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Helen King: Don’t let unconscious bias skew your view of the police

Wednesday 31 March 2021

Whether or not you agree the police were heavy-handed at the Clapham Common vigil, we need greater public understanding of the challenges facing officers


You may be snorting with disbelief at, or quietly approving of, the conclusions reached by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in their review of police actions at the Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham Common on 13 March. The 50-page report supports police decision-making prior to the event and finds that “police officers did not act inappropriately or in a heavy handed manner.”

But, whatever your views, now seems a relevant time to ask some important questions about the public’s relationship with the police. What kind of policing do we want? What role do politicians, journalists, and we, the public, have in ensuring both that the police are held to account and that they are supported to be the police we want and deserve?

Policing matters, or should matter, to us all. Everyone should be worried about the police getting things wrong – but also concerned if lazy, ill-informed criticisms of the institution and individual officers seep into public acceptability without challenge or proper consideration.  

All of us have a vested interest in how the events at Clapham Common and the protests against the government’s policing bill were policed – and in how that policing has been reported and commented upon. There’s no option to switch to an “alternative provider” of policing services, as we might with our healthcare or children’s schooling.

It is easy not to like the police. Their job intrinsically involves things that we would rather not think about. Nobody needs the police when their life is going well and society is functioning as it should. It is when property or lives are at risk, and when the strong, selfish, damaged or downtrodden pose a danger to others, that we call upon the police and ask them to sort out the mess and stop it getting worse. 

The reason that we need the police in these situations, rather than some other public agency, is that the police alone have been entrusted by the state with wide-ranging legal powers over their fellow citizens, including the use of force. Unless packaged as a TV drama or documentary, these are, understandably, things we’d prefer not to dwell upon.

The use of force by officers has to be legal, necessary, proportionate, and the minimum required. Every officer knows that they always need to be able to justify their actions in these terms. None of us can choose to opt out of an officer’s use of their powers when subject to a search or an arrest. 

If we don’t like what is required of us or we don’t think it is justified, then a debate or a struggle will only lead to more force being used to gain our compliance. If we believe we have been wronged by the police, our sole option is to seek redress after the event. We generally assume in life that no one can make us do things that we don’t want to, but the police can because that is what society and lawmakers require of them: enforcement of the law. 

Of course, it is absolutely right that police actions be scrutinised. The police do not always make the best decisions or act appropriately. Corrupt, violent and dishonest police officers do exist. I spent much of my career in the police dealing with this small minority and know that, in the majority of cases, they are discovered because their own colleagues report them.

However, there are real risks if we allow bad cases, however abhorrent, to lead us into lazy judgements of all police officers. We rightly criticise the police when they fall into stereotyping or acting on biases, conscious or unconscious, so let’s not do the same to them. 

The vast majority of officers have chosen their career as a vocation. It defines them on and off duty. They want to protect the vulnerable and bring criminals to justice. They put themselves in danger to prevent strangers from coming to harm. Officers are exposed to tragedy, cruelty, hatred and horror so that the rest of us can generally manage to avoid them.

We need our police to remain physically and mentally well enough to carry on doing their job with compassion, patience and fortitude. It’s not in any of our interests for good officers to reach the point where they call in sick, resign or decide to live down to the negative police stereotypes being shouted in their faces on the streets and in the media.

Although closely associated with the law in the public mind, it is important to remember that the police don’t make the law. That’s the job of democratically elected governments. Although officers have some discretion over whether or not to enforce a particular law in a specific set of circumstances, the police cannot be seen to second-guess parliament by not enforcing laws on the basis of their popularity with the public.

Currently the government’s coronavirus regulations do not include an exemption to allow gathering for the purpose of protest. Ironically, the very politicians who have created this legal position have criticised the police both for being too soft on people who gathered to protest when there was an exemption in place last year, and also for being too “heavy-handed” in their attempts to disperse protesters whose gatherings are now unlawful because there is not an exemption in place. 

So let’s examine just one aspect of the actions of the police at Clapham Common that many people have no doubt been shaking their heads over. You were probably shocked by the now iconic front-page photo of male officers applying handcuffs to a woman lying on the floor. Words and phrases like “brutally arrested,” “manhandled,” “tackled to the ground,” “dragged away,” and “aggressive” repeatedly featured in the reporting – without the politicians and journalists using this language apparently questioning whether it was factually correct. HMIC have now decided that it wasn’t. But how did so many think this was a reasonable description of what they saw?

When an officer decides that they have reasonable suspicion that a person has committed an offence and that an arrest is necessary, co-operation should be sought, as it was at Clapham Common. Very often it is not necessary to detain the suspect at all, especially for more minor offences when the person’s name and address are known. 

Even where an arrest is necessary, the majority of people can be persuaded to cooperate, and this is advantageous for both the detainee and the officers.  However, when persuasion doesn’t work, the officer can legally use force to effect an arrest whether it is of a woman protesting, a man suspected of drug dealing, or a possible terrorist in a suicide vest. 

If you are a parent, you probably remember how tricky it is to get an overtired, non-compliant, tantrum-ing toddler into their pushchair. You may have sustained bruised shins in the process. So how should officers effect an arrest on a non-compliant man or woman, whilst minimising the risk of causing injury to the person being detained, to any bystanders, and to themselves? 

Officers definitely do not want to get into hand to hand combat with detainees. No one wants the detainee tripping in a struggle and hitting their head on the ground. Officers also don’t want to lose their own balance, with the risk of getting assaulted on the floor or falling down stairs or into a busy road. 

So, despite the crowd baying around them, they do their best to follow what they have been taught and practise annually in Officer Safety Training. Ideally, there will be six of them available so that five can each take charge of a detainee’s limb and head, so that he or she can be lowered to the floor in a controlled and safe way. The sixth officer oversees everyone’s safety from potentially unnoticed hazards like stairs or attacks from bystanders. If there aren’t six officers available, then they do their best with the colleagues who are there. 

Once the detainee is on the ground, the officers kneel next to them and handcuffs are quickly applied and locked so that the self-tightening mechanism doesn’t result in the metal cuffs digging painfully into the detainee’s wrists. Then the detainee can be helped to their feet and supported to walk to the nearest police vehicle, where the detainee’s head will be covered by an officer’s hand to ensure that they don’t headbutt the vehicle’s frame as they get it. 

Two, three or six officers around a detainee lying on the floor looks shocking, but it really is the safest way to avoid anyone, especially the detained person, from getting hurt. Wider understanding of police tactics, including what a controlled, professional arrest of a non-compliant person looks like, would help everyone. 

Certainly, it would help the police feel a little more supported in the difficult job we ask them to do. It would also help anxious bystanders witnessing an arrest to accept that what they are seeing is not police brutality. It may deter well-meaning individuals from trying to intervene in arrests, thus risking being detained themselves (it is an offence to obstruct a constable executing their duty) and reduce the chance of an arrest stirring up wider public disorder in a locality.

Critically, this understanding could help protect the all-important relationship between local officers and members of the public, which facilitates the co-operation and information-sharing that makes a neighbourhood safer for everyone. Politicians, particularly those with responsibility for policing, should recognise their obligation to educate themselves about these matters, rather than hastily and publicly criticising conduct that is entirely in line with national policy and training.

We don’t yet have the policing in the UK that we want and deserve. But we do benefit from some of the best policing in the world. If we want officers to approach us fairly and with open minds, then perhaps we can all try a bit harder to do the same for them.

Helen King is a former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and is now principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford.

This Slow View was commissioned after Helen spoke at a recent Tortoise ThinkIn.