Reproduced from the current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine, please buy a copy when you see a seller.
The regional head of a police watchdog believes new powers and extra funding to investigate complaints will strengthen police accountability and help improve relations between black and ethnic minority communities and the police.
As the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) commissioner for Yorkshire and the North East, Cindy Butts scrutinises seven police forces. Her post builds on a lifetime of work aimed at improving relations between the police and the public.
As a pupil at Hammersmith Comprehensive in West London, Butts, with the aim of reducing constant tensions, set up a forum to encourage discussion between pupils and police. Later she served for 12 years as an independent member of the Metropolitan Police Authority until it was disbanded in 2012. Today she is charged with investigating the most serious allegations against police officers and building public confidence in forces’ complaints procedures.
When the IPCC was set up in April 2004, replacing the widely discredited Police Complaints Authority, Inquest, which investigates deaths in custody, was left disappointed by the new bodies’ failure to recruit from ethnic communities and outside the police profession. Today, three of the six IPCC commissioners for England and Wales are black.
Since 2004, over 400 deaths have occurred in police custody but no police officer has ever been convicted of murder or manslaughter. When Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead at Stockwell Tube station in July 2005 the subsequent IPCC report was heavily criticised by the family of the dead man for being “weak”.In February 2008, more than 100 specialist lawyers quit the IPCC’s advisory board after citing incompetence and rudeness.
Last year, Theresa May, the home secretary, gave the IPCC new powers to compel police officers to attend interviews and it will soon have powers to investigate private contractors working on behalf of the police
Earlier this year, May said more than a quarter of a million annual stop and searches could be illegal and committed to revising the code of practice under which they are conducted. Around a million searches each year are conducted, with only 10 per cent leading to an arrest.
Black people are around six times more likely to be stopped than white people. But by stopping short of introducing legislation, May was accused by Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, of being “weak.”
There are also concerns in black communities about the manner in which Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act is employed by officers to stop passengers at ports, airports and international rail terminals. At a recent engagement event in Leeds attended by representatives from over 50 black and ethnic minority regional organisations, Butts heard from a middle-aged Asian man in the audience who claimed that despite no previous convictions he has been stopped ten times under Schedule 7. The IPCC argues that all police forces are required to provide it with reports on their use of Schedule 7, but the Metropolitan Police is refusing to do so and the issue is set to be resolved in court.
Also present at the event in Leeds was a local young black single mother who recounted a horrific tale of police brutality when she was arrested and sprayed with CS gas, taken to the police station and released without charge or explanation as to why she had been detained.
Just West Yorkshire, the racial justice and human rights organisation that organised the event, is now helping to make a complaint.
Speaking alongside Butts, Charles Critchlow, a black police officer with Greater Manchester Police for over 25 years, recounted how institutional racism can permeate the police.
Although police forces themselves will still deal with the majority of complaints against the police, the IPCC is now in a position to take on many more cases after May granted the body an extra £18 million annually. This will see investigative staff more than double from 120 to around 300 nationally.
Butts, who was praised by Critchlow for seeking to promote openness, transparency and accountability, believes the legislative changes announced by May and the additional funds for the IPCC will help make her job more effective.
“Now that officers are required to attend any IPCC interview we are challenged with ensuring they do not remain silent when we are conducting our investigations,” she said.
“Due to their increasing role it is also vital that we have powers to scrutinise private contractors. I also welcome the new code of practice that is being introduced around stop and search.”
Butts rejected audience members’ demands that her organisation should not employ ex-police officers and argued that they are often among the IPCC staff members keenest to see complaints properly investigated. Butts also appealed for audience members to consider applying for any new posts at the IPCC to ensure it reflects the ethnically diverse area she oversees.
She supported May’s call for community groups to get involved in helping review training for police officers.
Additional funds means the IPCC can conduct more investigations. Butts wants these to also be “better quality” and some newly appointed staff will also be detailed to support families when they have a complaint or there has been a death in custody.
One of her first actions when she began work at the IPCC over a year ago was to ask for West Yorkshire Police to be investigated alongside Greater Manchester Police and West Midlands Police about how they handle complaints about racism and discrimination. This report is due out shortly
Butts describes the relationship between the IPCC and police as “built on an inherent tension, which is healthy for both organisations. If it was too cosy then neither is doing their job.
I am here to scrutinise their performance and search for the truth in order that communities can expect their complaints to be justly dealt with in order to build trust between the police and those they are employed to serve.”
The IPCC commissioner however faces a difficult task. Audience members in Leeds were asked if they had confidence in policing. Although only one voted yes, this was larger than the number who said they were confident in the police complaints process– zero.