simmer downOn 20 July 2014, a team of trained independent ‘Community Monitors’ will observe and record the actions of police officers and security staff during Birmingham’s popular Simmer Down Reggae Festival.

Community scrutiny of the policing operation in and around Handsworth Park, where the festival takes place, is part of Netpol’s Community Monitoring Project and has been organised alongside 4WardEver UK, Birmingham Ethnic Minorities Association (BEMA) and BirminghamStrong Justice 4 All. Funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation enables Netpol to pilot three community monitoring projects in different parts of the country, which aim to increase police accountability over the treatment of individuals and the process of local decision-making in each of the three pilot areas. Similar projects are planned for Manchester and west London. The Community Monitoring project expands upon Netpol’s previous experience of monitoring the policing of local communities during high profile events. In February 2012, we worked with groups in Leicester, including the Race Equality Centre and the Highfields Centre, to monitor the way demonstrations against the EDL were policed. Later the same year, one of Netpol’s member groups, the east London-based Newham Monitoring Project, used Community Legal Observers to monitor the policing and communities in east London during the 2012 London Olympics. Both initiatives learnt from and adapted the knowledge and expertise of Netpol members Green & Black Cross and the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group, who routinely monitor the policing of protests and demonstrations. ‘Community Monitors’ at the Simmer Down Festival will observe and gather evidence, talk to local people about their experiences of street-level policing and hand out legal rights information. They are not lawyers and not providing specialist legal advice – the emphasis instead is on volunteers using their common sense, their ability to keep calm and their willingness to record what they witness. Netpol’s training focuses on:

    • issues most likely to affect local residents, especially young people
    • what to record if witnessing an arrest
    • how to recognise different police ranks and
    • how to deal with confrontational behaviour by individual officers.

Netpol’s decision to work in UK’s second largest city – and in particular the Handsworth area – arises from past tensions over hostile and excessive policing of the city’s black communities. The deaths in police custody of two men – Mikey Powell and Kingsley Burrell – have heightened concerns in particular about the treatment of young black men by West Midlands Police. A decade has passed since Mikey Powell’s death from positional asphyxia in the back of a police van in 2004, but his family only received an apology from the police this year. Kingsley Burrell died in 2011 and, like Mikey, he suffered from mental health problems. His death followed his detention under the Mental Health Act. The closure in 2010 of the Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit (BRAMU), which monitoring local policing as part of its work, has also left a significant gap in the independent scrutiny of the West Midlands Police. The groups we are working with believe there is a need for far greater police accountability and we hope our pilot is the first step towards the return of a genuinely independent community-based organisation that can undertake this role. Local Campaigner Tippa Napthali who is supporting Netpol’s initiative said

“4WardEver UK and The Mikey Powell Campaign for justice welcomes Netpol’s Community Monitoring Project in Birmingham, and the potential to build on this modest pilot to forge more longer term programmes of community-led work in the city. West Midlands Police has been particularly open to scrutiny exercises of this nature and operational reform, and I will continue to encourage future development of that relationship for the wider community benefit.”

Taher Gulamhussein, Coordinator of the Netpol Community Monitoring Project said

“In a climate where local black and Asian communities are under-policed as victims and over-policed as suspects, our communities cannot and should not have to rely on the police to monitor themselves. I hope that Simmer Down leads to the birth of a long term monitoring project that is run by and run for the local community”.

For the latest developments in Netpol’s Community Monitoring Project, follow @NetpolCMP on Twitter