Holding the police to account

Joanna Gilmore and Waqas Tufail
Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Police corruption has traditionally been conceptualised as an abuse of power and authority by individual officers. Such definitions have tended to result in a restrictive understanding of 'rogue' officers operating within police institutions.

In recent years, a series of high profile cases of police corruption have suggested that such practices are an institutional rather than individual phenomenon. In January 2011 the trials of six environmentalist activists charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass collapsed following allegations that the Crown Prosecution Service had deliberately tried to suppress evidence that might have exonerated them. Allegations that the group had planned to occupy the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station were withdrawn after the defence discovered that one of the one hundred and fourteen activists that had been arrested in a pre-emptive raid was PC Mark Kennedy - an undercover police officer who had infiltrated the group and secretly recorded activists' conversations.

As the network of police spies planted inside protest groups began to unravel, allegations that police officers operated as agent provocateurs, attempted to 'fit up' activists in criminal proceedings, sexually exploited women in order to boost their credibility with activists and used the identities of dead children as aliases, caused a serious crisis of legitimacy for an organisation supposedly founded upon a principle of 'policing by consent'.

These cases have also called into question the legitimacy of official state organisations that ostensibly exist to hold the police to account. We know, for example, that in the last three decades, the numbers of those who have died in police custody have increased; however, no police officer has ever been successfully prosecuted for these deaths, despite the existence of official investigative bodies such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

We also know that legal reforms such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 - an attempt to regulate police behaviour - have legitimised existing practices and resulted in less rather than more accountability.

A radical alternative is the establishment of independent police monitoring groups to track instances of police deviance and corruption and hold police forces to account. The recent creation of the Northern Police Monitoring Project (NPMP) suggests that such spaces of resistance can be found. Launched following a vibrant meeting in Moss Side, Manchester in October 2012, the NPMP acts as a forum from which individuals, groups and communities can collectively challenge corrupt policing practices and monitor instances of police violence and harassment in our communities.

The NPMP works within communities suffering from undemocratic and unaccountable forms of policing to provide advice, advocacy and access to specialist legal assistance and to support emerging campaigns as and when they are established. The NPMP aims to provide a genuine challenge to the official narrative around crime and policing in our communities and thus operates entirely independently from the police and other official state agencies.

Joanna Gilmore, one of the founding members of the NPMP, spoke alongside activists and academics at the 'How Corrupt is Britain?' conference at the University of Liverpool on 10 May 2013. The conference provides a vital opportunity to unite the campaigns against corrupt policing practices, expose the failures of official state mechanisms for holding corrupt police officers to account and discuss the possibilities of radical, community-based alternatives.