Black experiences of policing: the conversation continues

TrayvonDr Iyiola Solanke

In July 2013, a group of activists, academics and lawyers gathered at Matrix Chambers and the University of Leeds School of Law to continue the conversation on black experiences of policing in the EU. This topic has recently received media coverage, not only here in the UK but also in Germany (the NSU trial), Sweden (the riots in Husby and elsewhere), and Greece (the ‘Golden Dawn’ effect).  The trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin[1] in the USA provided a global backdrop for the Roundtables. The ‘not guilty’ verdict [2]delivered by an all white Southern female jury was followed by widespread outrage and a discussion of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ rules under which Zimmerman was tried.[3] Perversely, while African-American children worried about whether they could walk the streets safely, somebody invented ‘trayvoning’ (adopting the pose of Trayvon’s lifeless corpse).

The Roundtables focused on the policing of racist violence as well as violent and racist policing. Discussions were set within the context of the new Europol Package proposed by the Commission in March 2013. The Europol Package aims to anchor the powers for policing in the EU in a binding Regulation and merge the operational activities of Europol with the training activities of CEPOL. Under the plans, CEPOL would become a department within Europol. It is questionable whether Articles 87 and 88 TFEU provide the powers for the envisaged reorganization and expansion of Europol. It is also questionable whether Europol could improve black experiences of policing across the EU.

Professor Ben Bowling of Kings College London doubted this. He began with an overview of the current global situation. His research has lead him to the conclusion that first, cross-border policing is racially coded – action on ‘illegal immigration’ ‘drugs’ and ‘trafficking’ invariably results in the policing of black and migrant communities. Second, security concerns always trump liberty of individuals. He expressed skepticism in the ability of Europol to police racial violence or racist policing in the EU but was more optimistic about changes at the national level such as the reduction in Britain of police powers to stop and search.

However, there is clearly a pan-European problem. Clear illustration of the scope of the problem was provided by ENAR Vice-Chair, Momodou Jallow: in the Ukraine, Germany, Spain, Austria, Sweden and Greece we see the same trend of black citizens and residents being brutalized by law enforcement officials, losing their lives and liberty instead of being protected. Eva Cossé of Human Rights Watch gave a detailed account of the policing of black communities in Greece. She showed clearly how their situation has deteriorated in the era of the Golden Dawn. Some now plan to leave the country that they for decades have called home. These contributions illustrated that black people in the EU are over-attacked and under-protected as well as being over-policed. This was also a finding of the 2010 survey on policing conducted by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.

It is clear that Europol will not be able to tackle problems entrenched in national laws. Sunny Omwenyeke drew attention to the ‘pass laws’ which restrict the movement of refugees in Germany and which led to his own imprisonment. Under German asylum law, refugees must obtain official permission before travelling out of their area of residence, every time that they wish to do so. Permission must be applied for in person at a distant office and paid for, incurring not only travel costs but also fees. It is noteworthy that this ‘Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz’ was originally introduced under the National Socialists in 1938. These laws fell into disuse but were revived with the German constitutional reforms in 1982. While some states have repealed these laws, there are no plans to remove them from federal law. Training at the EU level could however be used to influence the national dimension of racism in policing

The stories told suggest that there are few safe spaces for black people in Europe – a potentially deadly police encounter can occur almost everywhere: at home, on the streets, in benefit offices, on trains, at airports, in private vehicles, at school and at hospitals. In Germany, N’Deye Mareame Sarr was shot and killed by a police officer at home in front of her child; Christy Schwundeck was shot and killed by a police officer at a local benefit office.  In almost all circumstances, action to investigate the event or punish the police officers involved is rare. According to recent stories, the police are faster to persecute the victims than rout out wrong-doing in their ranks.[4]

The Roundtable discussed what could be done to address and improve these experiences.   Paul Abbey presented the Finnish model of integration as an example. When he arrived in Finland, he was given a mentor to ease his integration. His integration lessons included not only language classes but also visits to local police offices to meet with law enforcement officers. In his experience such initiatives built trust between the newcomers and the authorities. It would be interesting to know if any other EU member states include such measures in their programmes for integration.  This might indeed be a useful training activity for CEPOL or the new ‘Police Academy’ to include in its Common Curricula on Police Ethics and Human Rights.

Prior to structural changes, however, Ben Bowling identified a need to dislodge and replace the problematic discourse of ‘crimmigration’ so that human rights are prioritized over security. Context was also highlighted by Paul Abbey. He argued that a simple acknowledgement of the violence and brutality of past systems of racial oppression could be a valuable precursor to a new age of race relationships in the EU. Drawing from his experience of openness in Finland, he was optimistic that such recognition would have positive long term consequences for security across the EU. The Europol Package is deafeningly silent on protection of human rights. The inclusion of these values would enhance the democratic legitimacy of policing in the EU and the EU as a whole.

As a corollary to this, Sunny Omwenyeke stressed the personal responsibility to act in ways to bring about such change. He highlighted the value of the everyday individual acts of persons committed to social justice – while such acts might on their own seem insignificant, when put together they could over the years build up to a ‘tipping point’ after which change is inevitable. The campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence is an example of this: the decades of lonely campaigning by his family are now reaping benefits for society as a whole.

The need to ensure police accountability was a priority. Police could act safe in the knowledge that nothing would be done. Momodou Jallow mentioned the campaign for an ‘IPCC’ in Sweden, a proposal currently rejected by the Justice Minister. Accountability is stressed in the Europol package yet there is no mention of an IPCC-type body to ensure this.  Instead powers of oversight are given to the European Parliament and the national parliaments; yet the parliamentary powers listed in Articles 53 and 54 of the package are too weak and insufficient to hold such a strong body to account. These provisions should be revised to encourage effective accountability at the EU and national level.

A link is visible between lack of police accountability and acts of racial violence. Eva Cosse retold the story of her experience while interviewing a woman from Afghanistan living in Greece. Whilst they spoke, thugs began to throw stones at the window; when police did nothing, in a subsequent attack that same weekend the home was invaded and vandalized. Police inaction sends a clear message that racist violence will be condoned.  Official inaction effectively empowers and emboldens attackers – they are secure in the confidence that the police would not seek to punish them. The victim on the other hand has no security at all but is caught at the end of a continuum: lack of police accountability facilitates police inaction – police inaction sends a message to racists that they can act with impunity.

In addition to accountability and impunity, credibility[5] and visibility emerged as pan-European themes. A common experience was that law enforcement officials are less likely to believe black victims. Those familiar with the Stephen Lawrence case will remember that the police initially treated his friend Duwayne Brooks as a suspect rather than a victim. This also happens elsewhere – when Oury Jallow’s mother travelled to Germany to seek justice for her son, the police initially disputed her identity.  A further example was given in relation to trafficking: trafficked black woman are less likely to be believed than their white counterparts. Such responses can be described as micro-aggression and they contribute to the lack of trust between black Europeans and the police. The Europol Package focuses on the relationship between law enforcement agencies and wastes the opportunity to promote trust between the police and the public. Trust and micro-aggression can also be addressed through the Law Enforcement Training Scheme (LETS) planned by the Commission for police officers in the EU.

Visibility and audibility were also themes with cross-border resonance. Participants noted that it was difficult for the black experience to be seen and heard. Beyond the initial front page headline, national media were not always responsive and few alternative forums exist to disseminate information.  In addition, some stories might be deemed insufficiently ‘newsworthy’ – activists were themselves surprised at how little they knew of the events happening in neighbouring countries.  There was agreement that the silencing of racist policing across the EU could only be countered by a broad coalition of activists, academics, politicians and lawyers working together across the EU. A heightened level of interaction is necessary to not only promote knowledge and understanding, but also to organize effective support for campaigns taking place in various member states. Organisations such as the European Network Against Racism, Human Rights Watch, Women’s Link Worldwide, Brigadas Vecinales de Observación de Derechos Humanos, the Open Society Institute, the Migrants Rights Network and the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association are to be lauded for their efforts in this regard and encouraged to continue.  There is no way to bring back Trayvon, Stephen, Maryam, Christy or Oury but by demanding that the EU to take seriously problems with the police response to racist violence and violent racist policing we can at least try to prevent others suffering the same fate.

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