Police who kill are only part of the problem

Police who kill are only part of the problem
Comment: It is the state which empowers police to use violence, and which gives them impunity afterwards, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
19 Oct, 2018
Those who pull the trigger aren't the only people responsible for deaths [Getty]
Often enough, when I have taken part in a panel discussion on racism and repression, people have joked about the exact number of times they expected "the state" to be raised. They later laugh, because by the end it was too many to count. 

I make a point of framing the discussion around the enforcer of institutionalised violence because it destroys the notion that a few bad individuals, with inherently evil tendencies, ruin it for otherwise peaceful institutions which were built to serve the people. 

The "few bad apples" theory is often the response given to explain away police violence. And with each case, whether it relates to asphyxiation, or a shooting in the street, what feels like a public trial of the victim soon follows, in order to avoid looking at the responsibility of the institution itself.

Was the victim armed? Was the individual being violent? Are they an illegal migrant? Or a gang member? It all comes down to the same thing: did they, somehow, ask for it, thereby justifying the police's behaviour?

Next Saturday
on October 27, families, friends and campaigners will take part in an annual procession organised by the United Families and Friends Campaign, a coalition of all those who have lost a loved one due to state violence. 

UFFC was set up 20 years ago for those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody. Sadly, the list of those seeking justice has continued to grow. Many have been fighting for years for the truth about each of the hundreds killed, and for those responsible to be reprimanded.

Earlier this month, after three difficult years, the sisters of Shekou Bayoh had to watch the police officers involved in their brother's arrest and subsequent death, walk away with no charge.
My brother Shekou has died and yet the police get to walk free. The justice system has failed us as a family

On the day of his death, Bayoh was pinned down on the pavement by five officers, with the use of a baton and restraints by his arms and legs. He was exposed to CS gas, pepper spray, and was eventually asphyxiated to death.

"My brother Shekou has died and yet the police get to walk free. The justice system has failed us as a family as well as his two boys," Bayoh's sister Kadijatu Johnson told reporters.

The demands of UFFC are clear, and represent simple and basic expectations that any of us should have of an institution paid for by our taxes. They include that police forces be made accountable to the communities they serve, officers involved in custody deaths be suspended until investigations are completed, and that officers responsible for deaths should face criminal charges, even if now retired. 

Yet, data recently released showed that, this year alone, deaths in police custody have shot up by 64 percent.

More than half of the victims suffered from mental health problems. For example, 35-year-old Kevin Clarke ended up dead this March following contact with the police during a crisis in south London. There have been more than 40,000 uses of violent methods such as guns, CS spray and batons by London's Metropolitan Police - which comes to an average of 270 times a day so far this year.

Within the first five months of the year, black people made up 39 percent of those exposed to police violence.

Deborah Coles, the executive director of Inquest, explained that this reinforced the fact that there was an "overpolicing and criminalisation" of black people and other communities of colour. "It begs important questions about structural racism and how this is embedded in policing practices," added Coles. 

The issue of institutional racism in the police was famously highlighted in the MacPherson report, which followed a public inquiry in 1998 over the handling of Stephen Lawrence's racist murder. 

To add insult to injury, it was later uncovered that the Lawrences were being spied on by an undercover police officer who pretended to be an activist supporting their campaign.

"The crime was outside my house but they spent the money to send undercover police into my house, that money could have been spent on finding the people who carried out the murder," stated Neville Lawrence who is still in search of answers as to why his family were treated like criminals while they fought for truth and justice for their son.

The MacPherson report highlighted 70 recommendations to the government, and a further inquiry into the undercover police operations which targeted activists, politicians, unions and of course the Lawrence family itself.
I want answers. But the Home Secretary will not even reply to my letters

Today, it feels like little has changed. Mr Lawrence has expressed concerns over the lack of institutional changes and the ongoing use of the same approaches he and his family were victims of. His concerns are echoed by many, including other victims of the state and campaigners from Police Spies Out of Our lives.

These concerns led him to try unsuccessfully, to meet with Home Secretary Amber Rudd. "I want answers," he said. "But the Home Secretary will not even reply to my letters."

Neville Lawrence also explained that a panel which existed to overlook the progress of the MacPherson recommendations had been disbanded, and he had no idea about what was happening with the remit anymore.

However, the very institutions responsible for carrying out the abuse and oppression experienced by people of colour on the ground cannot be expected to be the vehicle for our liberation. While, on average, one person a week dies at the hands of the state - without any officer having faced jail time for murder since the late 1960s - racist violence continues to grow.

The institutions that failed the Lawrences, the Bayohs, the Clarks - and so many more - continue to target racialised communities. Every day we remember those who have been killed, and the institutions that continue to enforce this structural oppression will continue to be the target of our campaigns. They will never be our allies nor our saviours.

It cannot be said enough that, while individual officers carry the moral weight of their actions and should be punished for murder, it is to the state we should turn when looking for the culprit.

What the officers in the streets do, the courts, the Home Office, lawmakers, and even the "Independent Police Complaints Commission", cover up, justify, and legalise. It is the state that represses, the state that racialised, and the state that murders.

We should punish officers who kill, without forgetting the structures that gave them the power to do so in total impunity. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.