An article by Workers Playtime on the death of Colin Roach in 1983 and the inability/ unwillingness of the police, politicians and community leaders to render justice.
London Under Six Foot of Blue Sewage
The abortive attempt by the filth to hunt down David Martin using a process of elimination made visible the new style of London policing. The novelty doesn’t lie in the botched assassination of Stephen Waldorf. That’s only causing a stir because the wrong person was taken out (middle-class, clean record, influential friends).
On the contrary the record of the police in using firearms ‘solely to deal with threats to their own lives or to the lives of others’ is well known – from the India House killing of two youths waving toy guns in 1973 (by a then unknown squad called the SPG), through shooting armed robber Michael Calvey in the back in 1978, to the murder of Gail Kinchin as she was being used as a human shield by David Pagett, who’s now doing 12 years for her manslaughter.
No, the novelty lies in the image of responsibility to the community the police are concerned to show. This concern is born of a shrewd appraisal of the political forces (left and right) who are mustering for a reform of the Met imposed from the outside. It picks up on the rhetoric of the Scarman report as a defence against any change in direction except for where the police themselves want to go. So the day after the Waldorf shooting Kenneth Newman apologises (!), an enquiry is set up, and two of the hit squad are immediately charged, one with attempted murder.
Of course nothing has really changed. The inquiry is an internal one and ‘Wyatt Earp’ and ‘Bat Masterson’ still only face the inhuman barbarity of aquittal or even a year or two in an open prison. But better relations with ‘the community’ are clearly seen as the key to alioiding trouble through giving an image of responsiveness. A more blatant illustration of this process in action can be seen in the events in Stoke Newington the week of the Waldorf shooting.
On January 12th, Colin Roach, 21, unemployed, black, asked a friend to drive him over to Stoke Newington High Street to visit his brother. The friend now says he seemed ‘petrified’. On the journey he talked about someone who was going to kill him. He watched Colin get out in the High Street and then walk into Stoke Newington police station. Concerned, he went to get Colin’s father who lives in Bow. His concern was justified – as Colin walked into the front entrance of the sty a sawn off shotgun was pushed into his mouth and he was blown away. The police claim he did it himself.
His friends insist that though he was worried about something following his release from a three month jail term a week or two before, he wasn’t suicidal nor a suicidal type. He’d spent the day normally enough visiting friends, buying parts for his car etc. Relations between police and community in Stoke Newington are founded on total distrust and mutual loathing. This was reinforced by what happened after the shooting. Colin’s father arrived at the station not yet knowing about his death. He was questioned for three hours (as ‘part of the process of identification’) and a statement was taken from him before he was told. He was then asked if he wanted to telephone his wife to break the news to her! He declined, so the police thoughtfully drove him home, taking the opportunity to search part of the house, and helped him calm down Colin’s mother, who became ‘terribly distraught’, by having a policewoman physically restrain her.
The following day the family were refused permission to see the body. So far just an-other example of the sensitive policing Stoke Newington’s used to. It met with what’s increasingly becoming the typical response.
Two nights later a large crowd gathered outside the police station to demonstrate their anger and dissatisfaction. A `violent confrontation’ ensued in which two police were injured. So eight people were grabbed and awarded the usual package of charges. The local ‘community relations’ industry began to work overtime. Hackney CRE called for a public enquiry into the incident, Hackney Black People’s Association for one into local policing. Local councillors and left MP Ernie Roberts started making noises.
In an attempt to defuse the situation the police called on new style ‘public accountability’. A meeting of ‘community leaders’ was called the next day. Police gave their account of the incident, including a post-mortem report which supported their argument that Colin had shot himself. Local police commander Bill Taylor said the police had called the meeting to be ‘as open and helpful as we can’, to ‘allay misunderstandings’. He was ‘challenged’ by community activists and leaders though attempts to go ‘too far’ were stifled by local MP Clinton Davies, who insisted all contentious issues should be left to the inquest.
The community leaders left boldly asserting that ‘several questions still needed answers’. Clearly unimpressed by all this local youth staged another demonstration outside the police station two days later (17th). Police eventually launched a baton charge, making 19 arrests. The crowd dispersed but remained in the area in small groups for some hours. The same night a public meeting at Hackney Black People’s Association formed a Support Committee for the Roach family. Support was promised from both Hackney Council and GLC police committees.
A march from the town hall to the police station was arranged for the following Saturday. The march attracted 500 people who observed a two minute silence outside the police station. The stewards’ calls for a peaceful demonstration were ignored by a part of the crowd. ‘Scuffles’ broke out as the demonstration dispersed. Perhaps coincidentally a jeweller’s shop window was smashed nearby and several thousand pounds worth of stock taken. A large group of youths ran down Stoke Newington High Street breaking windows. In the subsequent fighting two police were injured and 22 people arrested.
The different levels of response throughout this affair indicate the reality behind the current debate about ‘police accountability’. At one level a sizeable section of the community’s automatic response was to assume the police had murdered him. In this police/community relations in Stoke Newington are exceptional only in degree, and in the fact that a series of incidents of ‘insensitive’ policing have brought matters to boiling point.
Above this discontent exists the layer of voluntary, welfare and community groups who make it their business to ‘represent the community’. In this case they have been united in attempting to focus discontent into an official inquiry of some sort. (As opposed, for example, to investigating and publicising the facts for themselves.) Beyond this their activities are restricted to issuing press releases and being present when any opportunity presents itself to ask ‘searching’ questions in public. This situation isn’t necessarily improved by the formation of a support committee. All too often in the past similar committees have become nothing more than scenes of faction fighting between competing politicos for whom such committees offer another public ‘forum’ for them to perform in.
Red Ken or Blue Ken: Mere T(w)okenism
The death of Colin Roach occurred as the ‘debate’ over the Metropolitan Police reached a new stage. After a succession of scandals – corruption, royal security, handling of the riots etc – calls for reform had turned into actual blueprints. The week before Colin’s death the ‘red’ GLC published its own proposals for reform. The report expressed their concern that ‘policing by consent had come under strain’ and that ‘in many areas of London people have withdrawn their cooperation from police activity’. Also that the crime clear-up rate in London was the lowest in the country.
They argued that control of the Met (to be merged with the City of London force), should be transferred from the Home Secretary to an elected police authority, consisting of the GLC police committee (controlling finance), and police committees in each borough deciding on policy and operations in consultation with local police commanders. This control would be strictly limited, however. National policing functions (royal and diplomatic security and computer and intelligence services, including Special Branch) would be hived off and placed under the control of an elected national authority. And most policing decisions ‘would continue to be made by the professional on the ground’. ‘However, those decisions would be made under authority from the police authority, a delegated authority which could be recalled, limited or extended at any time’.
This string of left cliches was expanded on by Paul Boateng chairman of the GLC police committee. The new police authority might have to be consulted about ‘controversial’ policing operations (SWAMP style operations, mass evictions etc). But it would ignore the local police commander’s advice at its peril and would be answerable in court for any failure to uphold the law. The aim was to ‘provide the framework for a new improved relationship between the police and the public’. For Boateng the problem isn’t so much corruption and brutality as ‘inefficiency and poor management’. too little communication and discipline in the force and overconcentration on ‘reactive’ policing. The GLC’s plan, on the contrary, is seen as a move towards preventive policing.
What it boils down to, in fact, is an-other layer of local government patronage, with more highly paid ‘jobs for the per-sons’. The new committees would assist the police in those areas of policing where community relations are likely to be a problem. The illusion of public control would be created, and having helped pre-vent ‘abuses’ and ‘insensitivity’, the police would be left better able to deal with the real problems of law and order. While quite happy to use oppositional rhetoric and the discontents of minorities (amongst whom they are pursuing votes) this is the real concern underlying Labour Party calls for police reform. This is an election year, law and order is runner up to unem-ployment as a concern of the electorate, and as an article in the New Stateman put it: ‘Any Labour government will come to power in very difficult economic and political circumstances. If it intends to im-plement a socialist programme, it will require the cooperation and not the enmity of the police’.
The week after Colin Roach’s death the Met produced its response to its critics, in the form of a report by Kenneth Newman on the first stage of internal reform. As an example of its attitude to accountability the report itself hasn’t been published, only a ten page resume. This is gauged at the level of public concerns. Extra police are to be moved from the specialist crime squads to deal with street crime and burglaries – seen by Newman as a priority. Close reading reveals that these officers have been released from their existing duties by computerisation and more efficient management. In other words the change is little more than taking advantage of the existing situation.
Similar buckets of whitewash are poured into the announcement that the SPG will from now to concentrate on anti-burglary patrols, together with the local instant response units. Just a new way of saying they will be carrying on with more road-blocks and more stop and searching of ‘suspicious’ people. In a gesture towards accountability each of the 24 police district commanders will liase with police-community consultative committees (the watered down version of Scarman’s proposals as set up in the Police Bill going through parliament), using them as a ‘vehicle for directing over-all strategy’. In other words, the police will ‘take the temperature’ of the local community through such committees without being bound by them.
Newman also gestures towards ‘community policing’ though his vision is of a corporate management strategy involving the community policing itself. So Neighbourhood Watch Committees based in single streets or estates are to be encouraged. ‘I would hope a block leader or street leader would come forward and be a useful contact for the police’. Tied to this are closer links between the police, welfare agencies (teachers, social workers etc) and wider computerisation of information.
Despite all the gestures made to areas of concern this is the heart of the changes. Put plainly, the increased militarisation of the police and the extension of their surveillance of the community is dressed up in the language of ‘community policing’ and ‘accountability’. Right wing critics are met with promises of greater efficiency and managerial control. Left wing critics are met with promises of ‘community liason’ and greater sensitivity. The hope is that like Robert Marks’ new broom’ trick in the early seventies this will deflect criticism for a few years more. Police committees, whether the Met’s kind or the GLC’s, are only a way of extending police control over us by settling the differences between police and our political masters. Like Orwell’s animals in Animal Farm, we’ll find ourselves looking in at them – and looking from pig to man and man to pig unable to tell the difference.
The choice between a ‘socialist perspective on crime’ and a ‘corporate strategy’ is only a choice of what language we use to describe the same reality. The surveillance and repression of working class people, the occasional ‘execution’ of `dangerous criminals’, the harassment of blacks and asians, of youth, of ‘deviants’, the breaking up of sit-ins and pickets. It’s a choice between wasting time complaining to the police or wasting time complaining to the police committee. The truth is that we have even less interest in seeing the Met reformed than the entrenched interests inside it. And the Met is on a loser fighting reform the outside. Sooner or later we will see a bill of ‘reform’ put before Parliament. When that occurs there can only be one sensible response. Against a background of practical direct action, as wide as possible a unity must be built around the demand ‘Kill the Bill’. The task of fighting for a better society – one without police or politicians must begin in earnest.
“Workers Playtime was a short-lived libertarian paper that ran to ten issues between 1983 and 1985 before, as is so often the case with libertarian papers, folding.”
Taken from The Radical History of Hackney