A recent parliamentary meeting brought together MPs, barristers and representatives of civil society groups and the Crown Prosecution Service to discuss why British policing is failing marginalised groups and how the problem can be addressed. The Runnymede Trust’s Sophia Purdy-Moore and Nannette Youssef explore the issues raised and call for ‘multiple, holistic responses’ to tackle the entrenched racial disproportionalities in the criminal justice system.
In March, the Casey Review laid bare the institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police. But racialised communities up and down the country did not need another report to confirm what they already knew – that British policing and the criminal justice system disproportionately target and systematically under-protect them.
Racial disproportionalities exist in all stages of the criminal justice system, from Crown Prosecution Service charging decisions to judicial decision-making. Decades of ignored recommendations, ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and empty political promises have led to a crisis in policing and an urgent need to reassess the role it plays in society.
With this in mind, representatives from across civil society and the criminal justice system came together in April at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community’s ‘Reimagining justice: racial disproportionalities within the criminal justice system’ event to discuss why policing is failing so many marginalised groups and what can be done about it. They painted a desperately bleak picture of the state of the criminal justice system and posited solutions ranging from the complete abolition of the police to an increase in neighbourhood policing.
‘Policing has, in our view, proven itself incapable of reform’
Opening the event, shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter MP outlined the Labour Party’s position on policing and criminal justice. ‘We need more police officers on our streets, but we need these officers to be representative of the communities they serve,' he said. 'The police forces themselves need to reach out to BME communities and rebuild that trust.'
This deeply flawed logic suggests police violence and racism would evaporate if only communities had trust in the institutions that are disproportionately surveilling, criminalising, incarcerating and killing them. And that the solution is increasing the presence of police in these communities.
Indeed, a central facet of Labour’s recent policy proposal on policing has been to call for an increase in so-called ‘neighbourhood’ policing. This has been met with scepticism from many civil society leaders, who argue additional policing will do nothing to create a force that protects and serves all, equally and fairly, unless the police’s rampant institutional racism is addressed first.
Many, indeed, believe that policing is not capable of such reform. These views were echoed by Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, a charity working with families bereaved by state-related deaths. ‘Policing has, in our view, proven itself incapable of reform,’ she said.
According to Inquest’s data, 16 per cent of deaths in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police since 1990 are Black and minority ethnic individuals. In addition, the proportion of Black and minority ethnic deaths in custody where restraint is a feature is more than two times greater than for other deaths in custody.
The proportion of Black and minority ethnic deaths in custody where use of force is a feature is more than two times greater, while the proportion of Black and minority ethnic deaths in custody where mental health-related issues are a feature is nearly two times higher.
Challenging the oft-touted suggestion that police violence and racism are caused by a breakdown of trust by overpoliced communities, rather than policing itself, barrister Abimbola Johnson, who chairs of the Independent Scrutiny and Oversight Board, which scrutinises the National Police Chiefs’ Council and College of Policing’s Race Action Plan, asked: ‘We are asked why we don’t have trust in institutions. Why don’t the institutions have trust in us?’
‘Judicial discrimination is directed particularly towards Black court users’
Keir Monteith KC, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and co-author of the recent Institutional racism in the justice system report, highlighted the institutional racism in the justice system. Quoting from the research, he asserted that ‘95 per cent of legal professionals surveyed said that racial bias plays some role in the processes or outcomes of the justice system, and 29 per cent said it played a “fundamental role”.’
The report also found that judicial discrimination is directed particularly towards Black court users. Of the legal professionals surveyed, 56 per cent said they had witnessed at least one judge acting in a racially biassed way towards a defendant, while 52 per cent had witnessed discrimination in judicial decision-making.
Citing the police’s strip search of Child Q, and the fatal shooting of Chris Kaba in her Streatham constituency, Labour MP Bell Ribiero-Addy asked: ‘Why are we giving the police more powers that they haven’t asked for which we know are disproportionately affecting BME communities?’
In recent years we have seen a rapid increase in police powers, through the introduction of pre-criminalising orders such as Criminal Behaviour Orders, Knife Crime Prevention Orders and, most recently, Serious Violence Reduction Orders. The evidence stacks up against these tools, which disproportionately surveil and criminalise young people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act have further entrenched racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
‘We already have plenty of data pointing at the institutional racism present in the police and criminal justice system’
Discussing recent research from the University of Leeds that found evidence of disproportionality within the outcomes of the legal decision making in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Graham Ritchie, deputy director of policy at the CPS, stressed the need for the criminal justice system to be transparent.
‘I think one of the things that is lacking is true transparency on this issue, from all of the different criminal justice agencies, nationally and locally,’ he said. ‘Everyone… should be able to look at their local police force area, their local criminal justice work, and understand the scale of the disparities.’
Whilst transparency is undoubtedly important, we already have plenty of data pointing at the institutional racism present in the police and criminal justice system. Police are seven times more likely to stop and search Black people, and six times more likely to strip search Black children. Some 78 per cent of those listed on the Met's Gangs Matrix are Black. Black people are also 5.7 times more likely than white people to have force used against them and eight times more likely to be ‘compliant handcuffed’.
The question that must be asked is do we need more data and transparency or do we need transformative change and action?
‘Transformative change is necessary’
Increasing the power, scope and scale of policing and the justice system are inappropriate responses to the complex social issues that impact our communities. As Labour MP Clive Lewis MP put it: ‘Tough on crime rhetoric is no good if it builds on rotten foundations. Transformative change is necessary.’
We urgently need to rethink what we mean by justice, safety and accountability. We need to move away from draconian and unjustifiable increases to police powers and numbers, which have been shown to have no impact on reducing crime and to disproportionately harm our communities.
Reimagining justice begins with recognising the material conditions in which criminalised behaviour occurs and understanding the institutional violence of entrenched social deprivation, poverty and inequality. Austerity has resulted in 70 per cent cuts to youth services in the last 13 years, real terms spending cuts to mental health services, and a cost of living crisis that disproportionately impacts racialised groups.
Meanwhile, Black and minority ethnic young people are bearing the brunt of rising unemployment in the wake of the pandemic, while being locked out of opportunity thanks to unaffordable tuition fees and cuts to the arts and creative industries. The state has effectively abdicated its responsibility to provide young, working class, and otherwise marginalised people with a safe and secure future.
It is in this context that civil liberties organisation Liberty produced Holding Our Own, a guide written in coalition with nine grassroots organisations. Rooted in decades of on-the-ground organising against state violence and work towards creating a more just society, it provides a framework for non-policing responses to the many forms of violence experienced by marginalised young people.
Importantly, the guide frames serious youth violence as both a real and imagined issue. Imagined in that it is the product of stories and tropes that feed the racialised moral panic around ‘gangs’, ‘knife crime’ and ‘county lines’. As the late academic and activist Stuart Hall highlighted in his book Policing the Crisis, these narratives scapegoat young working class people of colour for issues that have been caused by social neglect and are used to justify draconian policing policies and practices and the wider social exclusion of those most in need of support.
At the same time, the sociopolitical context means young people targeted with violent and racist policing are also experiencing myriad social and interpersonal harms, with deeply traumatising – sometimes fatal – consequences. As Liberty states: ‘This is a human rights issue. And yet the policies being introduced in response to this situation fail both to respect human rights and to tackle the root causes of the issue, thereby exacerbating the very problems they claim to solve.’
‘These are all evidence-driven approaches proven to reduce crime’
In Holding Our Own, grassroots groups demand a move away from policing, prisons and punishment as a response to social harms, most of which are caused by state neglect. Instead, they call for a move towards evidence-based, preventative approaches that tackle the root causes of criminalised behaviour, such as investing in specialist, community-based health and wellbeing services (including drug, alcohol and mental health support services), youth services, housing, and education, as well as working to combat entrenched poverty and inequality. These are all evidence-driven approaches proven to reduce crime.
The guide offers insight into best practice examples, such as the trauma-informed and healing-centred approaches of Art Against Knives, which nurtures young people’s creativity and Kids of Colour, which creates spaces for marginalised young people to heal and experience joy together.
It spotlights Maslaha’s radical safeguarding workbook, which gives practical guidance for those working with children and young people and seeks to develop practitioners’ understanding of the structures and cultures that make children unsafe, and the Northern Police Monitoring Project’s work galvanising community members to challenge racist and violent policing. Meanwhile, Release points to examples of drug decriminalisation overseas, a strategy that could end the immense harm caused by ‘county lines’ drugs policing.
These examples show there is no single answer to the complex social issues impacting our communities. What we need instead are multiple, holistic responses that create meaningful safety and lay the foundations for our collective thriving. It is time for us to prioritise community care, healing and transformative justice over punishment, surveillance and criminalisation.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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