At 4:45pm on April 11th 1981 a young Black man was arrested on Atlantic Road, London. On the surface of it that may not sound that remarkable. However, that arrest lead to the start of the Brixton Riots. In turn those riots lead the then Home Secretary, William Whitehall, to commission Lord Scarman to head a public enquiry – the outcome of that enquiry was the Scarman Report, published on 25th November 1981.
In his report, Lord Scarman found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate use of ‘stop and search’ powers against Black people. The report also contained a number of recommendations about reforming the law, community relations and policing practices to help tackle some of the issues that had driven the civil disorder – one of these was lay visitors to custody, now the Independent Custody Visiting Scheme.
Fast forward nearly forty years. Images of a man being detained by police officers in the United States are beamed across the world. An officer can clearly be seen kneeling on the man’s neck as he restrains him. That man was George Floyd…and that incident ignited protests both in the United States and around the world.
It would be easy to dismiss both these incidents as being either from a different time in the case of the Brixton Riots, or happening in a different country, with different issues relating to race and policing. But that would do a disservice to both of these seminal moments in history.
As the Police and Crime Commissioner lead for Equality and Diversity, and the first, and only, BAME PCC ensuring representation within policing and the fair, equitable and proportionate application of police powers is very important to me. UK policing is based on consent and a founding principle is that the public are the police and the police are the public.
The power of arrest and detention is a significant one and as PCC for Derbyshire I have been working with our local custody visitors to undertake additional scrutiny to understand if there is disproportionality in how members of BAME communities are dealt with when they come into a custody setting. It isn’t because I believe there is a problem, but rather because I can’t categorically state that there isn’t one.
I am working with the ICVs and the Chief Constable to understand if race has any bearing on the use of powers such as strip searches and the use of force in addition to oversight of the use of Stop & Search. Currently our ICVs are examining all custody records where a strip search has been used to understand if someone’s ethnicity affects whether this power is used or not.
As part of our enhanced scrutiny of custody records we are also looking at a 50:50 split of records from BAME and non-BAME detainees to understand people’s journey through custody and to ensure parity in the treatment of detained people. Again, this is not because I believe that there is a problem, rather that I can’t guarantee that there isn’t one.
I am aware that by lifting these stones I may find things that make people uncomfortable or that generate reports that make difficult reading. My response to this? Good. That’s is why we are doing it. If there are problems we need to know about them and then work to fix them.
I also recognise that there is work that we need to do on our ICV scheme to try to increase diversity within our amazing group of volunteers. If we go back to the intent of Lord Scarman’s recommendations we need to ensure that all of our communities have confidence that the police are using their powers properly and I know that my Scheme Administrator is working hard to encourage a more diverse range of people to come on board to help further develop that community confidence.
As we enter Black History Month I think it is important that we remember those key incidents that have highlighted problems and failings in the system. It is important that we take time to reflect on where improvements need to be made. However, we also have a huge opportunity as there is a tidal wave of energy around the issues of BAME experiences within the wider criminal justice system, and in particular the experiences of those from Black communities. We need to capture that energy and use it as a force for good.
My hope for the future is that if someone is writing a similar piece in forty years time they will be able to say that we have learned the lessons and not let history repeat itself again.