Our society has many problems. The police aren’t the institution to solve them. In fact, they’re just another problem. We should abolish the police, overhaul our justice system, and use the money and resources we free up to pursue actual, evidence-based solutions – writes Harry Waveney.
Regarding police violence, many of us over here in Wales and the UK – in particular white people, like the person whose words you’re reading right now – like to think, “Well, at least we don’t have it as bad as in the States.” Whilst by some objective measures, like the number of police killings, things aren’t “as bad” this side of the Atlantic, our institutionalised inequalities run just as deep. At no point has this assessment felt as true as in the wake of the death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, a 24-year-old Black man from Cardiff who died Saturday after being released from police custody, reportedly covered in blood, a statement corroborated by a post-mortem on Hassan’s body. He reportedly told a friend, “the police have beat the shit out of me”. Protests have been calling for South Wales Police to release bodycam and CCTV footage.
These institutional inequalities can of course be traced back to the racism of empire. Not only was the United States of America founded on the genocide of indigenous peoples; it relied on the transatlantic slave trade. Human trafficking was so central to the culture and economy of that country that they had a civil war over it. It was a trade based on the savage practices of kidnapping and lifelong forced labour, of brutalisation and rape, of slaves’ dispossession and alienation from their own bodies. These things and many more atrocities were taken to their extreme by the British Empire: a statement which does not excuse Wales, not least for how people here profited from and helped propagate imperialism. The same applies of course to those from Wales who were part of settler-colonial projects.
Critics of movements like Black Lives Matter may decry, “But slavery and empire were so long ago. They don’t matter now.” What such critics willingly or unwillingly miss are the shadows that colonialism continues to cast today.
There are descendents of slaves today living in Wales, whether the descendents of slaves brought to the UK or, more likely, descendents of slaves brought to ex-British colonies who emigrated to the UK. These individuals and others from elsewhere have often come to the UK to escape economic insecurity and conflicts which were the direct fallout of the British Empire’s pillaging of vast swathes of the world. Migrants travel to the metropole for a better life because they are unfortunate enough to have been born on the peripheries of global capitalism, in countries which continue to have their wealth extracted at terrible costs to fuel the consumerism of the West (look up where those minerals in your smartphone come from). Many others have fled conflicts which, in places such as the Middle East, can be traced back to borders which were arbitrarily drawn by Western powers – such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, left the Kurdish people dispossessed of a homeland. Nevermind the instability caused by unforgivable conflicts like New Labour’s invasion of Iraq at the turn of the century, based on a lie about Weapons of Mass Destruction. Or the UK’s continued support for the Turkish regime, an imperial power in the Middle East whose atrocities are only possible with weapons and related equipment from us.
The only thing that unifies this diverse group of people – from an NHS doctor born in India to a Deliveroo rider whose great grandmother arrived from an ex-British colony – is that they experience discrimination as a social by-product of the pigmentation of their skin. This system of othering is what’s often called racism. It is a structural condition which has its roots in the domination of the world by people who have been considered white. At least, that is, once that category was invented as a way to justify the oppression of those excluded from it. These arbitrary categories have even shifted over the years. Irish people, for example, were not considered fully white for a long time. Italian immigrants to the United States were considered similarly inferior for a period.
Today, people on the receiving end of structural racism – or white supremacy, to use another name – in Wales are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to work in insecure, low-paid work, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to live in overcrowded households, and less likely to own their home. They are more likely to die from COVID-19.
They are also more likely to die in police custody.
These facts are unaltered for many of the descendents of migrants whose families have lived in Wales for generations, who are “as Welsh” or “as British” as those who never have their Welsh- or Britishness questioned – because they are deemed white.
There are deep inequalities within our society, just as deep as in the United States. These are the plain realities being shouted across megaphones at the renewed Black Lives Matters protests we have seen in the last year, and as in the US, the police is one of those institutions at the heart of the issue.
South Wales Police
Research by the police accountability group, Stop Watch, claims that South Wales Police stop-and-search individuals of Mixed and Asian ethnicities at twice the rate of those identified as white. Black individuals are stopped and searched at six times the rate of white individuals.
South Wales Police have made use of the controversial Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which has been criticised for enabling police to search individuals without “reasonable suspicion” in a certain area over a set time. Critics say this measure allows police to act upon racial prejudices, with Black individuals 23 times more likely to be targeted than white individuals. A Freedom of Information Request revealed that Section 60 orders in Cardiff have focused on areas with sizeable Black and Asian populations.
South Wales Police lead every other police force in the UK on the use of what the human rights group Liberty has called the, “arsenic in the water of democracy”: facial recognition. With practically no oversight beyond their own internal structures and egged on by the South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner and Tony Blair’s top-pick for Welsh First Minister, Alun Michael, South Wales Police have pursued a number of deployments as long as your arm. Far from fulfilling the oversight role his position demands, Michael is a cheerleader for the use of a technology which Scottish MSPs have ruled as “not fit for use”, leading Police Scotland to drop their plans to use it.
The Scottish report which led to Police Scotland’s abandonment (for the time being, at least) of live facial recognition highlighted that the technology is, “known to discriminate against females and those from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities.” Anti-facial recognition campaigns are more advanced in the US, where at least three cities have banned the technology, including the epicentre of hi-tech culture, San Francisco. Oakland, a Californian city with large Black, Hispanic, and Asian identified populations cited concerns of racial bias as a prime motivation for their banning of facial recognition. Tech giants such as Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon are refusing to supply police with facial recognition technology following widespread protests against police brutality and profiling (South Wales Police get their tech from NEC, a Japanese multinational corporation).
Supporters claim accuracy rates are improving (although some disagree on how to measure inaccuracy) but, nonetheless, facial recognition systems have been widely documented to have ludicrously high error rates. In 2018, South Wales Police’s facial recognition system had an error rate of around 92%.
Meanwhile, the South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, Alun Michael, continues to unashamedly support the technology, even going so far as to get in a public beef with the North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, and possibly the only cop you might smoke a joint with, Arfon Jones, over the issue. Michael’s role is meant to, in part, scrutinise South Wales Police but he is such a consistent supporter the force even quotes him in their press releases – such this one where South Wales Police announce they are trialling a facial recognition smartphone app, an iteration on van-mounted facial recognition cameras which the privacy rights group Liberty has called a “gross abuse of power”. Recently, the court of appeal ruled that South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition breached privacy rights and broke equalities law. Campaigners have called for the technology to be abandoned but South Wales Police say they expect to continue with minor changes.
Another “gross abuse of power” by police in South Wales was the spycops scandal when Mark “Marco” Jabobs (almost certainly not his real name), an undercover police officer, infiltrated activist movements in South Wales. In addition to presumably feeding information to South Wales Police in an effort to crush political dissent, he had a romantic relationship with two women. It is suspected he worked for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. You can read more about “Marco” here.
Or, consider the Cardiff Five, the case of five men from Butetown who were wrongly charged with murder, three of them sentenced to life imprisonment (narrated in the critically acclaimed podcast, Shreds). For years, locals have called this much more than a simple mistake but proof of endemic police corruption, with witnesses changing their stories to implicate the convicted and a judge even going so far as to say police statements were “admittedly studded with lies.” Check out this #BlackLivesMatter Cardiff Twitter thread for more context on this case.
And let us return to Mohamud Mohammed Hassan. A statutory post-mortem found blood smears and splatters on Hassan’s clothes along with bruises on his body and other injuries, notable in light of South Wales Police’s claim that their enquiries “found no evidence of any significant injury or excessive force” used by their officers during the arrest and detention of Hassan. Reports in the Welsh media have been predictably poor and uncritically regurgitated South Wales Police’s narrative. The Independent Office of Police Complaints (IOPC) has been accused of being a “surrogate mouthpiece for the police”.
Mohamud’s death also comes in the wake of the death of Christopher Kapessa, a Black teenager who drowned on 1st July 2019 after being pushed into a river by a group of white peers. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to charge the suspect in his death for manslaughter, despite finding sufficient evidence to do so. South Wales Police have been accused of “racist undertones” in their handling of the case. Alina Joseph, Christopher’s mother, said, “I am seeking justice not revenge. I just don’t want another black child and family to be failed by the system.”
Our police may not have guns like the police in Minneapolis, and our colonial legacy may be different to that of the United States, but our police are no saints. They too have left wrecked lives in their wake. They are no less scandal prone. The entire institution of policing is broken. We will keep seeing repeats of the above until we radically transform our approach to justice.
But what do the police do, anyway?
The role of the police
The Black Lives Matter movement, which re-exploded into public attention following the police murder of George Floyd, followed by a pandemic of police violence, has propelled the slogans “Abolish The Police” and “Defund The Police” into mainstream politics.
Their argument? The police do too much. If we defund the police we can redirect resources to more suitable services and community-led initiatives. Not only could this eliminate police violence, it also hopes to provide funding for services that actually solve problems, not just lock people up and perpetuate cycles of institutionalisation.
In the US, even police are critical of their profession’s role. In 2016, a Dallas police chief said, after a sniper had killed five officers in the city,
“Not enough mental-health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug-addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops … Here in Dallas we have a loose-dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. … Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Is Wales really any different?
Homelessness? We give that to the cops. Just look at South Wales Police’s “Operation Purple Ash” which targeted Cardiff’s street homeless population. A Freedom of Information request revealed one of the operation’s objectives was, “To be the best and understanding and responding the needs of our communities.” For those campaigning for police abolition, the grammatical mistakes betray a far more basic error: this isn’t what the police should be doing.
Safeguarding vulnerable people? We give that to the cops. For example, a sympathetic report commissioned by South Wales Police into their facial recognition system lists “vulnerable persons protection” as one of the system’s three principle applications, writing “the police are starting to think about how the technology might help them with managing vulnerable people, for example individuals with dementia or a proclivity to go missing”. Why is this within the remit of the police? Shouldn’t this be down to professionals adequately trained to support vulnerable persons? This isn’t even just about facial recognition technology, it’s about what the police should and shouldn’t be doing. As has been widely reported, police interactions can lead to vulnerable people entering the justice system. As Black Lives Matter have highlighted, interactions with police can be deadly, especially for people of colour. That is true in the US and in the UK.
Anti social behaviour? Let’s give it to the cops. Never mind that community and cultural institutions have had their funding slashed during austerity, alongside education budgets, things which, in Wales and beyond, have been linked to rises in anti-social behaviour and individuals falling through the gaps in the system.
Drug abuse? Let’s give it to the cops while we ignore experts who have been telling us for over a decade that the criminalisation of drug use is exactly the wrong way to deal with the negative impacts of drug use. Our current approach “does not correlate with evidence-based assessment of relative drug harm” and disproportionately hurts working-class communities. Stop Watch write of South Wales Police’s use of stop-and-search,
More than half of all searches in 2018/19 (i.e. 57%) were for drugs instead of being directed at serious or violent crime. Research shows that these searches tend to uncover possession of low quantities of cannabis rather than suppliers or harder drugs.
These interactions with the police disproportionately affect people of colour, which in turn fuels the criminalisation of their communities. A criminal record, even for something as spurious as cannabis possession (which you can legally buy in a cafe or dispensary in Amsterdam or California), can narrow an individual’s life chances, potentially pushing them into contact with actual criminals as their already limited opportunities are further cut off.
Around a third of those who have been convicted of offences in Wales go on to reoffend, illustrating just how ineffectual our justice system is even on its own terms. People of minoritised ethnicities are disproportionately affected by these issues owing to the further marginalisation and higher levels of poverty of their communities, as well as disproportionate contact with the police which many people, including senior police officers, argue is down to institutional racism within the police.
Meanwhile, the proportion of crimes solved by police in Wales and England, in 2019, had fallen to the lowest level recorded. In 2019, The Guardian reported that only 1.5% (one in 65) of rape cases reported to the police resulted in suspects being summonsed or charged. Even on matters that most people would agree some police-type force should investigate, such as rapes and murders, the police and justice system do not work.
So what are the police doing? Listen to what the Black Lives Matters protesters in Wales are saying and you’ll get an idea. These protests are driven by an anger which has been bubbling under the surface for generations. This anger is driven by the daily victimisation of minoritised communities by the police, of stop-and-search, of gross miscarriages of justice like the Cardiff 5, of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan’s death following time spent in police custody, and of the daily pain of living in communities consigned to the fringes of society for nothing more than the colour of their skin.
The police have also long been used to silence political dissent, from the policing of miners strikes (remember Tonypandy or the Battle of Orgreave) to the police’s regular brutalisation of LGBTQ+ people during the foundational years of their movement, which the police also infiltrated. Nevermind the myth that the police are there on political marches to “facilitate protest”. Protests were taking place just fine for centuries before the police. The police were used to actively oppose protests. When this became unacceptable they claimed instead to be facilitating them. But really their role is to limit.
People of colour have the most to gain from an abolition of our system of policing but, really, we all stand to gain, from survivors of sexual assaults to political activists. Our societies have many problems. Let’s work on some real solutions instead of continuing with our broken system of policing.
ABOLISH THE POLICE
Speaking in the context of the explosion of protests in the United States, but with words no less relevant to the people of Wales, Alex Vitale, author of a widely read book on police abolition, The End of Policing, said,
It is just a huge level of harassment meted out almost exclusively on the poorest and most marginal communities in our society. There is a deep resentment about policing in those places. And then, when there’s a high-profile incident, it unleashes all this pent-up anger and rage.
This is the anger and rage we have seen on the streets of Wales, the UK, the US over the past year as Black Lives Matter and police abolition protests have erupted worldwide.
As activists in the United States realise, this is a historic opportunity to not merely, as has been tried and failed for years, reform the police. This is a chance to completely change what justice is.
We say Abolish The Police not because we want a society where bad things happen and there is no one to help, as detractors say. We say Abolish The Police because we want precisely the opposite. The police are not the institution to solve society’s problems. Look around you. Even if you can identify ways society has advanced in recent years it’s hopeful in the extreme to believe they might be traced back to the police. The police fulfill too many functions. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And it hurts like hell to be a nail.
This is all as true in Wales as it is in the United States. Let’s take the money we waste on ineffectual and harmful policing and put it in the hands of our most vulnerable communities. Put it towards mental health services, community institutions, domestic violence refuges, proper drug abuse services, social centres, well-funded homeless hostels, museums, social housing, public spaces, and all the other places which could use that money to actually solve our society’s myriad problems.
We should also turn our prison system upside down, focusing on reforming those convicted of crimes instead of merely handing out punishments which perpetuate cycles of crime and do nothing to make our world safer. Our justice system should not be punitive but supportive. Let’s decriminalise drugs and sex work while we’re at it and stop victimising those who often need our help the most.
Abolitionist Futures, a broad UK and Ireland based campaign for an overhaul of our justice systems, highlight: “the criminal justice system is violent and harmful” and “does not reduce harm”. In an article for the Metro looking at what abolishing police powers in the UK might look like, Faima Bakar writes that abolishing and defunding the police “isn’t about firing police departments en masse but strategically redistributing resources, funding, and power away from the police into community-based models of safety and prevention.”
Wales’ context for potential abolition is that we currently share a justice system with England. We can view the lack of a devolved justice system in Wales as a challenge or as a possibility. Prominent voices have already called for the devolution of justice to Wales. Such a move could be a historical opportunity to overhaul policing, justice, and prisons to build a system equipped for the society we want to live in. Independence would allow us to take these changes even further.
Instead of attempting to stick plasters on the arcane and punitive system we inherited from the Victorians and Edwardians we could rebuild from the ground up, using an evidence based approach, instead of throwing more police at problems because that’s what the Daily Mail says we need to do. We could learn from positive examples from across the world – from Sweden to Minneapolis – and explore innovative practises ourselves.
What we can’t do is pretend our country (Wales or the UK, however you want to square it) isn’t as dysfunctional as the United States. Our problems are right there too, we just don’t talk about them as much. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement these problems are increasingly out in the open.
We must follow the inspiring lead of activists in the United States and catalyse our own radical rethink of what the police are – or if we even need them at all. The police as they exist now are harmful and a barrier to our advancement as a society. If we want to fix social problems we must redirect resources currently tied up by ineffective and regressive policing.
We cannot do nothing in the face of domestic violence, mental health epidemics, rapes, murders, homelessness, youth crime, and other problems. But the police are the wrong solution to these. And, worst of all, they get in the way of actual solutions based on empowering communities, centring victims, and providing safe spaces.
We can still have first responders who turn up to domestic violence calls but they will be domestic violence experts. We can still have people investigating murders but they won’t be harassing homeless people on the side. Our multifaceted problems need multifaceted solutions. The police are a blunt instrument and they are doing more harm than good.
Police abolition will be a difficult process but it is one we must urgently begin. Abolish the police and let the real work begin. We deserve nothing less.