Police brutality is not a new problem

Our police force prides itself on being an agent that works for the good of the people, keeping civil order, and protecting property and rights from those who would seek to undermine or remove them. This positive impression of those entrusted to maintain our law and order is largely correct. However, recent demonstrations might suggest that our police force is slipping out of working for the public good and into the practice of police brutality.

Nevertheless, whilst there is a clear need for greater training and transparency, it is not necessarily true that recent instances of police brutality mark a new trend within policing. 

According to Section 117 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, police are empowered to employ “reasonable force” if necessary. The phrase “reasonable force” is ambiguous; it is broadly defined as the correct amount of force police may use if they feel that they are in serious danger. Behaviour is labelled as “police brutality” when excessive force is used intentionally to carry out a lawful police purpose. I feel that our police force ought to be better trained to differentiate between the two, especially in high-pressure situations, so as to prevent the deterioration of the relationship between the police and the public that we are beginning to witness.

Students at Warwick University appear to have become victims of police brutality during their sit-in protest, which occurred as part of a national day of action against student fees. According to Nigel Thrift, the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick, the police were called in after reports of an assault on a member of staff, with events escalating as the guilty individual refused to identify themselves. However, the use of CS spray on students (as caught on video) and the emergence of a taser to combat fewer than 30 peaceful students, as well as the level of intimidation evident in footage posted online, seem to show a greater level of force being used than may be deemed “reasonable”.

This is not the first time that unreasonable force has been used by police around student protests. In a 2013 University of London protest, in which students occupied the University’s Senate Headquarters, police used, as labelled by Taylor, Rawlinson and Harris in their Guardian headline, “excessive force”. Video footage of the incident shows one officer striking a hooded protestor in the face, in a move that is certainly excessive considering that the officer was not under attack by the protester in question. Were a protester to do the same to a policeman, it would be labelled as “police assault” and would carry a punishment of up to six months in prison. Commenting on the event, Michael Chessum, president of the University of London Union, said that “[T]he level of police force that we have seen in the last couple of days is totally unprecedented on university campuses. It appears pre-planned. It is as if they are reacting to a riot situation – taking the level of force – and using it against students protesting on a university campus.”

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Yet another incident concerned Jody McIntyre, a disabled student who was dragged from his chair along the ground by officers during a protest. In a statement about the event released in August 2011 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) concluded that “this did amount to excessive force.” There needs to be more clearly defined guidelines as to what police officers may and may not do in protest-situations. Clearly, dragging a defenceless person across the ground is unacceptable. 

The risk of police brutality occurs not only in student protests. Another point of contention is the use of batons– especially long-handled batons. It is these weapons, which officers are permitted to carry, which caused the brain damage and eventual death of Brian Douglas in 1995. Following Douglas’ death, Coroner Sir Montague Levine questioned the level of training given to officers, stating that “[T]here is a need for all officers who have been trained to use a baton to be taught the specific dangers, the after-effects and potential symptoms that can follow a baton blow to the head.”

Not only is more training needed for officers in the limitations of “reasonable force”, but greater transparency is needed. After the Douglas and similar incidents, Henry Cohen wrote to the Home Secretary expressing concern at the “excessive, disproportionate and unnecessary damage” that a baton can cause, and asking for a full public inquiry. There was no response.

Perhaps most clearly illustrating the need for greater training was the Ian Tomlinson incident in 2009. During the G20 protests in London at this time, the civilian was struck by a police officer with a baton and pushed from behind, despite not engaging with protestors. Shortly after this police attack, he collapsed and died, which led to an IPCC investigation into his death. This investigation followed a review by an inquest jury that ruled “excessive and unreasonable force” was used, and that he was unlawfully killed. The police officer involved, PC Harwood, was later found guilty of gross misconduct by a Metropolitan Police disciplinary panel.

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However, despite the recent press surrounding the issues of police brutality, especially regarding protests, I do not believe that our police force is slipping into this action. The issue has been continually latent in our police’s history, and has been continually ignored in an attempt to focus on the (undeniable) good done by the police. As far back as the 1936 Battle of Cable Street we can see unreasonable force being deployed, while the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield acts as an extreme example of what may happen when events and our police force escalate out of control. Their conduct was so bad during the 1985 incident that the Court judgement six years later found police involved guilty not only of wrongful arrest and criminal damage, but also of assault against the new-age travellers attempting to reach Stonehenge. 

This said, I do acknowledge that the existence of a broadly transparent police force is something we ought to be grateful for, and that we are fortunate to have an excellent public relationship with officers. We are privileged to live in a country where selfies with law enforcers are permissible, and talk of police brutality still shocks us. However, in order to maintain this trusting relationship, I believe that greater stress needs to be placed on the level of force permissible in high-pressure (especially protest) situations, with greater transparency and honesty between officers and members of the public when mistakes are made.