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The Thin Blue Line of Accountability: How Citizens are Holding Britain’s Broken Police Forces to Account

Who polices the police? Increasingly, it is community activists. Michal Grant speaks to Copwatch groups on why they do it.

Riot police on Stokes Croft, Bristol, in 2011. Photo: Gavin Roberts / Alamy Stock Photo

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Walk through the Saint Paul’s area of Bristol; you will see ACAB – ‘All Cops Are Bastards’ – graffitied on walls and wheelie bins. The tension between some of this part of the city’s residents and the city’s police force is palpable. 

In 1980, the area was the scene of civil unrest, which resulted in nineteen policemen and six other people being hospitalised. Many in the community point to the overzealous stop and search policies and armed patrols targeting young black men used by the police as a key factor which led to the disturbances. Some feel the over policing of certain communities in Bristol continues today.

“They beat me up, they broke my teeth […] I didn’t get a solicitor. I didn’t know why I was being arrested. I didn’t get read my rights.” Alice’s eyes tell a story of affliction as she recalls an armed raid Avon and Somerset police carried out on her house. 

“They took 2 dresses, a bag and a hat, lying to me all throughout the event. I don’t think I would be here if I hadn’t been on the phone with a friend.”

Alice is one of the 81,142 people in this country who have made an official complaint against the police over the last year. Normally when a complaint is made, it is dealt with by that police force’s own professional standards department. 

Bridget, from Bristol Copwatch tells me how the police are ‘unique in the way that they investigate themselves against any wrongdoing’ and explains how consequently officers are often not held properly to account for their actions.

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Similarly, Habib Kadiri, a spokesperson for Stopwatch, a group which conducts research into police behaviour in England and Wales, tells me: “We find a lot of the time there is a massive accountability gap between the way the police should behave and the actual reality.”

“The public have found it quite difficult to hold the police accountable and gain any real justice.”

Some communities have organised themselves to monitor and challenge police malpractice. One such organisation is Bristol Copwatch. The non-hierarchical organisation was started three years ago to support people like Alice, who are in the process of making complaints against the police. Alice initially sought out Bristol Copwatch for advice but on seeing the important role Copwatch could play in her community became a member.

Bristol Copwatch works with people who are in custody or are about to appear in court by helping them seek appropriate legal representation. Dahlia, a former paralegal specialising in prisoners’ rights and member of the group, reflects on how she recently spoke to somebody who had just gone to prison. “Just having somebody there who understands that legal process can be a huge offer of solidarity,” she says. 

Bristol Copwatch also aims to empower citizens through holding public meetings, giving free ‘know your rights’ training courses and hosting stalls where they offer step by step guidance to people who may find themselves in an interaction with the police. 

Matt, who joined Bristol Copwatch over the last year, explains how they also conduct street monitoring which involves filming police interactions. He describes a recent incident, where he noticed two members of the public getting arrested in Lawrence Hill. 

He started filming the interaction and very quickly the police had taken the people out of handcuffs. ‘`I’m not saying they got de-arrested because we were there.’ He pauses before adding: “But I guess it’s an example of how when we do things correctly, that’s what can happen”. 


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Trouble on the Avon

Bristol Copwatch is just one part of a growing movement of Copwatch groups throughout the country. However, due to a string of high-profile incidents involving the city’s police force, Bristol Copwatch is amongst the country’s busiest groups.

Infamously in 2017, Avon and Somerset police shot their own race relations adviser, Judah Adunbi with a stun gun. A year later, Adunbi was again mistaken for a wanted man by officers in Bristol. 

Fast forward to 2021, and during the aftermath of Kill the Bill demonstrations against anti-protest laws, the city’s police were forced to retract statements they made about supposed broken bones and punctured lungs. Which officers were said to have sustained during the protest. Later, an inquiry by MP Geraint Davies found that Avon and Somerset police had ‘overreacted at the time [,] had misled the press and tried to mislead [the] inquiry.”

“They stood up in court without any culpability, crying and saying they feared for their lives,” Bridget says. Defendants included a lot of young people who were “literally mauled and bruised”. 

Despite compelling evidence suggesting the police made a variety of mistakes during and after the protest, Bridget sombrely recalls that ‘people from those trials were sent to prison for 112 years collectively’ and charges are still being laid as of this October. 

Meanwhile, the local force, Avon and Somerset police, failed to log 13,100 alleged offences in 2022, according to an inspectorate report this March. Over 8,000 were violent and 420 were sexual.

Capital Offences

James from Camden Copwatch explains how one of the roles Copwatch groups must play in society is ‘on the digital front’ by offering a counter narrative ‘to what’s being said, or challenging views’ presented by the police and the mainstream media.

The Copwatch movement is growing quickly in London with groups in Camden, Lambeth and Southwark gaining impetus in response to the high-profile murders of Sarah Everard and Chris Kaba at the hands of London’s Metropolitan Police officers. 

Public consent is something that the British model of policing relies on, but some surveys have found people’s trust in the police has fallen by 20% since 1981. This confidence in policing was further eroded during the recent Undercover Policing Inquiry started by Thersea May, which found that at least 42 officers used fake personas based on the details of dead children.

To make undercover officers’ fake identities more credible, the police were known to have visited neighbourhoods where the children lived, researched children’s family members and even visited graves. 

They would then use these details to obtain driving licences and passports in the name of dead children. Tactics such as these and the ones used by police to get close to families such as the parents of Stephen Lawrence have meant the Met Police has been under increased public scrutiny. 

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James also highlights how more recently facial recognition technology has been used in Camden, with no prior warning or apparent rules on how it’s implemented. 

‘Effectively the police are saying well, we’re going to do it and you can trust us to get it right. It doesn’t have a particularly good success rate, it’s untested, unreliable, unregulated technology. I’m just really concerned that people are walking around unaware of this,” he tells Byline Times

Recently the Met Police also adopted The Right Care Right Person strategy which aims to decrease the number of mental health calls officers attend as part of an initiative with the NHS. 

Back in Bristol, Bridget highlights how police in the city are still called to incidents which should be dealt with by ‘support services’ but ‘each and every one of those have had their funding cut and cut and cut again.’

Bridget lets out a deep breath. “Why the hell is a police force sent out when somebody needs mental health support?”

Institutionalised Racism

Stopwatch is one such organisation helping members of the public hold the police to account. The group is made up of academics, lawyers and grassroot campaigners. Their research has been used in court cases including during the case brought against the officer who shot Jermaine Baker. 

Stopwatch’s investigation found there was a problem with officer W80’s defence and used examples to show that the officer’s defence would allow the police to get away with improper behaviour on very flimsily grounds. 

Habib tells me: ‘If officer W80’s threshold was the standard; every officer would get away with physically assaulting black people with nothing more than their own word and honest belief to go on.’

Unfortunately, it appears at least some of them do. During March 2021 to 2022 there were nearly 88,00 complaints made against police officers in the UK. Only 414 of the officers were found guilty of misconduct, and just 93 were dismissed from their job.

Despite this grim picture nationally, in July 2023 Sarah Crew chief constable of Avon and Somerset police offered some validation to overpoliced communities in Bristol. 

Crew became the first chief constable in the UK to admit that her police force was an ‘institutionally racist ‘organisation. Dahlia from Bristol Copwatch says it was “long overdue, particularly in the black communities of Bristol who’ve been on the receiving end of police violence, surveillance and brutality for all those years.”

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Melanie, another recent Bristol Copwatch recruit, brands the move “lip service.” “There were really specific things they [the police] could have added in [order] to demonstrate that [they were] interested in institutional change. They could have committed to pulling back stop and search or not increasing armed patrols of racialised neighbourhoods,” she says. 

But James from Camden Copwatch tells me he’d have liked to have seen the Commissioner of the Met Police in London, Sir Mark Rowley, make a similar statement.

However, Rowley’s position is a politicised one. Unlike in Bristol, The Met commissioner is appointed by the Home Secretary with the advice of the Mayor. Rowley has rejected calls to brand the Met Police institutionally racist. 

Most of us are lucky to be rarely affected by policing. We seldom have reason to question it. 

But for an unlucky few, the way they have been treated by the police has had a profound effect on their lives and has led to feelings of distrust and alienation towards the very people who are supposed to protect them.

Who Polices the Police? 

Alice is one such person who is completely alienated from the police. She is keen to stress the solidarity Copwatch groups can offer to victims of police brutality and urges people to join. 

Despite Copwatch groups gaining members around the country, most surveys suggest that on the whole members of the British public still have faith in their police force. I put this point to the members of Bristol Copwatch.

Bridget counters unequivocally: “If you join [the police] and you’re thinking you’re a nice person…sooner or later, you are gonna be asked to do something that is horrific.”

Alice has been arrested 7 times over the last 3 years for what she feels is simply a case of reporting her concerns. She describes her views on policing in Bristol plainly: “The police have real grudges here.” 

Rightly or wrongly, she expresses a view shared by some highly-policed communities: “The only good cop is an ex-cop.” 

A spokesperson from the Network of Police Monitoring (NetPol) tells Byline Times that recent reforms have proven “worthless”, and that the recent walkout protests from firearms officers – after murder charges were brought against the police officer who killed Chris Kaba – showed the public “once again that the police believe basic accountability doesn’t apply to them.” 

“It’s people in our communities who are able to hold the police to account most effectively. From legal observers at protest groups to Copwatch groups, police monitoring work has never been more important,” the NetPol spokesperson adds. 

Until these forces clean up their acts, groups like Copwatch will be needed to watch the watchers. 

*The names of Bristol and Camden Copwatch members have been changed in order to protect their anonymity. *

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