Policing the crisis

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' . . . the latent object appears to have been that of placing at the disposal of the Home Secretary a body of well-trained disciplined and armed men. competent to intimidate the public and to keep down the rising spirit of the population.'

Captain W White, on the formation of the new police force, 1838.

Britain's police, prisons and criminal justice system as a whole are in crisis - we are told. After fifteen years of Tory rule, a mass of legislation, a great more rhetoric about 'crime', 'criminals', 'terrorists', 'yobs', 'single parents' etc, a record prison population and with a repressive Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill on the verge of becoming law - we still need ever more draconian regimes to deal with the 'criminal classes', according to the Government. Grotesque crimes are spotlighted in the media to fuel the endless public appetite for real-life horror. The message is that we are all at risk from violent crime. What is really going on? Yes, the Tories are running scared that they will lose their 'Get Tough on Law and Order' reputation to the revamped Labour Party... but there is more at issue than that. Carol Brickley examines the real purpose of Britain's police force.

At the time of its inception in the early 19th century. central to the role of the British police force was keeping the peace — Public Order. It was a priority which for long periods of relative prosperity and social calm could safely be pushed into the back-ground, replaced by the myth of `policing by consent'. But the real nature of the British police force was bound to resurface: as it did in the face of recession and Thatcher's class divisive government in the 1980s. The process of building a paramilitary force within the police had to begin in earnest following the 1981 inner city riots; in Brixton, in particular, the police were hard pushed to deal with concerted opposition. Lessons had been learned in the north of Ireland and in other British colonies which now had to be put into practice on mainland Britain. Led by ex-RUC Chief Constable, Metropolitan Commissioner Sir Kenneth Newman, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in close collaboration with the RUC and the Hong Kong Police (notorious for their vicious riot squad), began equipping the police to deal seriously with social discontent.

The watershed came with the 1984/85 miners' strike, closely followed by the 1985 uprisings in Toxteth and Broadwater Farm. Out of their experience of policing these events, new legislation in the form of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Public Order Act 1986 increased police powers. By 1987 at Wapping the police had polished their riot procedures and had established a communication system and armoury to match. Their proficiency was tested again during the 1990 Poll Tax demonstration in London, and again on a minor scale at Welling in 1993. All the paraphernalia is now in place — the cavalry charges, the short and long-shield snatch squads, helicopters, cameras and communications — and with the media ready to pursue the hue and cry afterwards. Since then minor improvements, like extra-long truncheons, have perfected their readiness to meet social disorder with bloody, physical repression.

Miscarriages of justice

While paramilitary proficiency has been perfected, other aspects of policing have run less smoothly. First there came a series of highly-publicised miscarriages of justice in the late 1980s. Worst of all for a sys-tem which prided itself on never being faulty was the fact that the most notorious cases — the Guildford 4, Birmingham 6, Maguires, Judith Ward and the Tottenham 3 — discredited the repressive laws and policing methods of which they were all so proud and self-righteous. The unravelling of what really happened shook the system. Leading politicians, High Court judges, barristers, police and civil servants saw their reputations on the line.

A massive damage-limitation exercise had to begin consisting of the setting up of the May Inquiry, headed by a safe toady, the announcement of a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, peopled by more toadies, and the half-hearted prosecution of a number of relatively junior police officers involved in the miscarriages. These elements were necessarily enmeshed. Outraged judges like Lord Denning, heavily implicated in the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 cases, publicly stated that the men were really guilty. Sympathetic magistrates tried to derail the prosecutions of police at an early stage, claiming abuse of process because of delay. This further delayed the trials, and the May Inquiry was deliberately stalled awaiting their outcome. The Royal Commission plodded on. It is only during the last year, five years after the release of the Guildford 4, and once the original public revulsion at the police corruption has died down, that the chickens could come home to roost.

  • All the prosecutions of police officers for perjury and corruption have been dismissed. In both the trials concerning the Guildford 4 and the Tottenham 3 police, the defence rested on the implication that the original defendants were really guilty — specifically Patrick Armstrong and Winston Silcott — in circumstances where they were unable to defend themselves.
  • Sir John May produced an Inquiry report which stated that the police and courts had not acted wrongly in their treatment of the Guildford 4 and Maguire family.
  • The Royal Commission came up with a bland set of recommendations that the Government could safely ignore.

Look, no chickens!

Crackdown on crime?

In the wake of this whitewash operation, Home Secretary Howard was able to draft a new package of laws —the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill — which, far from reforming an inherently faulty system, makes it more likely that miscarriages of justice will ensue. Whilst many of the Bill's provisions harden up the 1986 Public Order Act by targeting hunt saboteurs, ravers, new age travellers, road campaigners and political demonstrators, to the undoubted satisfaction of Britain's property-owning middle and upper classes, its most crucial provision is the end of the right to silence.

The new caution: 'You do not have to say anything. But if you do not mention now something which you may later use in your defence, the court may decide that your failure to mention it now strengthens the case against you. A record will be made of anything you say and it may be given in evidence if you are brought to trial.' It will make a change from 'you're nicked'!

Central to the English legal system has been the assumption of innocence — you are innocent until proven guilty. You did not have to prove your innocence either to the police or in court. In 1987, in the wake of the Winchester Three fiasco, then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd restricted the right to silence in the north of Ireland, using terrorism as the excuse. The new Bill now extends these provisions to England and Wales. If you fail to mention anything under police questioning after you are cautioned (see box) which you later rely on in any defence at your trial, the judge and jury may imply guilt from your silence.

Despite all the rhetoric about this measure being aimed at professional criminals and wily terrorists who use silence to get away with major crimes, in reality this provision will be used to put pressure on people who are at their most vulnerable under arrest. Threat of the consequences of silence will ensure that the confession under police questioning will take on a new lease of evidential life. Accompanying the public justification for these measures, chief constables have attacked defence lawyers for their behaviour in court ('theatrical games'), and in particular for insisting on seeing all undisclosed material — it was undisclosed material which could have proved innocence in several of the miscarriage of justice cases. Watch this space for the next move to restrict the right to see all evidence.

The remains of the Royal Commission recommendations could be safely laid to rest. One recommendation for a criminal appeal review body, to replace the Home Secretary's monopoly on sanctioning criminal appeals, has survived — but only just. It is proposed that its constitution should follow the same lines as the Police Complaints Authority. So discredited is the PCA, that most defendants prefer to sue in the courts than waste time with a complaint. If this proposal is enacted, the chances of appeal will decrease. While Howard has been ensuring that the defendants are more likely to be convicted, the police have been tying up the loose ends for their paramilitary police. Along with longer batons (purely defensive, you understand), they also want more guns. The rhetoric is similar — more of Britain's robbers go armed, we need to gun them down. In fact a recent Home Office study shows that most armed robbers are pretending, using replica guns or cucumbers wrapped in plastic bags! Even when armed with the real thing, many never fire them, or use blanks. Frightening though gun-toting robbers are, it is doubtful that the police need more armed officers to deal with them. They already have special, mobile armed squads. The gradual process of convincing the British public that they need an armed police force has begun and it is doubtful that their tar-gets will be limited to armed robbers.

It is no accident that this process of tooling-up, both literally and in relation to police powers, is happening now. After 15-years of Tory rule, British society is more divided between the rich and poor than ever before, and the process will go on. Jeffrey Archer has not even been arrested for the crime of insider-dealing involving thousands of pounds, but young mothers go to gaol for the lack of a few pounds to pay a fine. Inequality of treatment is now the norm at every level of our existence. The real causes of increased crime — the breakdown of society — are dismissed in favour of glib definitions of Evil and Yobbery. So the City fraudsters, tax dodgers, arms dealers, errant Dukes and the like, will go free, while the poor, the working class, are imprisoned for longer in harsher conditions. The government is now considering identity cards. And if you choose to complain by organising to change this corruption, the riot squad will be ready to keep the Queen's Peace at the end of a long truncheon or the barrel of a gun.

Centralisation and cost-cutting

There is one further problem the Tories face. A highly-centralised, well-equipped, well-paid and privileged police force, hired to be loyal to the State but ostensibly a public service, is very expensive. With a wealth of experience of privatising nationalised industries, destroying public services and dismantling education and health services under the auspices of efficiency, the Tories are extending these principles to the police and criminal justice system.

The Prime Minister's Yobbery campaign includes proposals for recruiting 30,000 special constables and empowering neighbourhood watch schemes to become vigilante groups. Local councils, including Labour councils, are proposing to set up private patrols on housing estates. Routine policing will soon be carried out by untrained amateurs and security firms — with the advantage that they will be cheap. More invidious still, tenants will have to pay extra for their patrols — if you can't afford it, you don't get it. In fact it is the poor who are already more likely to be the victims of crime than any section of the middle class who are so vocal on the subject. Just like the health service where if you are poor you are more likely to be ill, but you have to join a long queue for scarce resources, the poorest will be outside society, victimised both as criminals and the victims of crime.

There is no point pursuing any illusions that the Labour Party will institute different policies. They did not even summon up the guts to vote against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill on its second reading in Parliament. The first privatised 'community patrol' was instituted in Tony Blair's own constituency; Tory Wandsworth is merely following suit. For socialists the real solution to the problem lies in society itself. Without a commitment to one another as a society, opposed to the selfish individualism of the 'free' market, policing and the criminal justice system are only another means of intimidating the working class: 'keeping down our rising spirit'.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 121 October/November 1994