Saturday, 23 January 2010

Tories Finally Embrace "Self-Defence Is No Offence"?

This story is from 1992, the year I first became actively involved in Newham Monitoring Project (NMP).

MM and his family had experienced persistent racial harassment, including serious assault, by white neighbours in Plaistow for many years. In July 1992 he was attacked in front of his home and his brother came out try and rescue him, whilst other family members called the police. A passing off-duty police officer kept the attacker at the scene until the arrival of his uniformed colleagues, but when they arrived, MM and his brother were arrested and their attacker let free. Both brothers gave statements, including details of the repeated harassment of their family. They were released, two months passed and then, to their astonishment, they were asked to return to the local police station where they we charged with actual bodily harm. No action was taken against their racist attacker.

For black communities around the country, this will be an all too familiar story. Grass roots organisations like NMP have argued the principle that 'self-defence is no offence' since the 1970s, which is why it is almost gratifying to see that the Tories have finally caught up and embraced this as their own.

This week the Telegraph reported the Conservative Party's new crime policy commitments:

So-called "have a go heroes" who act reasonably and in good faith will not be arrested or charged if the suspect makes allegations against them.

The draft manifesto proposal runs alongside a similar promise to give householders who defend their homes against intruders better protection in the law.

One option under consideration is that residents who confront a burglar will not face prosecution unless they use "grossly disproportionate" force.

The move comes amid concerns that innocent members of the public are being too readily charged with offences after stepping in to help others or when trying to defend their home.

It has led to fears that Britain has become a walk-on-by society with the public too frightened to intervene against crime in case they are the ones who end up being arrested.

In some cases individuals who have held offenders while awaiting the police have been charged with kidnap while others have faced assault offences.

Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We will put a stop to the situation where malicious complaints by troublemakers can put a law-abiding citizen into a police cell.

"We will change the police rule book so that they aren't allowed to arrest someone acting in good faith to prevent a crime or apprehend a criminal suspect and we will make sure that police have the freedom to apply common sense when they are faced with absurd allegations."

In a double safety net, the Tories will amend the codes of practice for both the police and prosecutors so that anyone acting reasonably and in good faith will not face arrest and/or a charge.

The idea of ending malicious complaints that "put a law-abiding citizen into a police cell" has to be welcomed. But I guess you have already spotted the obvious problem - the notion of the police exercising "common sense when they are faced with absurd allegations".

The reality that the police have always had the option to do just this - but if you are black or Asian, forget about hoping for any common sense... or equal treatment. The Tories' policy proposals are quite clearly aimed at white middle class residents confronting burglars - not black people defending themselves from racists.

But Christopher Grayling needs to understand this - you make this law and believe me, we intend to use it...

Thanks to my friend Cilius (on the megaphone in the photo above) for pointing this story out to me - and for lunch at Gabi's Deli on Charing Cross Road today. Photo: Harpymarx

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