Police must show there is no bias against black people

Comment

Life is difficult in many parts of the country. Difficult economic circumstances, pockets of high unemployment, people on benefits and low incomes living in sub-standard homes, all mix to create an uneasy atmosphere made more difficult if communities believe that the police are not on their side.

You are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you are black than if you are white, with varying degrees of disproportionality throughout the criminal justice system, from those arrested and prosecuted to those sent to prison – so the black community in particular have good reason to be suspicious.

The police should be the servants of the people, acting on behalf of the community they should be protecting. Failure to actively demonstrate that they are listening to and acting on community concerns, failure to align themselves with community priorities or show that they are "their" police, will inevitably result in a growing belief that the police are against the community, and not part of it.

I was a sergeant on the streets during the 1981 Brixton riots. Together with 10 officers hiding behind our plastic shields, we became the focus for community hatred, pelted with bricks and broken paving slabs. The police and the community tried to rebuild some kind of relationship – it took a long time. Twenty years later I became the police commander there. After 15 months, when I was moved out of Brixton, there were protests – it had been quite a turnaround from 1981. Do the people of Tottenham have to wait 20 years for the weekend's scars to heal?

Not if the police take action now to rebuild the burning bridges. In the aftermath of the Brixton riots, as we patrolled Railton Road and chased suspected criminals into the illegal gambling dens, those suspected of mugging were thrown back out into our arms, but the older black men guarding the doors would protect those we thought might have cannabis on them. They thought we were wasting our time policing "weed". Two decades later, it was clear from discussions with local community leaders that it was crack cocaine and heroin that were ruining young people's lives at that time, not cannabis, and that is what that community wanted its police to concentrate on.

The motivation for getting my officers to concentrate on hard drugs rather than cannabis was about showing that I was their police chief who was listening to them and that I was prepared to act on what they told me.

In 1892 the co-founder of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Richard Mayne, wrote: "The protection of life and property, the preservation of public tranquillity, and the absence of crime, will alone prove ... whether the objects for which the police were appointed have been attained." They were not attained in Tottenham last weekend. The relationship between the community and its police are crucial to achieving those objects.

Brian Paddick is a former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

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