PHOTO: Cassie Quarless

West London Community Monitors. PHOTO: Cassie Quarless

Last week, teams of Community Monitors (CMs) trained by Netpol spent the August Bank Holiday weekend observing and recording the substantial policing operation at Notting Hill Carnival in west London.

This was the second pilot of Netpol’s Community Monitoring Project, which also coordinated trained observers to monitor the policing of the Simmer Down Reggae Festival in Birmingham.

The response from members of the public in west London to the thirty-three Community Monitors who had volunteered their time was very positive, particularly from those who had previous experience of police harassment and violence. A number expressed their surprise that CMs were prepared to take the risk of monitoring the police. We found that many people attending Carnival knew little about their rights and CMs were able to distribute around 7000 rights information cards, as well as 2000 wristbands printed with the contact details of reliable solicitors.

Community Monitors told us their own experience of scrutinising the police at Carnival was fulfilling and constructive: that their presence alone had a deterrent effect on disproportionate and excessive policing. Participants from African and Caribbean communities who had negative experiences of heavy-handed and abusive policing also felt it was empowering. The overwhelming majority were keen to see the project expand so they could continue to participate.

A further pilot project is planned for Manchester later this year and Netpol will publish a full report on community-based monitoring of local policing in early 2015. However, these were some of the main observations of the Community Monitors who went out on 25 and 26 August:

Policing was overwhelmingly directed at young black men

Carnival attracts a multi-ethnic mix of millions of people every year but CMs noted the largely white, male force of police officers on duty over the weekend were overwhelmingly targeting young black men in what looked like racial profiling, focusing on vehicle stops and drugs searches.

Often the basis of a ‘reasonable suspicion’ for using stop and search powers was an alleged ‘smell of cannabis’: but as CMs observed, the level of open cannabis consumption and its aroma on the crowded streets of Carnival was such that it was almost impossible to pinpoint any one individual in this way. On a number of occasions, CMs also observed the use of stop and search powers without any attempt to explain the object of the search or what ‘reasonable suspicion’ that officers held – meaning that these searches were illegal.

The apparent racial profiling of young black men became even more stark when a ‘section 60’ order was put in place – permitting searches for weapons without the need for reasonable suspicion.

Police officers were often extremely hostile and threatening towards Community Monitors

Netpol informed the Metropolitan Police in advance that we planned to monitor the policing operation at Carnival but on numerous occasions, police officers on the streets were extremely hostile, particularly during a stop and search or an arrest. CMs were pushed away, blocked from monitoring incidents and themselves threatened with arrest on dubious grounds, such as for filming, for asking to hand a legal rights information card to a detainee or for asking a detainee for their name.

The presence of Community Monitors allowed us to respond rapidly to allegations of disproportionate or excessive policing

When CMs witnessed a particularly violent stop and search or an arrest and were concerned about the safety of the individual taken into police custody, they were supported by a ‘back office’ that was able to quickly follow up on the incident with the Metropolitan Police

For example, we were able to respond directly to allegations that a young black man was assaulted by officers who wanted to search him, without first offering him any explanation why. After he had challenged the officers, he had been bundled into the back of a police van (witnessed by CMs), where he says he was assaulted, then arrested and later charged with assault of a police officer. The Netpol ‘back office’ was contacted by the CM team present and was able to establish that the individual was not severely injured, arrange for a trusted lawyer to attend the police station and take and collate witness statements. We were also able to provide court support to the individuals. This incident is one of a number that our partners, Community Monitoring Project – West London, are continuing to follow up.

CMs were also able to respond quickly to large-scale incidents

Learning from the experience of an earlier community-based monitoring initiative that focused on the policing of the Olympics in 2012, CMs used cycles to move about quickly on the periphery of the Carnival and to arrive at incidents where large numbers of officers were involved.

Police appeared more interested in identifying suspects than responding proportionately

There were numerous incidents where young black men were treated as crime suspects in circumstances that were disproportionate or where they deserved more care.

  • Two men were physically restrained and then arrested on public order charges by the police – because they were visibly distressed in the aftermath of the stabbing of their brother.
  • A black man in his 20s was arrested on suspicion of committing criminal damage after he allegedly punched a sign when annoyed at the loss of his mobile phone.
  • A thirteen-year-old child was surrounded by officers, taken out of view of Community Monitors and searched on suspicion of carrying cannabis

These incidents were witnessed by Community Monitors and attracted crowds of concerned, vocal onlookers. The concerns they raised were ignored and the immediate police response was to call for back up.

We would like to thank everyone who volunteered their time on 25 and 26 August, in particular members of the Community Monitoring Project – West London who participated in the planning of the training and deployment of Community Monitors over the weekend.

For further updates on Netpol’s Community Monitoring Project, follow @NetpolCMP on Twitter.