CROYDON COMMENTARY: With the demise of the MPA under Mayor Boris Johnson, police accountability in London is potentially worse now than in the rest of England and Wales. HAMIDA ALI says that the need to hold to account decisions on policing should be one of the key lessons from the 2011 riots
In the early hours of August 7, 2011, while I was preparing for another day’s fast during Ramadan, I was transfixed by pictures on rolling television news of Tottenham ablaze.
I spent the next three days glued to news channels as the riots spread across the city. I was as incredulous at the pictures of Reeves’ furniture store alight – now symbolic of those events – on every news channel. Family members in Dhaka were watching the same pictures on screen – reversing roles, and for once checking that we were safe.
My feelings of despair at what was happening to my town were shared across the borough. More crime was committed in Croydon during those few days than in any other part of London, and along with Tottenham we suffered some of the worst arson. Every building we lost was more than a century old. After a string of very warm and dry nights during school holidays one of the factors which in part contributed to halting the momentum of the riots was a more natural intervention – rain.
A myriad of reports has been written including by government, the police, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Croydon Council, and the London School of Economics, in partnership with The Guardian – all trying to answer the inevitable question – why? None of them has been entirely successful.
The one area of consensus, though, is that the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham was the trigger. And for me, the accountability of our police in London is an ongoing concern.
Policing by consent is a unique characteristic of British policing and a principle that is precious to us all – the public and police alike. People’s trust and confidence in the police is influenced by a range of factors – not least their own experience – but also reassurance that there is adequate and transparent public accountability for how the police exercise their power, both individually and corporately.
This isn’t a redundant consideration. Recent revelations about undercover policing, surveillance of the Lawrence family, unlawful killings of Ian Tomlinson and Azelle Rodney and poor quality investigation of rape and sexual offences and racist incidents are all rightly causes for deep concern. Abuse of power by the police is generally denied until public discovery proves otherwise, and that discovery doesn’t happen voluntarily or automatically. It is often as a result of public accountability.
Almost a decade ago I worked for one of the bodies charged with doing just that. The Metropolitan Police Authority’s former role was to scrutinise the service on behalf of Londoners. Its board of 23 was a mix of elected London Assembly Members, magistrates and, importantly, ordinary people appointed through an application process administered by the Home Office.
There were plenty of critics of police authorities, not least the current government which has done away with police authorities in favour of “directly elected” Police and Crime Commissioners. Although with a turnout of less than 15 per cent, these Police and Crime Commissioners weren’t “directly elected” by many people.
The government argued no one knew anything about police authorities and that undermined their ability to do their job. In their view, voting for a Police and Crime Commissioner would ensure that you knew who was keeping the police honest and that the country should follow London’s example with a Mayor in charge of policing.
Ironically, London ended up being the only police area in the country to be lumbered with a Police and Crime Commissioner that no one voted for, because Boris couldn’t be bothered to do the job himself and delegated it instead to Stephen Greenhalgh.
Not only are you no more likely to know who’s meant to be overseeing the Met, but Greenhalgh’s doing it less well and less openly than his predecessors. The Deputy Mayor of Policing and Crime meets the Met’s Commissioner behind closed doors and holds only a fraction of his meetings in public – unlike the MPA which held all its committee meetings in public session, including a monthly session with the Commissioner, often streamed live on the internet.
Replacing the MPA’s 23 members – who brought to bear a wide range of interests, concerns and different experiences to their inquiry – with a single role compromises the strength and breadth of questioning the commissioner is faced with.
The London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee has ably taken up the MPA’s mantle to ensure London policing is called to account in public but they are hamstrung under the new legislation – as they have no power to question the Met Commissioner himself, only at the discretion of the Deputy Mayor of Policing and Crime.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission’s role should be vital to this debate, but there is general consensus that they haven’t lived up to their promise. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report described self-investigation of complaints against the police as unjust.
Just last week, The Guardian reported they expect the IPCC to report no criminality involved in the killing of Mark Duggan. Doreen Lawrence, recently appointed to the House of Lords, expressed no surprise in an interview with Channel 4 News. And the government’s Riots, Communities and Victims Panel agreed, while raising concerns over their inadequate resources and the IPCC’s continued practice to be staffed with former police officers to conduct their investigations.
What does this have to do with Croydon? There is no local mechanism to hold Croydon police accountable to local residents.
One of the main criticisms of the response to the riots here was of the police’s strategic decisions taken to move all Croydon’s public order-trained officers to other parts of London, leaving fewer officers in the borough, many of whom worked 22 hours straight to do what they could to protect people.
Police tactics were also criticised because of the consequences for small businesses in London Road, leading to perceptions that the police were protecting big retailers in the town centre over smaller businesses in West Croydon, many of which are owned by members of the black and minority ethnic communities.
There is the Croydon Police Consultative Group, whose origins hail from the Scarman Report that followed the 1981 Brixton riots. There is an Independent Advisory Group and I’m glad to read that there is also a relatively new “stop and search monitoring group”. The Borough Commander would be foolish not to work with these consultative mechanisms.
However, none of these have the power or resources that match those of the Deputy Mayor. Interestingly, Kenley councillor and Assembly Member for Sutton and Croydon, Steve O’Connell, is one of only four non-executive advisors to support the Deputy Mayor in his scrutiny role – but it is hard to perceive how the people of Croydon benefit from O’Connell’s influential role in overseeing London’s policing.
- Hamida Ali has recently been selected by Labour to be a candidate for Woodside ward in next May’s council elections
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source that is actually based in the heart of the borough – 267,670 page views Nov 2012-Apr 2013
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- London riots anniversary: A timeline (london24.com)
- Eric Pickles has treated riot victims as if they do not exist | David Lammy (theguardian.com)
- Mark Duggan police shooting: IPCC inquiry finds no evidence of criminality (theguardian.com)
- Ian Tomlinson: police to offer family compensation (theguardian.com)
- Curbs on police bosses ‘too weak’ (standard.co.uk)