After London Police Killing, Media Focus on Problem of Police Restraint By Peter Hart

12 August 2011 — Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting

Much of the media coverage of the riots in England dwells on the issue of police restraint.  There is a ‘public backlash against police restraint,’ the Washington Post explained (8/11/11), with some wanting ‘a tougher response to the rash of disturbances that has sullied Britain’s image.’ The problem is the ‘seemingly halting, even timorous, policing,’ according to one New York Times story (8/12/11). Another Times piece added:

A former senior riot police officer with knowledge of current operations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the most recent riots were allowed to rage, in part, because police officers felt constrained.

While there is no doubt that some people feel this way–one British poll found a third of respondents supported using live ammunition against demonstrators–it is rather odd to focus on police restraint when the immediate context of the uprisings concerns police brutality. The protests started after police killed Mark Duggan in Tottenham last Thursday. Early, inaccurate reports suggested Duggan fired on the officers.

While some commentary is quick to point out that looting can’t possibly be connected to one police killing, there is a far bigger problem here. As you might expect, independent media are covering this better than the corporate media. From a Democracy Now! interview (8/10/11) with London blogger Richard Seymour:

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Richard Seymour about one of the pieces in the Guardian written by Caroline Davies, who says, ‘A total of 333 people have died in or following police custody over the past 11 years, but no officer has ever been successfully prosecuted.’ That’s according to the government; it’s according to a watchdog report. ”Prosecutions were recommended against 13 officers based on ‘relatively strong evidence of misconduct or neglect,’ but none resulted in a guilty verdict.’ This is quite remarkable. Three hundred thirty-three people have died in or following police custody over the last 11 years? This is more than two people a month over the last more than decade. Can you talk about the significance of this, Richard?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Yeah. I mean, first of all, there has been, over the last generation or so, some efforts to overcome the antagonisms between the police and black communities in Britain, but that didn’t, obviously, get rid of institutional racism. Institutional racism was acknowledged in the outcome of the Lawrence Inquiry, but the steps undertaken to deal with it were obviously inadequate. And the result of that has been that there has been a disproportionate amount of stop-and-search of young black men, a disproportionate amount of harassment and violence, and, of course, as you mentioned, deaths in police custody.

But it’s worth mentioning that it’s not just deaths in police custody. There have been a number of recent notorious deaths outside of police custody, including that of Ian Tomlinson at a G20 protest, and including that of the artist Smiley Culture, who, they said, stabbed himself in the kitchen while police were visiting with him to discuss allegations of drugs. And I don’t think anybody really believes that, but there were peaceful protests in response to that, quite large protests by the local community. And to be honest, they were largely–in fact, completely–ignored by the media. They were a very important democratic moment, but just completely ignored.

And that puts these riots in an interesting light, because when one of the young people was asked by a reporter, ‘Do you really think the rioting is the right way to go about getting what you want?’ he said, ‘Yes, because if we weren’t rioting, you wouldn’t be talking to us.’ A political establishment, a media, and a state system that gives people that impression, that gives people the impression that they won’t be listened to unless they force themselves onto your attention, is going to lead to riots.

That kind of analysis stands in stark contrast to a New York Times story today that explores anti-police resentment in minority communities:

The broader question, though, is this: How did a national institution once held in esteem, or at least respect, by many Britons–‘bobbies on the beat’ to an earlier generation–become a force of such contention, even as, in recent years, it has taken credit for shielding the country from an array of terrorist plots?

The Times adds that ‘in recent years the force, overwhelmingly white, has faced accusations of racism, brutality and incompetence that it has struggled to shake off.’ Of course, accusations that are true are bound to be are hard to ‘shake off.’

An ABC World News report (8/10/11) introduced by Diane Sawyer asked a similar question that’s bothering many reporters.

And now, overseas to those riots in England. And a question we had today, where are the British parents as their young people run wild in the streets of London and other cities?

The piece that followed showed correspondent Lama Hasan asking rioting teens why they it was happening. One says, ‘ We’re just showing the rich people we can do what we want.’ Another says: ‘ The problem is there ain’t enough opportunities for people out here…. People’s lives are like a dead end.’

It sounds like parental authority might not be the most important factor. But if you’re going to ask these kinds of questions, then by all means: Over 300 people have died in police custody. What went wrong with the parents of those officers?

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