Tough on crime: Bristol violence raises questions over police accountability

Sienna Rodgers
March 22, 2021, police in Bristol. © Miles Cooper/
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“In America, police officers are rarely held accountable for how they use force.” This is how the BBC’s Today programme this morning offered context to its report on the George Floyd trial, starting today and set to determine whether he was murdered by an officer while being arrested. But the extent to which the force used by police officers is scrutinised and limited has also become a pertinent discussion in England amid the Sarah Everard vigil, Priti Patel’s policing bill that seeks to curb non-violent protest and the demonstrations against that piece of legislation.

The police brutality seen in Bristol over the weekend included a journalist who posted a video of being assaulted while simply observing. Most Labour MPs, certainly those on the frontbench, appear to be more comfortable talking about violence by protesters, however. Since Saturday night, this has led variously to MPs opting for silence, interventions that ignore any concerns over police conduct or use of Covid as a reason to sidestep the subject (suggesting that protests generally should not be taking place, despite what we know about outdoor transmission and despite that being a highly alarming blanket rule for which parliament has not specifically legislated during the pandemic).

Labour is going big on law and order this week, ahead of the May elections. The leadership will want to regain the lead on tackling crime, and the Tories are just five points ahead on the issue. David Lammy has today highlighted that convictions for robbery, theft, criminal damage and arson, drug offences and fraud have fallen to a ten-year low. The opposition party has put forward various proposals to reduce the vast backlog of cases – such as an increase in sitting court days and ‘wartime’ juries (a controversial idea) – which it says have all been rejected by the government.

If Labour is going to focus on crime, though, its spokespeople will need to find a way to talk comfortably about all related matters with authenticity. The current approach risks neither forging a winning narrative nor providing much-needed criticism of frightening events that damage the whole labour movement. An Opinium poll last week showed 45% of UK adults feel the police are not properly held to account when they do wrong (and 21% disagree). Enthusiastically backing the right to protest is clearly something that many find difficult, but perhaps this is worth noting. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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