitous Taser gun – the more those Officers risk becoming dehumanised (perhaps in their conception of themselves, perhaps in the eyes of others), and adopting the mindset of soldiers on patrol in hostile territory, rather than being fellow citizens ‘policing by consent’. This can lead to outbursts of unnecessary violence and/or unnecessary escalations of a conflict situation, whether that takes the form of Officers deploying ‘guns and gas’ or more ‘old school’ beatings and kickings as we have witnessed on countless ‘social media’ channels.
So it is a good thing that the IOPC is finally flexing what muscle it has, and I hope this will be the signal for a wider reconsideration of the role of taser and other weaponry in the hands of the Police, and an investigation into the cultures of Police protectionism which still exist and which both seem to attract ‘bad apples’ in the first place, and then tend to protect far too many of those ‘rogue officers’, for far too long.
Thankfully, it is increasingly hard for those within the Police hierarchies who may want to make excuses for their officers/ shield them from any real sanction when they commit acts of unjustifiable, or questionable violence, when so many of those acts of violence are now caught and exposed by mobile phone footage – smart phones, of course, being even more ubiquitous in our society than tasers amongst the Police.
This is another issue I have highlighted in my recent blogs – the great rebalancing of the scales of justice caused by the ability of people – whether themselves the victims of Police misconduct, or concerned/ socially conscious bystanders – to record the true facts of an interaction with the Police, giving lies few places to hide.
A description posted by a friend on Facebook this week in relation to the Minneapolis crisis, seems a very apt way to frame it: Camera phones and social media circulation together create “a potentially radical mirror of the surveillance state.”
The more videos of this kind are shot, whether in this country or in America, the fewer people will be; we can only hope.