[Author’s Note: This blog is a little longer than those I usually write, but the subject matter seemed too important to make it any shorter.]
Last Thursday evening in north London, the police were called to reports of a fight in the street. On arriving at the scene, officers identified a man who matched the description of one of those involved and, as they struggled to detain him, one of the officers placed his knee against the man’s head and neck.
The police officer was white. The man he was arresting was black.
While the man sustained only minor injuries during the encounter, footage of the incident carried unsettling echoes of the killing of George Floyd in America. It quickly went viral.
The man, who was wanted on recall to prison, was later charged with possession of a knife. The officer was suspended from duty and the incident referred by the Met to the Independent Office for Police Complaints.
On Thursday night, I watched my social media feed with apprehension, fearing what might happen next.
London feels like a tinderbox at the moment. The past few months have been as challenging as any in our lifetimes. People have died in their tens of thousands. The future is deeply uncertain. The virus has laid bare the overwhelming scale of the inequality that persists in our society. People are angry. People are afraid. And, in the midst of it all, the relationship between the police and members of London’s black communities is under renewed strain. Thursday evening’s arrest might so easily have provided the spark that lit the blaze. Thank God it didn’t.
But the fact that it didn’t doesn’t mean we should simply move on and forget what happened. (The time for forgetting and moving on has long since passed.) The north London incident raises all sorts of urgent issues that we cannot – and must not – ignore.
What do you see when you watch the film of the arrest?
I imagine your answer to that question will be based on a combination of facts, personal experience and perception. It will, to some extent at least, be a matter of perspective.
I am a middle-aged, middle-class, white man. I also happen to be a retired police officer. And I have a perspective about what happened in north London last week that is unavoidably influenced by those things. I’m also subject to the temptations of ‘confirmation bias’ – the tendency, in any given set of circumstances, to see the things I want to see (the things that are consistent with my pre-existing worldview) and to disregard anything that doesn’t fit the story I’m trying to tell. It’s a dangerous thing to do.
These days, large numbers of us appear to have given up completely on any attempt to see the world from anyone else’s point of view. “There’s my view and there’s the wrong view,” and that’s all. We retreat to our bunkers and echo chambers and – both in real life and online – we yell at one another as the distance between us grows ever greater. We separate ourselves into endless factions: Leave and Remain; Left and Right; North and South; Black and White; Rich and Poor; Male and Female; Young and Old; Us and Them; the Police and the Community. And the divides deepen. Shouting with our fingers in our ears is fast becoming the only means of communication that some of us know. And no good will ever come of it.
But if I want anything to change, I am going to have to start approaching things in a radically different way. More than anything, I am going to need to rediscover the lost art of listening – to learn how to see and understand the world from the perspectives of others. I need put their shoes on and I need to start walking.
And so, before I even attempt to offer a retired police officer’s take on the events of last week, I need to pay much closer attention to the voices of those who might just see things differently to me.
When I pause for long enough, these are some of the things I hear:
- “The police are racist. Institutionally and individually.”
- “They always have been and they always will be.”
- “Nothing changed after the Scarman Report in the 1980s.”
- “Nothing changed after the Stephen Lawrence Report in the 1990s.”
- “Nothing ever changes.”
- “Black communities are deliberately targeted by the police.”
- “Black people are disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched by the police.”
- “Black people are disproportionately more likely to be tasered by the police.”
- “Black people are disproportionately more likely to die in police custody.”
- “And no police officer has ever been convicted of any crime following the death of a black person in custody.”
- “Black people are disproportionately more likely to end up in prison.”
- “It’s always been that way.”
- “The footage of Marcus Coutain being detained in London is no different to the footage of George Floyd being detained in America.”
- “The footage of Marcus Coutain being detained confirms everything I ever suspected about the police in this country.”
- “Black lives are cheap.”
- “Black lives don’t matter.”
- “All Coppers are bastards.”
Some of those statements are facts. Some of them are opinions. Some of them are based on first-hand, lived experience, some on stories that have been passed on by others. All of them are statements of belief. And, whether I agree with them or not, sometimes I just need to shut up and listen. Because listening is the beginning of hearing. And hearing is the beginning of understanding. And understanding is the beginning of change.
Like many of us, I’m trying to educate myself about race and racism – not because I have the slightest interest in virtue signalling, in being politically correct, or in being ‘woke’ (whatever the hell that means), but because it’s the right thing to do. When it comes to black history and black experience, I have nothing to teach and everything to learn.
The truth is that we live in a deeply unequal society. When compared with their White counterparts, Black people in this country are disproportionately more likely:
- to be born into poor and overcrowded households
- to be raised in high crime neighbourhoods
- to be eligible for free school meals
- to be excluded from education
- to suffer from mental ill health
- to be in precarious employment (zero hours contracts etc)
- to be unemployed
- to die of coronavirus
I suspect there are a thousand other measures I could add to that list – each describing a form of inequality and injustice that is both societal and systemic. It’s about so much more than just policing. Actually, it’s about everything. And it’s been this way for hundreds of years.
Before now, I have been guilty of paying too little attention to these things. And that just isn’t good enough. If it needs to be said with particular urgency at this moment in time that ‘black lives matter’, it is precisely because they haven’t mattered enough in the past. And that’s on all of us.
I therefore have an absolute responsibility to open my eyes and my ears – to try to see and understand the world from the perspectives of others. And then I have a responsibility to stand up, to speak up, and to get on and actually do something about the things I learn.
But, at the same time, I also have a responsibility to my former colleagues in the police service – never as a blind apologist for them, but as someone who has served alongside them and who understands just how impossible their job can be sometimes. And it is for that reason that I want to ask you, if only for a few moments, to put yourself in the place of the two officers shown in last week’s video footage.
What would you have done in their situation?
Before we get to the incident itself, there are a handful of relevant facts I want to mention by way of context:
- Violent crime has been rising significantly in recent weeks.
- Knife crime is at its highest level on record.
- Between July 8th and July 16th, there were seven murders in London – five stabbings and two shootings.
- Black people in London are more likely to be victims of knife crime than anyone else.
- They are also more likely than anyone else to be victims of homicide (potentially 4x more likely).
The police will always be the first in line to confront violence in our communities. And that is exactly as it should be. The greatest duty – the greatest privilege – that any police officer will ever have is to save the life of another human being.
The two officers shown in the film will have been aware of these things. They will also have known about the substantial recent increase in the number of their colleagues being violently assaulted.
So what do we know about the specific events of last Thursday night?
- We know that the encounter between the man and the two officers wasn’t initiated by the police.
- We know that the police were called to a reported fight by a concerned member of the public.
- We know that the member of the public provided descriptions of the people involved.
- We know that Marcus Coutain matched one of those descriptions.
- Though the officers may not have known it when they approached him, we know he was in possession of a knife.
- Though the officers may not have known it when they approached him, we know he has a history of serious violence.
- Though the officers may not have known it when they approached him, we know he was wanted on recall to prison.
Those are the facts. But what about my perceptions as a former police officer? What do I see when I look at the film of what happened?
- I see two police officers struggling with a man who is resisting arrest.
- At one point, I see one of those officers placing his knee against the man’s head and, briefly, against his neck.
- And it doesn’t look great.
- Actually, given the particular circumstances of George Floyd’s death, it looks terrible.
- So I try to look a bit more closely.
- In particular, I look at the body language of the arresting officer.
- While some of his actions seem poorly-judged, none appear to me to be unduly forceful. And when I look at his facial expressions, I don’t see any obvious signs of aggression.
- More than anything, I think he looks frightened (which, by the way, is exactly what I would be in his situation).
- What I see is a young man trying to do his best in an incredibly challenging set of circumstances.
- He and his colleague are struggling to control a man who doesn’t want to comply.
- They are doing so in the face of a largely hostile group of onlookers.
- I see two officers trying to calm people down, not wind them up.
- I see two officers who recognise the potential for the situation to escalate – for things to go badly wrong.
- I see two officers trying to do their job.
And I write these things knowing that some of you will disagree passionately with my reading of the situation. Some of you will accuse me of closing ranks with my former colleagues – of turning a blind eye to institutional racism within the police service and of attempting to excuse the inexcusable.
And I want to say that I respect your point of view.
All I would ask is that you consider the alternatives.
A young police officer has been tried and found wanting in the ten-second-court of online opinion. On the basis of a short video clip. By people who weren’t there. By those who have never had to struggle to detain a violent man. And yet, aside from a clear mistake made in the positioning of his knee (quickly rectified and without resultant injury to the man he was detaining), I don’t think he’s done a great deal wrong.
I understand how it looks, particularly in freeze frame. I hope I understand the very deep emotions that the footage stirs. But might there be more than one perspective on what happened?
What is it that the public want and expect from police officers in situations like the one shown in the film? What is it that the public want and expect from the police on every other day and in every other place? We ask and expect officers to go to the places we don’t want to go. We ask and expect them to to do the things we don’t want to do. We ask them to confront men of violence and to protect the innocents who would otherwise find themselves in harm’s way.
Policing is messy, just as real life is messy. Policing is complex, just as real life is complex. Policing is uncomfortable and it can be rough. It is frequently dangerous and often frightening. Sometimes it ends up in a pile of bodies wrestling on the pavement. There is nothing remotely straightforward about confronting the realities of violence on our streets and in our homes. In fact, it is just about as difficult as a job could ever be. It is also just about as important as a job could ever be.
And I think we forget those things sometimes.
As I watched the public and media response to the events of last week, I was reminded of a scene from one of my favourite films.
‘Sully’ tells the astonishing true story of Chesley Sullenberger, the American pilot who, in January 2009, landed his stricken passenger plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board. Following a massive birdstrike shortly after takeoff, the plane suffered dual engine failure and complete loss of thrust. It was an absolute miracle that any of the passengers and crew survived, never mind all of them.
As well as showing exactly what happened to US Airways Flight 1549 that fateful day, the film also depicts the inevitable public enquiry that followed. An army of experts is employed to investigate every last detail of the forced landing and they use a series of computer-generated flight simulations to illustrate the apparent ease with which Sully and his co-pilot could have returned to La Guardia airport – or diverted to a second airfield on the other side of the Hudson. The clear implication is that Sully was wrong; that his actions in landing on the river were unnecessary; that he needlessly placed 155 lives at risk.
In the packed inquiry room, it is left to the pilot to explain the fundamental flaw in their analysis:
“Can we get serious now? We’ve all heard about the computer simulations and now we are watching actual sims, but I can’t quite believe you still have not taken into account the human factor… These pilots are not behaving like human beings, like people who are experiencing this for the first time.”
The men and women flying the computer simulations are calm and clinical, devoid of apparent feeling or emotion. No time is allowed for analysis or decision-making – for them to absorb the initial shock of the birdstrike or to assess the full extent of the damage to their plane. They simply make an immediate turn for home. They are little more than machines.
Sully puts it like this:
“In these simulations, you’ve taken all of the humanity out of the cockpit.”
I suppose that’s what I was thinking as I watched the arrest of Marcus Coutain and the torrent of rage and blame that swiftly followed.
We are in danger of taking all of the humanity out of the uniform.
I need to be really clear here: I am not trying to give police officers any kind of a pass. It is absolutely essential that last week’s arrest is fully and independently investigated, just as it is essential for the police service – and wider society – to confront the realities and consequences of institutional racism. As I have often said before, it is absolutely right that we hold police officers to a higher standard than we do anyone else. Their job is far too important for us not to.
But, in recent weeks, the relentless criticism of policing – fuelled by certain sections of the media and amplified on social media – has lost any semblance of balance or perspective. The police have been cast unequivocally as the enemy.
Racist. Corrupt. Incompetent. Incapable of change.
And the truth is that, sometimes, they are those things. But it’s not the whole story. It’s not even close to being half the story. To suggest otherwise is not only damaging to policing, it is damaging to society as a whole.
The police officers who are struggling to detain violent suspects on stretches of London pavement are exactly the same officers who are:
- Delivering babies at roadsides
- Administering CPR to toddlers
- Searching scrubland for missing teenagers
- Breaking down doors to protect the vulnerable and to arrest the dangerous
- Holding the hands of the dying
- Lending a shoulder to the grieving
- Hunting down paedophiles and slave traders
- Talking down desperate souls from rooftops and window ledges
- Running onto London Bridge to confront fanatical terrorists intent on mass murder
- Picking their way through unimaginable horrors at the scenes of crimes and car crashes and every other kind of catastrophe
They are the same people – the same extraordinary people, to whom we owe an endless debt of gratitude. And the next time a frightened member the public sees a violent altercation in the street, who else are they going to call?