Sunday, October 10, 2010

Policing in Britain - the slippery slope towards tyranny

We all learn from first-hand experience, hence there should be no objection when some of my observations are prompted and based, not exclusively of course, on a recent unjustified arrest of my own son for no arrestable crime whatsoever. Since under anti-terrorism legislation police in Britain were given the right to stop and search people without prior intelligence as to a potential crime having been permitted they have disproportionally targetted members of racial minorities, and earlier this year the European Court in Strasbourg ruled those arbitrary powers illegal. That members of minority communities were more likely to be stopped and searched says more about the police than the communities targetted. For this reason those in charge of policy decisions for the police have been at pain to try and recruit more members of the minority into the force, since in this respect, too, it is not at all representative of the overall population. Given the attitudes displayed by numerous police officers in public, these efforts have been largely unsuccessful.

British politicians often proudly refer to the country's democratic traditions as housing "the mother of parliaments" and deride third world countries for their lack of due process and the corruptibility and bribability of their officials, including the police. Whilst police officers in Britain cannot usually be bribed easily (which has more to do with the general affluence of society than their alleged integrity), they nonetheless abuse their position and disregard due process, and therefore, in common with countries where wearing a uniform brings tangible benefits resulting from an abuse of power, the police force in Britain also attracts an undue share of applicants who wish to join not so much to uphold law and order but to take advantage of the position of a police officer in society - some are common thugs (and the low level of educational requirements for joining the police gives them a fair chance to fulfil their aspirations), others are ideologically motivated, such as members of the BNP. Although members of the BNP are officially banned from joining, a leaked list of 13,000 BNP members serving as police officers two years ago showed that in practice this prohibition was not being enforced. Individual officers abusing their power may be one thing, but Where the abuse of process by individual officers goes unchecked because of tendency within authorities and especially the courts to always unquestioningly favour the account of a police officer over that of any other witnesses, we have the beginnings of the slippery slope towards a police state where abuses are committed with impunity and the police gradually becomes a tyrannical institution without checks and balances.

In most countries of the world, the police will go after the easy targets rather than risking a show
-down with hardened criminals (the latter are often controlled by way of infiltration instead), and in most countries of the world that easy target is the motorist. In many third world countries, police officers will stop motorists under the pretence of speeding offences or in order to check the driver's paperwork or the roadworthiness of the vehicle for the sole purpose of extracting a bribe. It has often been said that in the UK, too, speed checks are mainly conducted for the purpose of gathering revenue rather than road safety, and countries without motorway speed limits, like Germany, are no less safe with regard to motoring accidents. Of course, in Britain the individual officer does not get the money, rather it is the whole system which is taking advantage of the power of police to interfere with the free movement of people. In order to maximise revenue the burden of proof has been tilted in the favour of the state and against the motorist: if your car is recorded by a stationary speed camera as being in excess of the speed limit, you are presumed to be guilty simply by virtue of being the owner of the owner of the car even if there is no photographic evidence that you were yourself the driver; for this you are required to supply the evidence: guilty until proven innocent. If you are recorded by a mobile speed camera in the hands of a police officer, then his word that you were in excess of a given speed is sufficient to convict you, even if there is no recorded evidence of that alleged fact.

To further encourage motorists to cough up the money and avoid making use of legal processes, a system of conditional fines has been introduced whereby you save some money if you pay within a given time limit, and the fine goes up if you dispute the veracity of the charge. In any other field we would call this kind of practice coercion. In any case, the task of the police officer on traffic patrol, just like that of his often maligned lesser counterpart, the common traffic warden, is to find victims to extract money from, and both tend to be overzealous in the discharge of this duty. Both also tend to get very irate if challenged by a motorist as to the legality of what they are doing. So there is nothing unusual at all in my son being pulled over by a police officer with a mobile speed gun, even though the officer's speed gun was pointed at the floor until the moment he decided to pull him over when it was rapidly raised and pointed at the car and allegedly produced an excess speed reading. What is unusual for that police officer is that my son is a law graduate who, rightly, pointed out to the officer that operating a speed gun in this manner would produce an erroneous reading. However, in a police state, you must never challenge a police officer!

Once challenged, the officer goes into defence mode and becomes aggressive. In his mind he has the right to demand compliance and you have a duty to obey. If you were aggressive he could simply "book" you for your behaviour, but if you challenge him intellectually then, given the low educational threshold for becoming a police officer, he starts feeling intimidated even more and, to bring you to his level, will try to make you behave aggressively so as to get an excuse for arresting you. I must therefore stress that whilst my son was arrested for allegedly driving without a licence or insurance, both since proven untrue, and for driving with excess speed, a charge for which no evidence has yet been provided, he was never charged with behaving inappropriately or threatening in any way - his crime thus was to have been more intelligent than the officer he was dealing with and that he did not hesitate letting him know that he was making serious mistakes in his dealings with him.

As to those blunders it included dropping the speed gun onto the floor, after which it surely shouldn't be used anymore without recalibration, to refuse identifying himself or to search my son without giving, as required, the reason as to what suspicion was giving rise to the search, dropping and damaging his mobile phone in the process, or that he was subsequently searched a second time by a female officer - two violations in one since after he had already been searched there was no further reason, other than harassment, for another search, and a body search should always be carried out by an officer of the same sex. Subsequent blunders included that the female officer who, after his car had been confiscated for allegedly driving without a licence, found she had difficulty in operating a large estate car and subsequently requested from the female passenger in his car that she help her put the car into first gear - which rightly she refused since she did not have a driving licence herself! Everybody can make mistakes, but this is where training and ongoing professional development should have had their place, suggesting that there is a serious deficiency in that respect within the police service.

More worrying, however, is that such transgressions were supported by the officers' superiors at
sergeant level and the collective mindset of those tasked to uphold law and order but being careless about adhering to the law themselves in the course of duty. From my own experience of having spent many hours translating for clients at police custody suits, officers like to impress on new arrivals as to who is in charge, assuming that if they have been arrested they are by definition guilty and hardened criminals and deserve to be treated accordingly. Hence the exchanges are never polite and often more aggressive and patronising than warranted by the situation. Totally unacceptable, however, is to ridicule a person who, as the word "custody" suggests, is now under their care. For a custody sergeant to mock the law qualification of the person in his charge as not being of much use now that he is held displays both an inferiority complex and serious bad manners.

Every now and then individual officers run into persons who challenge their actions. If the right
checks and balances were in place, bad apples amongst the force would soon be thrown out, but since the process is tilted towards exonerating the officer, right or wrong, the abuses become endemic. Complaints against the police in Britain are either dealt with by the police themselves or referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, a body set up after it had become evident that the police's own handling of complaints was not robust enough. Yet, since that new body is made up partly of ex-police officers and operates from police premises, and given that they hardly ever uphold any complaint, their alleged independence appears highly doubtful. In the case of Barbar Ahmed, a young Asian who sustained the most abhorrent injuries during a raid by anti-terrorist police and subsequent arrest before being released without charge, he only managed to get the police to agree to the payment of damages after bringing a civil law suit - the "Independent" Police Complaints Commission had previously found that the officers had behaved impeccably.

What is the ultimate result of an abuse of police powers backed up by political institutions and the courts? In the long run it serves to create a deep-seated and often irreparable mistrust of the police within the population, initially those most targetted like the Irish in earlier days and
Muslims today, antagonising them against the police and making them unwilling to work with the police even where this would be the right thing to do. The lack of success of recruitment campaigns amongst young Asians already bears this out. Ultimately, community policing becomes an impossible task since it requires the goodwill and cooperation of law-abiding citizens who, however, fear that they themselves will be criminalised if they come into contact with the police voluntarily. Such a rift between the "law enforcement" bodies of the state and the intimidated population normally characterises dictatorships: Britain, where are you heading?