In the news this week were plenty of stories which did not bring any Christmas cheer, including a number of items highlighting the continued problem of racist attitudes within Police institutions, and how deeply ingrained this problem still seems to be.
The worst of these was the case of 6 “elite” Hampshire officers who were found guilty of gross misconduct after covert recordings of the Force’s Serious Organised Crime Unit captured a culture of regular racism – including officers wishing death on ‘foreigners’ and referring to the section where a black officer worked as “Africa corner” – in scenes reminiscent of the 1970s time-travel cop drama “Life on Mars.”
During the space of a mere 3 weeks, officers were recorded alluding to a black colleagues as mixed-breed dogs, plantation overseers and zoo animals; ‘jokes’ were told about illegal immigrants drowning in the sea, and killing Albanians with a nerve agent – and this is to say nothing about the sexism and homophobia which was also rife in the unit.
The officers await to hear their fates on 4 January, but they will surely all be dismissed from the Force.
The barrister leading the case against the officers, QC Jason Beer commented “When speaking to a black officer, a colleague puts on a fake Caribbean accent – in fact he was from Ghana. A detail like that doesn’t matter, he was a black man after all.”
This, I think, is getting near to the heart of the problem. The Hampshire officers are a gross example of the worst kind of ‘old school’ Police officers whose hideous attitudes towards everyone who is not a ‘straight, white male’ are the badge of membership of their ‘club’ (and apparently, like an awful broken record, the only form of ‘banter’ allowed in it). I do not for one moment think they represent the majority of officers in this respect, but they do – like the tip of an iceberg – hint at a less dramatic but bigger, wider problem of racial profiling generally, ‘below the surface’ of Police culture. Not overt racism perhaps, but racist assumptions leading to greater Police hostility and suspicion on all levels to ethnic minority groups.
We know, for example, that for a long time it has been evident that taser guns are used disproportionally against black people and likewise during the Covid Lockdown policing powers were used disproportionally against black and other people of ethnic minority appearance. Witness also the case of my client Dwight.
This is a problem which, of course, existed long before the recent Lockdown, and sadly, seems set to long outlast it. I have recently settled a claim for my client James Luther, a black man who I believe was the victim of racial profiling in 2017.
On the day in question James was hurrying along a street in Brighton, late for a dentist appointment. He is a man of impeccable character. The only crime he could be accused of? “Running whilst Black” it sadly seems…
Suddenly James was accosted by a young white male, whom he now knows to have been a plain clothed officer of Sussex Police (PC Barton). Coming out of nowhere the young male grabbed James’s jacket with both hands. Although it is true that he shouted the words “Stop, Police!” at James, in the context of this event James would have had every reason to think that he was in fact being mugged. He instinctively sought to extricate himself from the man’s grip.
However, within seconds the first man was joined by a second (also wearing ‘casual’ clothes, and only now known to be a Police Officer) who assisted the first male in tripping and bundling James to the ground, during which James dropped his mobile phone and continued to believe he was the victim of a robbery.
It is distressing to describe what happened next, but in a scene reminiscent of what happened to George Floyd in America earlier this year, James now found himself struggling to breathe, pinned down on a concrete road surface, with a knee in his back.
A female officer – the first person on the scene in uniform – then joined in the ‘pinning’ of James by sitting on his legs.
James was subjected to intensely tight handcuffing, with the metal biting into his wrists, and then pulled to his feet and searched “on suspicion of possession of marijuana with intent to supply”. He was incredulous and could not believe what was happening to him.
Despite the fact that nothing – of course – was found on him, James was kept in handcuffs and transported to Brighton Police station. All of this, humiliatingly, was played out in front of many members of the public on a busy high street. The Police justification for this was that James (in attempting to defend himself) had been “resisting” the first plain clothes officer who had accosted him.
Shortly after arrival at the station James was “de-arrested” and his handcuffs were finally removed. He was issued with a ‘stop and search’ form and released.
In response to the claim for false imprisonment and assault and battery that I subsequently brought on behalf of James, Sussex Police initially denied liability stating that the plain clothes officers had been involved in a drugs ‘sting’ and were seeking to arrest three black men who they suspected of dealing cannabis.
It seems that PC Barton had pursued one of the black men, lost sight of him, and had then fastened onto James, the next black man that he saw and given chase to him, believing him to be the drug dealer. PC Barton later admitted that he had only briefly seen the man he was originally pursuing, from a distance of 20 – 50 metres, and therefore couldn’t be sure that James was in fact the suspect; however, it seems that James’s blackness was enough to trigger an assumption in the officer that he was the ‘wanted’ man, in a way that I firmly believe whiteness alone would not have done.
I issued Court proceedings on behalf of James, and notwithstanding their denial of liability, Sussex Police soon came to the settlement table. I am pleased to confirm that after rejecting their initial, derisory, offer of £1,100. I have now settled James’s claim against the Police for £8,000.
We have to ask serious questions about how many rank and file Police officers fail to look past the ‘Blackness’ of a person’s appearance, acting as if it were that person’s overriding and most important characteristic, and using skin colour in the absence of any other distinquishing characteristic or mode of behaviour to ‘zone in’ on a black person in a way that ‘Whiteness’ alone would never be used against a white person.
Often, perhaps, is subconscious, but that does little to detract from its harmfulness and hurtfulness; taking a step back to look at the wider problem of ‘racial assumptions’ in the justice system, we can see that there has been yet another case of a black barrister being assumed by Court staff to be the defendant in a criminal case.
The type of attitude that leads to ‘racial profiling’ may not be as grossly barbaric as the behaviour of the ‘Life on Mars’ Hampshire officers, but because it is so prevelant is just as much as a problem and causes untold damage to community relations and the faith and trust that people of colour can have in the Police.
Police Forces need to work much harder to change the mind-sets of their officers generally, and ensure a truly healthy culture of non-racist policing; a task which begins, but certainly does not end, with the throwing out of the rotten apples of the Hampshire SOCU.
Names have been changed.