Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Who will police the Police?

This week, on the very day that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission reported that black people are 15% of police stop and search victims whilst numbering only 3% of the population, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police asked the Home Secretary to protect his force against lawsuits. Typically, lawsuits against the police are for excessive use of their powers. The ECHR’s figures – and recent experience – suggest that such excesses continue. Clearly redress should be available and Stephenson’s pleas should fall on deaf ears.
If there is one group of people who ought to be accessible to being called to account, it is the police. They have extraordinary powers. They can stop you on the street and search your clothes in public. They can break into your house, use force to throw you into custody, rifle through your most private possessions; detain you without a charge for many days and penetrate your body orifices in pursuit of evidence of some suspected crime.
 This week, newspapers reported Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, in his new book, relating that the Metropolitan Police had virtually paralysed No 10 during the cash for peerages investigation. Certainly they seemed to play fast and loose with their powers of arrest. Officers appeared at her home to seize the mild, Christian and totally civilised Ruth Turner at 6am in the morning. This is a tactic justifiable for the arrest of a criminal likely to run away if he knows the police are coming, or to ensure that somebody who might resist arrest is taken by surprise. These are hardly criteria that fitted her situation. Rather their use seems a totally unnecessary invasion of her home and integrity, for which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, today demanding protection from civil actions for wrongdoing, should be ashamed.
Although police are valued and relied upon by the public as the “thin blue line” between them and criminal interference with their daily lives, many people have experienced  police using their powers  indiscriminately . Police sometimes also use their powers very specifically, too  –  to pursue the prejudices that a force still overwhelmingly male and white continues to  harbour.
Both in my career at the Bar and as an MP I have seen plenty of good police and some bad police, the latter usually manifested in a determination to show they are the boss to different tranches of the population at different times.  For example, there were the two devout (black) Christian clergy from Suffolk whose taxi cut across a police car in Tottenham and was immediately stopped by the white police officers. When they failed to apologise and told the police they needed to go, they were arrested for “breach of the peace” and fitted up with allegations that they made vile gestures, smelt of drink and that they and the (black) taxi driver ( who was a stranger to them) all shouted. Reasonable cross examination, in court, demolished that pack of lies, founded, as it was, on the, then, antipathy of white police to any black Tottenham men who got in their way. Civil action for damages for such abysmal disregard of ordinary people’s rights ought to follow, not least of all to discourage repetition.
Then, there was the northern woman who called police to her violent husband who ran away when he heard their siren. Police left, he came back in an even worse mood, she called police again and he ran away again. This time officers told her that they had had enough of her wild goose chases and she, full of the stress of her husband’s threats, shouted at them. They arrested her, the victim of domestic violence, when they should have followed him to the pub and arrested him. Why did they arrest her? Because they were put out and thought they could take it out, with impunity, on this powerless woman.  The civil court would  tell them otherwise.  
Remember the G20 protests, the “kettling” of protesters who were fully entitled to be where they were and to go where they wished . Many were detained as if they were under arrest, for long hours, kept from their families, stopped from going anywhere, even to the toilet. These tactics were not the will of the government of which I was a member at the time.  They certainly shocked me.
One man, as we know, died. We also know that police made up a story that they were subject to missile throwing while they tried to revive him. Thus did they try to cover their backs and only mobile phone film gave us the truth about what happened between him and them. The CPS cannot prosecute, but this family ought to have the right to sue, if they want to mark their loved one’s uncalled for death in that way.
The allegations of Sir Paul Stephenson’s that actions against the police are all about lawyers mischievously money-grubbing, while most payouts are £5000 to £10000 and thus what he calls “technical breaches” are worrying. There are firms who specialise in actions against the police, as there are specialists in most areas of law. Lawyers make money from law.  Police lawyers make money from using law to defend police.  Payouts of £5 – £10000 can mean that somebody had been detained for two or three hours without lawful cause, or assaulted but with no serious damage. Few civilians would regard those as “technical breaches” and most would be glad that there is a cadre of solicitors prepared to take on this work. Civil actions against the police are all the more important while the Government fails to appoint new leadership to the Independent Police Complaints Commission notwithstanding  the departure of its Chair to greener pastures and the criticisms that have been levelled at it in DeMenezies and other cases.
Power is a multi-faceted aphrodisiac. It generates not only love of power but a righteous belief that it should be unchallenged. Who are the powerless to show the powerful any truths at all? We remember the Miners’ Strike of 1983-4 and the way the police abused what Thatcher called “The Enemy Within”. I remember the Orgreave Riot trial where detectives scripted uniformed police to frame miners with riot, who had done little but attend a picket. A conviction for riot attracted a life sentence, in those days. 
Does anything change? Clearly not corruption generated by power and Sir Paul Stephenson this week makes clear that the owners of such power would like to be free to risk being corrupted absolutely.