The bill banning our right to protest puts further power in the hands of the police - but empathy and reform are the best solution.
By Charlotte Hall
Do the police really need more power?
Sarah Evarard’s vigil was the punctuation mark at the end of this long, complicated, urgent question.
It’s a question that includes a lot of dark clauses: Sarah Reed, a victim of police brutality and then neglect, who died in police custody waiting for a psychiatric assessment. The officers that took selfies with the bodies of two murdered women, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. The fact that PC Wayne Couzens, Sarah’s charged murderer, had an indecent exposure allegation against him that wasn’t looked into until Sarah’s body was found over fifty miles away from her home.
The vigil, that ended in a heavy-handed take-over by the metropolitan police, has punctuated the distrust and growing antipathy between the policing institution and women* (*women identifying and those affected by misogyny and sexism) and many minority groups.
"by putting on their uniform now, they’ve chosen who they stand with" - Hannah Adams
“It just seemed really tone-deaf that they would be at the forefront of the vigil,” says Hannah Adams, an attendee of the event. “I didn’t exactly have the most faith in them before. But by putting on their uniform now, they’ve chosen who they stand with. And they’ve chosen the side of all those police officers who’ve abused their power.”
Hannah isn't alone in her lack of faith. When asked whether 'Police do a good job in the local area,' only an average of 56% of the people asked in various London boroughs agreed.
And yet, our government’s solution is not reform, or a change of approach. No, it’s the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The bill, which passed its second reading on Tuesday, will give the police more independent power and encourage longer sentences for criminals.
'police are essentially being given the power to determine which protests are too disruptive to continue'
Social media and left-leaning newspapers have raised the alarm in particular over the Public Order clause. Using the ambiguity of the terms “noise disturbance” and “impact” outlined in this clause, police are essentially being given the power to determine which protests are too disruptive to continue. (Because, as we all know, the most effective protests are silent and orderly…)
Cressida Dick, brainchild behind the full-force, zero-tolerance approach to the vigil policing, points the finger at Extinction Rebellion for this amendment. The bill will help them “deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly but, as in this instance, had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt.” A dramatic way to describe a horde of teenagers delaying commuter traffic for a day.
Granted, XR has come under a lot of fire for their 2019 protest. But how many peaceful and/or necessary protests have taken over the London streets since then? From the Black Trans Lives Matter last summer to the Shame on You protests four days ago. How many of them would be termed too ‘disruptive’ under the new laws, which include blocking the path to parliament as a legitimate complaint?
'If one bad apple spoils the bunch, then boy is the Metropolitan Police putrid.'
Not to mention, Cressida Dick seems entirely oblivious to the irony in picking, in her eyes, “one bad apple” as the cause for these drastic reformations. If one bad apple spoils the bunch, then boy is the Metropolitan Police putrid.
However, the more fundamental issue is that we don’t trust the police to make those calls. Sarah Evarard’s vigil was one of many reminders that they suffer from an institutional lack of empathy.
"A lot of people do become police officers because they want to help,” Hannah reflects on her experiences with the police. “But I think over time, they become so out of touch and disconnected."
"When I was working at a coffee shop two of our regulars were retired Met officers and they absolutely hated the police because they’ve seen how they are from the inside. One of them said that a lot of cases that get reported, particularly cases reported by women, i.e. domestic violence, are laughed at as soon as the person has left, because they simply don’t care."
The lack of empathy is especially true, of course, for demographics that are underrepresented in the police force. BAME people make up 14% of the population, but only 7% of the police force. Women make up 51% of the population, but only 31% of the police force. And they usually have lower ranking positions than their white, male counterparts.
The police's attempts at addressing representation often come across as tokenistic, too.
“There were definitely a lot of female police officers [at the vigil] on purpose,” Hannah notes. “I did ask one of them, actually, who I should call if a man’s following me down a back-alley. She told me to dial 999! I just had to laugh in her face. It’s just that level of disconnect.”
In light of this disconnect, the bill just seems all the more irresponsible. Studies have shown time and time again that aggressive policing methods such as increased police power don't work. There have even been suggestions that aggressive policing has the opposite effect: crime increases - kind of a logical follow on from criminalizing things like one-person protests.
'Our policing institution, and the policies that govern it, inherently care more about punishing that wobbly definition “crime” than understanding its sources.'
It’s not that I’m saying all police constables are sociopaths (though, statistically speaking, some of them must be), or are inhuman in some way. Rather, it’s that our policing institution, and the policies that govern it, inherently care more about punishing that wobbly definition “crime” than understanding its sources. Tougher prison sentences will not solve or prevent crime, it will just destabilize families and communities. Harsher police responses to protest will not change the underlying issues causing social unrest.
What we need, in my opinion, is empathetic policing policy: a constabulary that works locally, even in a big city like London. A police force that addresses its biases by interacting with communities. A government that addresses the issues that cause its public to protest - instead of trying to hide behind the police’s helmets and batons.
Charlotte is an English and German undergrad currently exploring the urban jungle of Berlin for her year abroad. A ferocious dreamer, writer and secret romantic, she loves exploring themes of nature and identity. She‘s not above a good verbal spat, however, and most of the time can be found debating feminist and environmental issues with her friends and family. She has previously written for imprint with her piece The Pandemic Parallel.