This article was first published on Lib Dem Voice.
The scenes on Clapham Common last night as the police broke up the vigil for Sarah Everard were a disgrace and undermine the fundamental principle of policing by consent. Leading Lib Dems have called on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to resign. It was not a protest. It was a statement of solidarity with a woman who had been abducted from the streets of London and murdered. It was a declaration that women should be safe on the streets. Lib Dem Voice editor Caron Lindsay told of her personal experiences yesterday.
The UK’s tradition of policing by consent is being replaced by policing by authority. Legislation now in parliament looks set to reinforce authority at the expense of the fundamental right of freedom to protest.
A tectonic shift in the relationship between protesters, governments and the police is underway. We have seen this on the international stage. The suppression of protests in Hong Kong, Myanmar and Iran and the police reaction to the protests following the death of George Floyd are just a few examples.
Not everyone in the police is in favour of growing authoritarianism. They stand above calls from the populist right to clamp down on anyone who does not share their views. Many police across the world have taken the knee to acknowledge the wrongs of the way that black people have been treated and are still treated.
On Thursday, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published a report on policing protests. The report made headlines for saying that it would rarely be appropriate for police to take the knee. The Inspectorate argued that current policing tips the balance in favour of protesters. Liberty has called the report a “staggering assault” on the right to protest.
The Inspectorate had commissioned a survey for the report. For every person who thought it acceptable for the police to ignore protesters committing minor offences, twice as many thought it was unacceptable (60% unacceptable, 19% acceptable). Two in three Conservatives though police should not ignore offending protestors. Fewer than one in five Lib Dems took that view.
In the background to current events is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. It is wide ranging. Liberty has warned the bill risks stifling dissent, criminalising Gypsy and Traveller communities, and subjecting marginalised communities to profiling and even more disproportionate policing.
The bill will target travellers by creating a criminal offence of residing in a vehicle on land without permission. Powers for the police against terrorist offenders will be ramped up. The maximum penalty for assaulting an emergency worker will be increased. The bill also tackles protest, including stiffer sentences for toppling statues and defacing memorials.
We are still in a pandemic. But that should not be an excuse to increase authoritarianism. It should not be an excuse to prevent people expressing their anger, their fears after the death of yet another woman who was doing what men do with confidence every day. Living life as it should be lived. Without fear. With police in support not acting as the aggressor.
Recent actions by the police and the Inspectorate report are moving our policing service further away from policing by consent, a principle established by Robert Peel almost two hundred years ago.