The police are supposed to protect us. But Black people cannot assume they will | Abimbola Johnson

The police are supposed to protect us. But Black people cannot assume they will | Abimbola Johnson
A couple of weeks ago, my friend texted our group chat. She’d witnessed a couple fighting in the street and, after watching it escalate, had called the police. The suspect was a Black man, the potential victim a Black woman.

My friend was asking the group whether we thought she’d done the right thing – because her husband believed she’d called the police too quickly. It sparked a debate. Some staunchly believed that when a woman was potentially being attacked, the police should always be called. Others were worried that calling the police would only make matters worse, that my friend may have misinterpreted what she had seen, and that the police would view the man as a threat, the situation could escalate, and that he could end up being put in danger. Their preference instead would have been to speak to the man directly and see if they could calm the situation down.

You may think this is a strange discussion: surely everyone should call the police if they see an attack like this? But though all our group chat members are professionals in our 30s, nearly all of us are Black. And though none of us has any previous convictions, we know only too well that the simple act of calling the police on a Black man can be a risk to his life. None of us disputed this – we simply disagreed on whether that risk was worth it in this particular scenario.

As if to reinforce our misgivings, days later an inquuest jury considering the death of 35-year-old Kevin Clarke found that the way Metropolitan police officers had restrained him had probably contributed to his death.

Clarke was a vulnerable Black man with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Police had been called out by the Jigsaw Project, who supported him in his residential housing, after a deterioration in his mental health. Despite officers being aware of his vulnerabilities, his appearing to be generally cooperative and responsive and his repeatedly asserting that he couldn’t breathe, the police restraints continued and he died in custody at Lewisham hospital.

Sadly, Clarke’s story isn’t a one-off, it’s part of a systemic pattern. The statistics show that the police are more likely to view Black people as a threat. A New Statesmen analysis last year found that Black people were the ethnic group most likely to suffer every violent tactic by police in England and Wales – from handcuffing to dog bites to use of firearms. Black people are also the most likely to be stopped and searched: almost 10 times more than their white counterparts.

All of these disparities are disproportionate not only in relation to the number of Black people, but also in relation to actual criminality across ethnic groups. Therefore as a Black person you are more likely to be physically and violently interfered with, and even die, at the hands of the police, even when you have done nothing wrong.

Many of my friends have personal stories of harmful interactions with the police. One almost lost a prestigious City internship. The reason: on three consecutive mornings, on his way to work, he was stopped and searched by the police, causing him to miss his train. Dressed in his suit, travelling with other commuters, yet still singled out. The only description officers had for their suspect in the first instance was “Black male in his early 20s wearing dark clothing”.

These searches delayed him by an hour each morning, meaning he missed important briefings. As the only Black intern on his programme he was too embarrassed to reveal why he was late, knowing that others at work were unlikely to share his experiences and that the stigma of being stopped may be worse than the lateness itself. He took to leaving an hour earlier for work instead.

In June, two of my school-age nieces and nephews witnessed a Black friend being stopped, searched and arrested on his way home from school (in uniform) – purely for kicking a bollard in frustration after losing a football match. He was taken away in a police van and held in custody for hours.

It is these kind of interactions that make us think twice before calling on those who are supposed to protect our communities. The statistics, the anecdotes and the direct experiences reinforce the idea that it doesn’t matter how young, vulnerable, cooperative, “socially acceptable” or innocent you are: your Blackness overrides everything else, and is reason enough to treat you as a threat. This was echoed in David Lammy’s 2017 review, which found that many black people feel that the justice system is “stacked against them”.

If the police are serious about improving relationships with members of the Black community, they need to look inwards and ask some fundamental questions: why do they still use tactics that so disproportionately interfere with the lives of Black people? Why are they so quick to view Black people as threatening and aggressive? And why do officers act so readily on such vague, generic descriptions of Black people, knowing those they treat with suspicion are likely to be innocent?

As a barrister, I can recognise the benefits of good policing. When exercised with compassion and proportionality, it can be an effective tool. However, fundamental to that, society is policed by consent. People need to believe that the law works for them, that it can give them justice.

Officers need to earn the respect and faith of the communities they serve – and that task starts with them. Until the police take steps to heal that damage, reluctance and scepticism will continue to tarnish their daily interactions – not only with suspects but with Black witnesses and victims too.

  • Abimbola Johnson is a criminal defence barrister at 25 Bedford Row

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