Thoughts provoked by “Mitchellgate”

I am not about to comment on what was or was not said in ‘The Andrew Mitchell Incident’ but there has, I think, been too little comment or thought on the role of the police. Most of us get used to going about our daily lives unhindered by other people let alone the police. Too often we can forget that each individual officer is the holder of the coercive power of the state. They can with reasonable cause deprive each of us of our liberty and if it is required, they can use force to do so. On reflection, this is huge power which places the police in a very different category of public servant from teachers, doctors, job centre employees etc. It is this power that makes ‘policing by consent’ such an important concept.

So Mr. Mitchell believed he could go about his business through the road gate on Downing Street but the police had the legitimate power, in the name of the security of the particular street, to refuse him passage. His reaction, the fact that he “lost it”, has been pored over and I will not dwell on that here.

But if that can be the reaction of an experienced, mature man to the coercive power of the police, it made me think about what it is like to be a 16-year-old young person going to join friends on a night out. You are late and it is cold so you happen to have your hood up. What you do not know is that there has been a recent burglary in your neighbourhood by someone in a hood, so you are stopped in your tracks by the police. Your impatience as you are running late is mistaken for obstruction, it is the end of a long shift for the police so the two officers end up getting shirty, your neighbours are watching so you feel vulnerable and the situation gets prickly. What if such a young person has the same lack of self control as the Chief Whip? If he “loses it” he could end up at the station and with a caution for obstruction. It is not a case of “no smoke without fire” but a heat-of-the-moment reaction of someone to the intervention of the state.

After such an incident how likely would our 16-year-old person be to come forward as a witness if he observes something suspicious? How much will he trust the police the next time he sees them. What will be his view of their authority? The relationship of the citizen and the state arguably is being eroded at its sharp edge. Moreover, in the incident I describe, the police are acting on reasonable grounds, but we need to remember that under S60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 we can be stopped and searched without cause.

Thankfully our imaginary young man manages to keep his cool; he gets to the party and recounts what has happened. Some of his friends are animated and describe their own similar experiences, but others look on blankly. The difference between the two groups is not age, address, dress or criminal record but skin colour. Mr Mitchell has shown us why being 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched due to your skin colour under Section 60 matters….

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