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Audrey Farrell

The stronger arm of the law

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 78, July/August 1985.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SINCE Thatcher came to power in 1979, funding for the police has expanded massively from £1 billion a year to no less than £2.8 billion. At the same time police productivity – measured by the crime detection rate – has been falling quite significantly. Here is one area, it would appear, that a nationalised ‘lame duck’ is being feather-bedded by unlimited state handouts.

It would be wrong to think, however, that the Tories will go on shelling out the money indefinitely. It is true that the more they spend on the police, the better they are able to prevent mass picketing or keep the lid on inner-city ghettos.

But they are worried about skyrocketing police expenditure. A central question for them is how to get more for their money. The police are there to protect property and profits. In order to get a higher rate of return, the police need to be able to make more arrests, to be able to make them more easily and to be able to secure convictions on the basis of these arrests more effectively.

The centrepiece of current Tory strategy is contained in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (due to begin effective operation from January 1986) and proposed new offences are contained within the May policy statement, Review of Public Order.

They do two things. First of all they legitimise a whole number of existing police practices which are currently beyond legal limits. Secondly, they extend the application of other practices into new areas.

The present limit for detention in police custody is 24 hours for non-serious charges and a court appearance ‘as soon as possible’ for serious offences. The latter phrase is interpreted by the police to mean ‘as soon as we are ready to charge’.

Increased detention

But from January 1986 detention beyond 24 hours can be authorised by a police superintendent for up to 36 hours. After that a magistrates court can add on another 96 hours with considerable leeway to allow for the time of court sittings.

Any period when suspects are merely ‘helping police with inquiries’ is not counted as part of the detention time. This is important because the police rarely make them aware of their status until they are formally under arrest in any case.

The Codes to the Act cover what is supposed to happen at police stations. The right to inform someone outside and to contact a solicitor remain. However, it ‘need not be exercised immediately’. Access to a solicitor can be delayed for 36 hours if the offence is classified as ‘serious’.

Since this includes ‘gross indecency’ (used against gays) and offences which ‘are likely to lead to serious harm to the state or public order’ (a catch-all category for political and trade union activity), it represents a major incursion into civil rights. So too does the new power not to ‘disclose information by telephone to a friend inquiring as to the whereabouts of someone detained’.

The main danger here is that the new powers to detain people will undermine the right to stay silent and will increase the pressure to sign confessions irrespective of any questions of guilt. The Codes state:

’If the person directly asks the officer what action will be taken in the event of his answering questions, making statements or refusing to do either, then the officer may inform the person what action he proposes to take in that event, provided the action is itself proper and warranted.’

This means that threats to ‘bring in’ wives or friends, or delay discharge are even more likely under the new Code. The threat of longer periods of detention is bound to increase the number of false confessions extracted.

In line with this, a Police Review booklet has appeared. Entitled Catching Criminals, it devotes 40 pages to the art of interrogation. It talks of exerting psychological pressure, of ‘making the suspect feel outnumbered and vulnerable’, of ‘manipulating’ and ‘breaking’ them, implying that the whole aim is to ‘secure an admission’ of guilt.

Back to sus

The notorious ‘sus’ laws – scrapped after the riots of July 1981 forced the Tories to retreat – are now to be let in through the back door instead. Indeed in some ways the situation will be worse. The stop and search powers of the Metropolitan (and some other) forces are to be extended nationally. Stops can be carried out on vague grounds of ‘reasonable suspicion’.

What will constitute such grounds is indicated by a survey conducted into the ‘clues’ that induce police to stop people. In order of popularity these are:

’dress, reaction to officers’ presence, appearance, context action, items carried, demeanour and other behaviour, facial appearance, associates, tattoos, voice/accent, hair, vehicle, gait/posture, age, eyes and odour’.

Another notorious practice that substantially remains intact is the police carrying out investigations into complaints against themselves. The statistics reveal very clearly what this means in practice.

In 1983, only 268 complaints out of 7,711 were substantiated against the Metropolitan police. Only eight assaults were proved out of 1,585 complaints submitted. Despite surveys showing widespread racialism among the police, all 37 allegations of racial discrimination were thrown out by the police complaints procedure.

Yet in future most complaints will still be dealt with by the police themselves. Complaints of a very serious nature will go to a new ‘independent’ Police Complaints Authority. This body will be chaired by ex-public school, ex-Oxbridge, judge and Lieutenant Colonel Sir Keith Cothier.

And the decision to prosecute a police officer will be taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Thomas Hetherington, who recently stated on the matter:

’The fact that there is sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution does not necessarily mean that there ought to be a prosecution’.

The past few years have demonstrated loopholes in the legal back up for the police.

The police missed having a catch-all offence with which to charge those arrested in the 1981 riots, the Warrington NGA mass picket, Greenham Common and, most of all, the miners’ pickets. They had plenty of powers to arrest individuals, but often had difficulty in making heavy charges stick.

The Review of Public Order contains proposals for new collective offences which are easy to prove, and can carry sentences of up to ten, five and three years’ imprisonment. The major offence will be that of riot. It is proposed that:

’Where 12 or more persons are present together, whether in a public or private place, using or threatening unlawful violence to persons or property for some common purpose (which may be inferred from their conduct) and their conduct taken together is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness if present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of them who uses unlawful violence for the common purpose commits the offence of riot.’

Crudely, the picket line push could carry a sentence of ten years.

The middle offence of ‘violent disorder’ has similar wording, but only three people need to be involved and the individual need only threaten violence. It carries up to five years’ imprisonment. The minor offence of ‘affray’ involves two or more people. The two can be threatening each other. Verbal clashes between fascists and socialists might qualify for this offence.

The proposed legislation will also require seven days’ notice of most demonstrations, and there will be a new offence of ‘failing to comply with police directions’. Legally the police will be able to reroute marches away from shops, shopping centres (and people).

There is, of course, a huge gap between what is on the statute book, and what sorts of laws the ruling class chooses to use on any particular occasion. After all, the Witchcraft Act of 1740 is still law. Nearer to home, the 1714 Riot Act – which included many of the features we have drawn attention to in the currently proposed legislation – was still the law of the land in the early 1960s.

Britain is not about to become a police state. The continuing need that the overwhelming bulk of the ruling class feel for a dialogue with the trade union leaders will set important limits to the extent to which any new police power can be developed in practice, as will the degree of working class resistance.

Nonetheless it is clear that Thatcher wants to be able to shift the balance between consent and coercion, in the direction of coercion. Whether that will be seen by the ruling class as centrally relevant to the continuing and intractable problems that British capitalism faces is, however, an entirely different question.

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