Out of the darkness: policing and the death of George Floyd

Blog post

Out of the darkness: policing and the death of George Floyd

These are dark times.  We stagger bewildered out of the greatest public health crisis in a century only to be confronted with appalling footage showing the brutal murder of a black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis. The officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on George Floyd’s neck for a full nine minutes as Floyd told him, repeatedly, ‘I can’t breathe’. He kept his knee on Floyd’s neck even as it was clear he had lost consciousness and had no pulse. The officers made no attempt to revive him.  To watch the footage or to read Floyd’s last words, pleading for his life, is unbearable. The police are supposed to protect the public, but here they were committing the most horrific crime.

The death of George Floyd has shocked the world, a world now alight with protests against racial injustice that have spread way beyond the United States. American cities are burning as people express their anger at the latest in a long line of police killings of black men. 

The ramifications can be felt here too. Black Lives Matter protests have been held across the UK. I witnessed one in Oxford on Wednesday. This was not a gathering of veteran activists. There was not an SWP placard in sight. It was a protest of young working class people, notable in its diversity. It wouldn’t surprise me if for many it was the first time they had ever attended a demonstration. The tragic death of George Floyd and the wider injustices it has exposed has resonated with young people, black and white, far from Minneapolis.

Some people are quick to express consternation that an event in the United States can have any implications for policing here. There are of course enormous differences. We have a very different history of race relations to the US. British policing embraces and embodies the principles of policing by consent much more fully than policing in many parts of America, which as Alex Vitale chronicles in his book The End of Policing, has been militarised in particular as a result of the so-called ‘war on drugs’. And, of course, there is the guns issue, which increases the stakes (for both sides) of encounters with the police and results in numbers of police shootings in the US that are a world apart from what is experienced here. In 2016 The Guardian estimated there were 1,011 people killed in police shootings in the US. According to Inquest in that same year the number of fatal police shootings in England and Wales was four.

However, those who say there are no implications for policing in this country are in denial of the facts, perhaps in some cases wilfully so. Twenty years on from the MacPherson Report that found the Metropolitan Police Service to be institutionally racist, there remains persistent and stark disproportionality in the use of police power and in wider criminal justice outcomes. In London in April 2020 9.3 black people were stopped and searched per 1,000 in the population compared to just 2.3 white people per 1,000 in the population. Similarly tasers are deployed disproportionately in incidents involving black men, relative to their proportion of the population. Despite making up just 14% of the population, BAME men and women make up 25% of those in prison.

One doesn’t have to claim equivalence with the US experience on race and policing to be clear that there is a serious problem here and one that needs to be addressed. But the debate on these questions very quickly becomes polarised into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ police camps. On the one hand there are those who see the police as endemically racist and indeed some who now argue for the abolition of the police. On the other hand there are some in policing, a minority but a vocal one on social media, who seem to take offence at almost any criticism of police officers, which is a frightening position to take in a democratic society. If the debate ends up in this binary pro and anti police dynamic then there is little way forward.

Fortunately, there are acres of space between those positions where a dialogue could take place and solutions might be crafted. The excellent statement put out by UK police leaders condemning Floyd’s killing and supporting the right to protest shows that this is the space that they seek to occupy. 

So what does that way forward look like? 

First, there is a need for empathy. This is the point made by former Met Chief Superintendent and now author John Sutherland in a typically eloquent and emotionally honest blog post on George Floyd’s death.  In that post he says: ‘When it comes to Black history and Black experience, I have nothing to teach and everything to learn.’ The experience of a white police officer is very different from the experience of a young black man who has been frequently stopped and searched by the police. Those experiences of the use of police power take place in a context that is shaped by an ugly history of racism in this country in which bad policing has played a torrid part.

However, we should also take the time to listen to police officers when they express their horror at racism. John Sutherland says in his blog what most police officers say: the overwhelming majority of his colleagues are not racists and abhor racism. John says he only once in his whole career saw any of his colleagues make a racist remark, and I have no doubt the same is true for the overwhelming majority of police officers in this country. 

Nevertheless, the fact of disproportionality in the use of police power is indisputable. If it is not because of conscious bias or prejudice by police officers then we need to understand what is causing it and take action to address it. MacPherson’s point about institutional racism was that an organisation can be structurally biased even if the individuals within it aren’t. The fact that policing largely operates at the hard end of a society riven with racial injustice and social disadvantage must also play a role. These issues need to be discussed honestly and openly so that we can find a way forward.

There are examples of the power of empathy from the protests in America. We have seen the Sheriff of Genesee County (Flint, Michigan) taking off his riot gear and walking his officers in solidarity with the protesters. We have seen officers take the knee to show sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. Watch this extraordinary encounter if you want to see empathy, on both sides, working its magic. Some retired officers on social media decry this as ‘virtue signalling’. I see it as reaching across the divide, building confidence and securing consent.

In addition to empathy, if we want to move away from a simplistic pro or anti police debate, we need to be clear that there are such things as good policing and bad policing. Like anything in life policing can be done well and it can be done badly.  At its best it can save lives and protect the vulnerable.  At its worst it is what we saw on the streets of Minneapolis on 25th May 2020.  

What does good policing look like? The evidence base on this is strong and indeed the tragedy is that we have known for years, decades even, how to improve police legitimacy. In fact, given that bank of knowledge, we could do with understanding why these lessons have not been properly embedded across police organisations much more systematically. The record in this country is much better than in the US, but there is still much more to do.

Good policing is about treating every citizen fairly and with respect, what gets called ‘procedural justice’ in the academic literature. There are consistent findings across countries that if procedural justice principles are applied in police-citizen encounters then public confidence in the police improves. 

Good policing is accountable and transparent policing. The creation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, now the Independent Office of Police Conduct, in the aftermath of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, was a major step forward. The roll out of body worn video is a positive development, so that police-citizen encounters can be interrogated retrospectively. It is also important that the police involve community groups in scrutinising data, particularly in contested areas such as stop and search and use of force. 

It is about good community policing. This is why the Peelian principles assert that ‘the police are the people, and the people are the police’.  If strangers police strangers then mistrust quickly fills the vacuum. So policing needs not just to respond to emergencies and investigate crimes, but also to actively engage communities, getting to know people and helping to solve their problems. If the only time you see police in your neighbourhood is when they turn up in numbers to make an arrest, then all you see is a police force not a police service. It is a crucial distinction. 

Although the research evidence on the impact of workforce diversity on public trust and confidence is more mixed, my strong intuition is that if a police service looks more like the community it serves, it is likelier to be able to sustain public support.

Finally, it is important to understand that securing policing by consent is not like many other public policy challenges. It is not something that can be done one year and then forgotten about the next.  The work is never completed. Every single encounter between a police officer and a citizen leaves a trace. A single bad encounter can leave behind feelings of humiliation and unfairness that last a lifetime. Police legitimacy has to be renewed constantly, every hour of every day, in the practice of police officers and in the way they relate to members of the public. The times are dark. People are hurting. Securing justice and repairing broken relationships will take time.  But, with good will, we know how to step towards the light

Photo: Walid Hamadeh (Unsplash)