Saturday, 7 April 2012

Independent Monitoring Leaves Newham Police In Turmoil

In an episode worthy of any during its long, 32-year history of holding public bodies to account, the community-based civil liberties group Newham Monitoring Project has managed to create turmoil within the borough's police, which is rocked by allegations of racism within its ranks that has led to the suspension of an acting sergeant and two PCs - allegations were that were triggered by the support NMP has provided to Mauro Demetrio, the 21-year old who secretly recording officers racially abusing him.

On Wednesday, the acting Borough Commander Craig Haslam sent a damage limitation e-mail around to residents saying that he "wanted to take this opportunity to reiterate, clearly and categorically, that there is no place for racism in the Metropolitan Police Service and here at Newham." The evidence, however, does rather suggest otherwise - indeed, had it not been for one young man's quick-thinking and courage in recording on his mobile the racist behaviour of officers based in Forest Gate, it is doubtful that anyone at a senior level would have taken his claims seriously. Even with this overwhelming evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service took no action until the Guardian, with NMP's help, released the recording. What is evident is that without independent scrutiny provided by groups like NMP (and few parts of the country have similar local organisations), most complainants can have few expectation that their allegations will lead to even the most limited justice and accountability, never mind real change within the police.

As the testimony of another Newham resident Terelle Ferguson shows, Mauro Demetrio's experiences are, sadly, far from unique in east London. I know that Newham Monitoring Project frequently receives reports of discriminatory behaviour by police officers and most rarely attract the headlines we have seen over the last week. This is why NMP activists argue that there is an unchallenged culture of racism embedded within the Metropolitan police, a culture that is all the more alarming at a local level because Newham is the main Olympic host borough and at the heart of the huge security operation planned for this summer.

The front-line of the discrimination monitored by NMP remains the use of police powers to stop and search, the blunt instrument that disproportionately targets black and minority residents. Of particular concern is the use of powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which are most prone to accusations of racial profiling. A Freedom of Information request last year revealed that in Newham, the use of section 60 rose from 251 stops in 2007 to 6503 in 2010, a staggering 2540% increase. The expected deluge of stop and search over the period of the Olympics is one of the reasons why NMP is training and deploying Community Legal Observers for the first time during the summer around event venues. It will be interesting to see the police response to this example of civil society in action.

NMP's work since it started providing practical, legal and emotional support to Mauro Demetrio is an fine example of why local monitoring and scrutiny, independent of councils and the police, remains vital if issues like stop and search are ever likely to become less contentious. I have often been asked whether I think the NMP model can be replicated in other places and of course in theory it can - but it means a long-term commitment both to individuals seeking help and the communities that are most vulnerable to misconduct by police officers.

Too often, activists have taken the easier route of parachuting into an area, making some noise, attracting some media interest and then moving on. If people want to start monitoring the police in their own area, they can simply start building a dossier of cases in the neighbourhoods they know best. But seriously - they should expect to still be carrying out this work three decades later. Police racism shows few signs of withering away.

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