This guest blog from Mark Blake, Councillor, Woodside Ward, Haringey, and trustee of the Centre for Justice Innovation, asks what can be done to re-establish trust between communities and police service areas in London, and stop the increasing incidents of serious youth violence.
Haringey is no ordinary London borough. From the Broadwater Farm riots in the 1980s, to the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 and the subsequent riots that followed, Haringey has a special place in the history of police community relations and race equality in our country. As such, I want to reflect on the three years I had the pleasure and stress of serving as the cabinet member for Community Safety in the London Borough of Haringey. During those three years, my portfolio covered the council’s enforcement activities, joint working with the Met Police, youth services and the council’s relationship with the local voluntary and community sector. It is therefore unsurprising that serious youth violence, Met Police community relations and the desperate need for an alternative agenda and vision for criminal justice policy and the political leadership to articulate it were never far from my thoughts.
Serious youth violence has been and will continue to be a dominant issue in the area of community safety. I am proud of the measures that we took at Haringey establishing a multi partnership youth at risk strategy with a genuine public health approach at its heart. During my time, we increased funding to what had been a decimated council youth service, attracted additional funds from the Mayor of London to support detached youth work, brought our Pupil Referral Unit back in house and have begun to change the ethos and improve outcomes for young people excluded from school. In particular, the endeavour of voluntary organisations and communities on the ground has been incredible.
However, the rates of violence (although they have decreased during Covid) are still too high and regrettably have become ingrained into the landscape of boroughs such as Haringey. What has clearly been missing has been any national direction or strategy. In 1999, the then Blair Government launched a 10-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. During the 20 year or so period since the launch of the strategy teenage conceptions have been reduced by nearly 70%. A protracted social problem has not only been reversed by a strong evidence based public health approach but we have changed the culture around the issue. Why haven’t we done the same around serious youth violence.
1999 was also the year Sir William McPherson launched his report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. I was a member of the then Home Secretary Jack Straw’s Independent Community Consultative Group which gave oversight to the implementation of McPherson’s 71 recommendations, so my engagement with the Met Police goes back a long way. So, a few weeks ago, I watched the interview of former senior officer Parm Sandhu on Channel Four news, who successfully won damages from the Met for her experiences of racism and sexism through her 30-year career. Ms Sandhu stated that racism in the force was worse now than at the time of McPherson’s report.
And, like many parents in Haringey, my sons are stopped and searched regularly on the streets of Haringey. For what purpose? To be violated as innocent young people and to walk away as innocent parties with their loathing of the Met increased. Do the Met even acknowledge the impact of these encounters every day? The message from senior command is this is all collateral damage from necessary policing (although the evidence is highly disputed) and we are taking knives off the streets, even though the numbers are paltry. Moreover, we have had a number of serious incidents in Haringey around the police’s use of force, most seriously the use of a taser by Territorial Support Group Officers which led to a young man being paralysed. The IOPC have referred this case to the CPS for them to make a decision on prosecution.
The Mayor of London to his credit came to Tottenham and met with community members and activists last July. This meeting contributed to his Action Plan produced by MOPAC through consultation with Black and Minority Community Groups across London to improve community relations with the Met. The Met Commissioner has pledged her support. However, to be frank, I am not optimistic. The Met are, in my opinion, not committed to real change. Many people in my community can’t see how this very serious stream of negative events involving the Met, all of which point to a serious problem in the organisation’s culture, are not deserving of a moment of introspection and reflection. If not now, they ask, will that moment ever come? The institutional response to interviews like Ms Sandhu’s, Jermaine Jenas’ documentary and research on stop and search and the recent flood of negative stories around women and the Met is corporate speak, pulling up the draw bridges, circling the wagons and sticking their heads in the sand. Is this what we want from our city’s police service? My nightmare while in office was to have the scenes of 2011 repeated again in Haringey. We were lucky to have avoided that outcome. However, to be frank, the biggest risk to a repeat of those catastrophic events is the PR game our city’s police force is playing around issues like race and stop and search.
Depressingly, it does not have to be this way, if only there was the political will and leadership at a national level to create a different vision of community justice. What we’ve had to date, especially following the rises in knife crime in the late 2010s, has been politicians drumming the same old enforcement led responses that play to particular political audiences but which are letting down a generation of young people. We’ve had to date has been lots of discussion on public health approaches and violence reduction units, but little actual activity, and our current Home Secretary has a penchant for flag waving stop and search as the answer for violence reduction.
There is a desperate need for Government and Opposition politicians to build a vision for a credible alternative that can galvanise and inspire a different vision for our society placing a fairer more humane criminal justice system at its heart. The seeds for that are there: with David Lammy MP as Shadow Justice Secretary, we have somebody with the understanding, vision and values to craft a radical criminal justice offer that could place prevention and fairness at its heart. In Government, we await Dame Carol Black’s review on drug reform, which could lead to a step change in how these matters are handled and policed. Even the Government’s controversial report on racial inequality recognised that “we need to re-establish mutual trust between communities and police service areas.” We desperately need politicians who can come out of the shadows and advocate for an alternative way of doing things. Whether politicians on both sides of the political divide will do that, and help young people in Haringey to live richer, better lives, we will have to wait and see.