Both The Public And Police Have The Right To Feel Safe On Our Streets – And We're Failing On Both Counts

Sadiq Khan may witter on about funding, but surely prevention of these divisive incidents is better than cure, and money would be saved from subsequent enquiries into police brutality, councillor Rabina Khan writes.

The police have one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. With cuts in police numbers and escalating crime – particularly violent crime in London – it’s not surprising that many officers suffer from anxiety and PTSD. And with the rise in gun and knife crime, many police officers, understandably, fear for their lives, so when they encounter a situation with a person who is resisting arrest, their natural reaction is self-preservation.

One officer with the Met Police wrote about his experiences anonymously for the Guardian. He admitted that he did not feel safe policing London’s streets and spoke about the small number of police officers available to cover an area of about 250,000 people per shift. He said that he responded to at least two to three knife crimes a month, had had knives pulled on him and had seen friends and colleagues stabbed in front of him. “I’ve found myself many times kneeling on the pavement holding parts of bodies together,” he wrote.

However, does this fear sometimes lead police officers to use an unacceptable level of physical force in a situation where a minor offence has been committed, and the person being questioned is just being uncooperative?

I have worked with several families who have accused officers of police brutality in situations that did not warrant such a use of force. Only last month, in my ward of Shadwell, teaching assistant Mohammed Khan was arrested when he went to the aid of a shopkeeper. As he was trying to help the shopkeeper, he became embroiled in a disagreement with a police officer inside the shop. Following this, he was held down by four officers and he passed out. It was the first day of Ramadan and Mr Khan had been fasting all day.

In 2016, video footage of Tower Hamlets’ youth worker Zac Hussein being arrested caused campaigners to accuse the force of police brutality. I urged the borough commander to make a statement about the incident, but she did nothing. Despite footage of the incident showing he had done nothing wrong, Mr Hussein is still waiting for an apology.

Most recently, in Poplar, Youness Bentahar suffered a seizure, a broken finger and bruising after police wrestled him to the ground for refusing to move his car, which displays a blue badge and was parked legally, because his two-year-old daughter has a lung condition that requires oxygen. His wife and two children witnessed the incident, and his four-year-old son has been suffering from insomnia ever since. Many may have seen the various videos that were circulating on social media at the time. I hope the ongoing investigation by the Independent Office of Police Misconduct (IOPM) will shine a light on why approximately 15 police officers attended this incident.

Unsurprisingly, people who have been victims of unnecessary force by the police have a negative view of them as a result, particularly those who sustained an injury and those with pre-existing mental health conditions. Mr Bentahar said that he has lost faith in them after what happened.

Is there too much focus on “easy targets”, or are the police abusing their stop-and-search powers, as suggested by campaigners who claim that the Met Police are misusing Section 60 orders? With limited numbers, should police be focusing on more serious crimes? Would this mean that lesser criminals would effectively “get away” with their crimes? Or is it simply that when a police officer puts out an urgent call for assistance, when he or she is in a situation that they cannot control, the level of response needs to be proportionate to the level of force used?

What is the solution? It may seem obvious to invest more in recruiting and retaining police offers, investing in all frontline services and devising local community programmes to build relationships and instil more public confidence in the police, but in the short-term it is a basic human right for both police officers and the public to feel safe.

There should also be standards on how much physical force it is reasonable for police officers to use in situations where someone is resisting arrest, but only when there is clearly no risk of serious physical harm to the officers involved. Whilst police officers have discretion to use as much force as they reasonably believe is necessary at the time of an arrest, how does one define “reasonable”?

Although police officers are all kitted with stab vests, these only prevent knife wounds to the torso, not the head, arms, legs, or groin. Wearing such protection does not make our police immune to the risk of serious injury or worse. PC Keith Palmer was stabbed to death, despite wearing a standard issue stab-proof vest during the March 2017 Westminster terrorist attack, because his attacker’s knife blade found the gap under PC Palmer’s arm.

It seems to me that the police need more − and better − training to deal with the type of situation that Mr Bentahar found himself in to prevent these routine interventions from rapidly becoming violent.

What do police officers think? Do they agree that more training is needed? Or would a more adequate level of police officers on the street make them feel more secure in any given situation?

If they agree that more training is needed, the question is where does the funding for that training come from?

The Government and Sadiq Khan may witter on about funding, but surely prevention is better than cure, and money would be saved from subsequent enquiries into police brutality.

Police and community relations are too often damaged by such episodes.

Rabina Khan is Liberal Democrat councillor for Shadwell

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