Tuesday 14 August 2012

The Met's Commissioner And The Right To Avoid Becoming 'Police Intelligence'

This evening, the Commissioner of the Metropolis spoke at Stratford Picturehouse as part of the local council's “Ideas Olympiad”, a series of events aiming to bring “high profile and interesting speakers to the borough”. Well, at least I think it was the head of the Metropolitan Police. It might have been the HR manager of a medium-sized Sheffield engineering firm in a borrowed uniform, for all the insight it provided.

The period spent by Bernard Hogan-Howe, who took over from Sir Paul Stephenson at New Scotland Yard last September, as Assistant Commissioner of Human Resources has clearly had a significant impact on both the man and his method of presentation. His speech this evening was littered with the kind of customer service platitudes that are so commonplace in the corporate world, long on aspiration but just as short on specifics as a morning briefing for call centre staff. And, for a man so closely associated with the concept of Total Policing, it was just as carefully crafted – the picture painted Hogan-Howe of his “total war on crime” seemed so benign that it would be hard to imagine the outbreak of anything resembling a minor skirmish, let alone a declaration of war.

After some fairly inane audience questions, there was only one slip as Hogan-Howe began to bat away concerns about the use of police powers to stop and search. The Commissioner was asked about a personal experience, involving police officers in Newham engaged in a stop & search who had become particularly confrontational when the audience member had insisted on his right not to give his name and address. This right was been one that Newham Monitoring Project has been pushing over the summer in the rights cards its volunteers have distributed and with good reason. Handing over personal details may seem innocuous enough, but if you happen to be one of the 83% of Londoners stopped and searched based on 'reasonable suspicion' that turns out to be wrong, there is nothing to stop this information finding its way onto police databases as 'intelligence gathered', even though in in legal terms the sole aim of stop & search is detection of crime. The retention of this data goes a long way to explaining why so many subsequently find they are targeted and stopped again and again.

Hogan-Howe used to run the Met's Professional Standards Directorate that handles complaints: all he had to do was agree that anyone has the right not to give their name and address and then move on to ignoring some other questions. But instead he fumbled his response, suggesting that providing personal details might “help with a complaint” (search receipts are numbered, so this is irrelevant) or even in “identifying an offender on bail”. Forget that the vast majority of people who are stopped and search are innocent of any crime. In a room filled with some of the more ambitious of Newham's local senior officers, their boss gave a green light to exactly the kind of aggressive intelligence-gathering that had been raised by the member of the audience – who also happens to work for Newham Monitoring Project.

Everyone knows that stop & search powers are deeply alienating. The Guardian and the London School of Economics study of the August 2011 riots, “Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s summer of disorder”, found that “the focus of much resentment was police use of stop and search, which was felt to be unfairly targeted and often undertaken in an aggressive and discourteous manner.” The Riots Communities and Victims Panel in their March 2012 final report [PDF] said that “the issue of trust in the police in London is hugely influenced by the exercise of stop and search powers... the importance of getting it right should not be underestimated”.

Getting it right must surely mean accepting that members of the public, who statistically are most likely to be entirely innocent when they are stopped & searched, have rights that include anonymity if they have committed no crime. Amidst an otherwise lifeless performance, Hogan-Howe managed to convey the impression that this right really isn't all that important. Perhaps his “total war on crime” isn't quite so benign after all.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps if you had some experience from the Polce 'side' of stopping and searching people, you wouldn't have written what comes across as a rather ignorant piece.

From a young male who has stopped as searched, and been stopped and searched.

macuser_e7 said...

Did anyone ask him what he thought about local council staff impersonating police officers, as evidenced in your previous post?

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