Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Public reaction to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis is forcing European countries to face up to uncomfortable truths about racism in their own police backyards. Even in those countries which pride themselves as being world leaders in community policing, racism appears to be pervasive and engrained in their police cultures and practices. Rooting it out may require radical reform of their current policing structures and concepts and an honest debate about the state of ‘community’ policing in their jurisdictions.
The British ‘Bobby’ and the Irish Garda are regularly viewed as the personification of community policing. Being in and of the community, they are presented officially as providing a police service primarily through the consent and support of the community, rather than the coercive power and authority of the State. Insofar as this idyll of harmonious social cooperation is realised at all, it is confined largely to small towns and villages and affluent neighbourhoods of the larger towns and cities, all of which are dominated by settled white populations.
The policing experience of socially, economically and environmentally deprived urban areas, which tend to have high concentrations of people from black and ethnic minority communities, is very different. Here the police are perceived more as an alien, coercive and authoritarian force imposing order and punishment on the inhabitants from the outside. The ‘norm’ of police working with the community is replaced by the police working on the community.
In England, for example, a black person is nine times more likely than a white person to be stopped and searched by the police. Similarly, in France, young men perceived as Arab or black are 20 times more likely to be stopped and identity-checked. Aggression and brutality replace courteousness and consent, especially in the policing of youths from ethnic minority communities in the socially and economically deprived suburbs (banlieue) of some French cities. France was the first State to be found in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibition on torture in a case concerning the brutal police treatment of a young man of North African origin.
People from deprived black and ethnic minority communities are also denied a sense of identity with the mainly white personnel who police them. This is compounded by a failure to respond adequately and fairly to their policing needs. In Ireland, for example, members of the Traveller community tend not to report or seek police help in respect of domestic abuse or other threats to their person or property. Experience and perceptions among them are that the police do not perceive them as part of the ‘community’ to be served.
None of the above is new or unfamiliar. Aspects of it have featured time and again in reports of inquiries, judicial decisions (including the European Court of Human Rights), parliamentary debates and media coverage, among others. Yet, racism remains an indelible feature of policing in the community and, arguably, is getting worse.
Part of the problem is executive denial that there is a problem. This has been particularly prominent in France and Germany. It is only in the past few weeks that they are showing tentative signs of acknowledging that they might have a major issue with racism in their police. In France, this is despite the fact that they have had several cases of Arab/African deaths at the hands of the police in circumstances very similar to that of George Floyd.
Another part of the problem results from a preference for addressing the symptoms rather than the disease. This has been a feature of the response in Britain and Ireland, where cyclical ‘reforms’ have focused on making piecemeal adjustments or innovations to established structures and methods (eg, police complaints procedures, ethics, training, recruitment, policies etc). Not only do these make little difference, but they have a tendency to divert attention away from the nature and extent of the racist challenge and the associated failures of the community policing ideal.
The time has surely come for a radical re-think on how to address the challenge of racism in policing and the associated issue of putting the ‘community’ into community policing. This requires a re-examination of how we deliver policing, especially (but not exclusively) in urban areas with high concentrations of ethnic minorities experiencing low incomes, poor essential services, environmental deprivation, economic resources and life prospects. It is submitted that the police need to be re-imagined as an integral part of the broader fabric of a revitalised social and economic infrastructure and a model of social justice that has people and community, rather than profit, at its heart. It needs to be re-fashioned into a police service that is genuinely of the people and for the people.