Policing politics? Or, what do you do when the president of your student's union is a cop?

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My friend Joel White wrote this piece, about the president of our student's union, who is also a Special Constable. It appeared in the University's student newspaper and also on Bright Green. Personally, I'd have gone further, criticising the role of both police and elected representatives, and pointed out that Specials are worse than normal cops cos they do it for free, but still an interesting piece especially considering it was aimed initially at an apolitical student body rather than anyone directly involved with any kind of organising.

Submitted by Ramona on November 3, 2011

The independence of policing and politics is a fundamental principle of democracy. Yet, as very few people at our university know, Matt McPherson, the elected President of Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA), is also a part time special constable with Lothian and Borders police. This article seeks to begin a dialogue about the appropriateness of this dual role and of the ways in which policing and politics have become dangerously blurred in recent years. To clarify, it is in no way meant as a personal attack on Matt, but is the opinion of a student who, until recently, had no idea of his role as a police officer and feels that the lack of debate about this during election time and since is worryingly indicative of a dubious acceptance that policing and politics can encroach upon one another without creating real threats to democratic rights.

It is another little known fact that Mr McPherson was unanimously disallowed from entering the last Edinburgh Anti-Cuts Coalition‘s occupation, after a long debate in which fellow occupiers from Glasgow made it clear that they felt unable to participate in the protest whilst there was a not-particularly-undercover police officer present. These were students who had been violently evicted by police from their own occupation, The Free Hetherington, in a move that was uniformly condemned; Charles Kennedy, in his report on the occupation said the police had ‘no legal authority’ for the ‘opportunistic’ eviction, whilst Tommy Gore, president of Glasgow Univesrity Student Representative Council, called the eviction ‘heavy handed’ and ‘unacceptable’. In this light, with the bruises from the eviction barely healed, it is totally legitimate for students to feel uncomfortable discussing tactics, personal details and ideas for action against the government fees and cuts in front of a police officer, off duty or not. The question of whether, in a similar situation, Mr McPherson could have condemned police brutality in a comparable way to the Glasgow Student Union, adds further problematic complexity. When asked simply whether he could ‘assure us [the occupiers] that he would not pass on information to the police’ about the people involved in the occupation and the activities going on there, he unequivocally replied that ‘he could not guarantee this’.

At this point it might seem easy to break out the old adage of how people shouldn’t be worried ‘if they have nothing to hide’, but I would hope students at this university have a less Orwellian ideal of justice, and can see the implications of Mr McPherson’s juggled roles for all students, regardless of their political persuasions and views about protest. EUSA is a body mandated to serve student interests and in numerous cases; not just organising buses to protests and planning marches but also holding personal details and dealing with pastoral problems within the student community; the presence of a special constable at the heart of the organisation raises fundamental issues. Mr McPherson’s responses to this have generally focused on his ability to comfortably switch between the two ‘hats’, but this is clearly impossible without severely undermining his capacity to fulfil the obligations of either position.

So why are people worried about politics and policing becoming embroiled?

It is important to also see this problem in a wider societal context. This has not been a good year for policing, particularly in terms of transgressions away from the police’s supposed role as ‘servants of the people’. A number of cases of gross misconduct by undercover police officers came to light: the high profile example of Mark Kennedy, who was found by judges to have acted as an ‘agent provocateur’ in spying on non-violent climate change activists and most recently, Jim Boyling, another undercover policeman, was found to have lied in court under oath, married and fathered children with a deceived female activist and spent years spying on Reclaim The Streets, a group whose only ‘crime’ has been to organise free street parties. Bob Lambert, now a lecturer on Terrorism Studies at St Andrews University, was found to have been spying on Greenpeace and anti-fascist groups for special branch over a period of 26 years. Britain’s top police officer, the chief of London Met, was forced to resign in July over his failure to tell senior figures, including the prime minister, that Scotland Yard had hired a former News of the World executive as an adviser while steadfastly refusing to reopen any inquiries into the phone hacking scandal. This comes after top governmental sources were found to be asking lecturers to ‘spy’ on potentially ‘extremist’ students and police released a statement telling people they should ‘report’ anyone they knew who may have ‘anarchist’ ideas. These transgressions fundamentally undermine people’s faith in the police and motivation to get involved in democratic protest. They show that, in a general environment of broken trust and curtailed freedoms; it is totally unacceptable to have a serving police officer at the helm of our student union.

The fact that many people have felt the hard brunt of the police in the last year should not be trivialised. Students have been kettled, dragged from wheelchairs, beaten with truncheons and charged by mounted police horses. Many have ended up in hospital simply because they wanted to go out and protest about the way cuts to higher education and sky-rocketing fees are wrecking their lives. Alfie Meadows, a student from Middlesex University, had to have emergency brain surgery last December after being struck in the head by a police officer. Scottish students up here have been barricaded in their own homes by police to prevent them attending rallies, profiled and stopped from entering the inauguration of Princess Anne and arrested whilst peacefully protesting outside tax-dodging businesses. I am not suggesting that Mr Macpherson is in anyway personally implicated in these appalling acts of violence, but am seeking to show why so many students are angry about the police’s response to their democratic right to protest and why they have utterly understandable grievances about then giving details to and having meetings with a man who spends his time in the same uniform. Police involvement in student issues should be on our terms and in our time, not a constant presence which undermines our autonomy and privacy.

There is clearly a fundamental issue in people being able to make laws one day and enforce them the next. At a time when the Tories are implementing costly initiatives to bring in elected police commissioners, against the wishes of The Association of Police Authorities who called it ‘the wrong policy at the wrong time’, we should be actively enforcing a clear division between police and politicians. Our Student’s Association cannot be the dynamic and inclusive fighting force it needs to be in a potentially catastrophic time for education when our student president wears a policeman’s hat.

Finally, after a fairly protracted Freedom of Information request, I managed to get this response from Lothian and Borders Force Intelligence Unit:

Special Constables are subject to The Police (Special Constables) (Scotland) Regulations 2008 and part of these stipulate that it is not possible for a Special Constable to take an active part in politics. That is not to say that someone who has held an elected office could not apply to become a Special Constable, however it would be necessary for them to step-down as such before they took up the post. I note that you have included being an elected member of a Student Union as part of your example of political affiliation. Given that participation in a Student Union can take a variety of forms, this type of activity would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis to see whether it would have an impact on a person’s recruitment as a Special Constable. Again, it would not automatically bar them from applying but, depending on the political involvement, it might prove necessary for the individual to resign from the Union before taking up any Special Constable duties.

So what now?

It seems that we, as activists and protesters on the left, need to be re-articulating our relationship with the police. The idea of ‘democratic policing’ is a fundamental fallacy, which is being used by policy makers and right wing analysts to essential disguise what we know as ‘political policing’. The ways supposed ‘community coppers’ have been used to gather data, harass protesters and undermine hard-fought freedoms should not be left unchallenged. It is a very easy step to move from naive solidarity – ‘the police are the 99% too’ – to allowing the state to control the terms of our protests. Articulating this can in a balanced and convincing way can seem challenging, but we must remember that ultimately, those movements that court or placate the state in such ways will get utterly subsumed into it. The police have a monopoly in state-sanctioned domestic violence, and not acknowledging their placement within societal structures of power will exclude far more people than the worry of seeming ‘anti police’ in some vague sense.

Right now this means fighting for: no platform for state spies (like Bob Lambert, mentioned earlier, who recently came to give a lecture on ‘Extremism in Universities’ in Edinburgh) – further engagement with groups campaigning about deaths in police custody and victims of police brutality – properly formed critiques of ‘democratic policing’ – examination of the ways in which climate and animal liberation groups have reacted to and avoided police infiltration (this will be happening to anticuts groups as the movement progresses but should not be an excuse for blanket secrecy or infighting) – being unafraid to articulate the clear connection between police brutality and the recent London riots – and then looking very closely at the relationship between police and politicians in our localities and parliaments.