Better public engagement is increasing trust in local policing in Bristol

Although many ethnic residents in Easton and St Pauls feel that the police are biased, if not totally still racist, and victimise communities in the area, the majority of residents who live and socialise in Easton feel happier not because of the greater police presence, but because of the high visibility policing in the area which has resulted a reduction in crime rate.

Map: Bristol Neighbourhood Partnerships
Map: Bristol Neighbourhood Partnerships

In addition, the Neighbourhood Partnership structures have made the police to be more accountable to the local residents by regularly attending not only the Neighbourhood Partnership/Forum meetings but relevant local meetings too – including the Stapleton Road Working Group and Somali Forum meetings, many a list – to explain policing strategies, share ideas, and discuss challenges and future plans while answering questions from members of the diverse local communities. However, better Neighbourhood policing, in any given area, relies on the level of community participation and engagement. Therefore, the selection of issues that is top of the list of community concern such as stop and search policies, heavy handedness and victimisation, amongst many, should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately both strategically and on the ground level.
(BSMGLiban Obsiye) Since last criticising policing practices in Bristol in the then Somali Voice newspaper, I have been observing and engaging with them regularly. So much so that I was asked by a reformed youth criminal, “Are you a snitch?” To which I politely replied that there was no substantial financial reward on his head and as a result at that moment in time he was absolutely worthless to any potential informer. However, on a more serious note, interacting and learning more about what they actually do and how they do it has made me understand the complexity of policing in today’s society.

Many ethnic residents I speak to in areas such as Easton and St. Pauls still feel that the police are biased if not totally “still racist” and that they victimise the local communities in these particular localities. Many felt that while there was increased preventative policing measures such as more patrols, more and more crimes was occurring under the polices noses. On the occasions, the police do turn up they come in heavy handed with absolute disregard for community members and residents. While these claims cannot be verified or totally denied, only very few residents felt this way when compared to the majority interviewed for this article.

The vast majority of the residents who lived and socialised in Easton actually felt happier with the greater police presence and admitted that the present high visibility policing was reducing and deterring crime especially drug dealing. The business community expressed the most gratitude as their businesses have benefited from the relative calm and stability that better, visible policing has brought with it. For their safety and to assist the police in the deterrence of crime, many Somali businesses, the most prominent group of small business owners in these localities, have installed CCTV cameras which record around the clock.

The Macpherson report found that the London Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist in 1999 and this claim has resurfaced as a result of the recent incident where a police man racially abused a 21 year old black boy in London in March 2012. Despite this, it is crucial to separate local police practices from that of other areas, especially places as vast as London because generalising about police conduct and motives can harm their relations with the community and undermine the past efforts made by all sides to make Bristol safer. Bristol is not London. Bristol is unique in many ways as it still has a strong and growing private sector, steady job figures and to some extent a better future with an elected Mayor to be chosen later in the year. However, what makes Bristol policing unique is that many of the officers, junior and senior, have under gone cultural awareness training, are accessible and regularly participate in community events with other key local actors such as members of the third sector, local government and schools. There is even a popular Somali Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) who speaks the language and can relate to many different communities quiet easily as a result of his linguistic abilities among other things.

What secured support for the police in the Somali community was the way in which they dealt with the death of 18 year old Abdirisak Mohamoud who was killed in Stapleton Road on 8th July 2010. Throughout the investigation they kept the community informed and dedicated sufficient resources to apprehending the escaped fugitive, who was later, as a result of the Police’s diligent work, was given 12 years for the murder of Abdirisak. Although many people were unhappy with what they saw to be a lenient sentence, it was clear the police had done all they could to successfully bring it to court.

The sad news that the English Defence League (EDL) had decided to exercise their freedom of expression and assembly under the Human Rights Act 1998 by Marching through Bristol on 14th July 2012 caused some tension within the Muslim community. The EDL demonstration gave the Police a golden opportunity to strengthen their links with them in Bristol and by simply engaging them throughout the process (even at the pre demonstration planning stage), keeping them informed and assuring them of their presence and vigilance on the day, they have capitalised on it effectively.

Among the primary achievements of the Bristol Police force, has been their greater transparency and accountability to the public. This is easily evidenced in their presence in the Stapleton Road Working Group, Neighbourhood Partnerships and Somali Forum meetings. In these multi agency gatherings identifiable key police figures explain strategies, successes, challenges and future plans for safety while answering questions from different sectors of the community.

All the above may give the impression that the Police are either bribing everyone to sing their praises (I am very broke) or that some real tangible improvements have been made. The latter is more representative of the truth in this case. However, some on-going policies such as stop and account as well as search are still causing some anger within the ethnic communities, with the younger male members showing the most dissatisfaction.

Stop and search is a controversial policy and official statistics clearly show there is a disproportionate number of young Asian and black males that are stopped in comparison to their white counterparts. However, these stop and searches must be recorded and those stopped by law must be informed of the reasons why they were targeted. In any case stop and search and account policies are crucial to preventative, proactive policing despite not always been intelligence led and where an individual feels that they have been wrongly targeted they are able to make a formal complaint or just confront the officers about their actions on that incident informally. And they ought to as this is the only way policing will further improve.

From speaking to those who have been stopped and searched the common complaint is that the police officers were not polite and that they were not satisfied with the reasons provided for their search. This is something the Officers will have to improve on if these claims are true as while an officer may not appear so cheerful after many stops a day, it is imperative that they remember that for the member of the public stopped it may just be their first time ever. Effective and engaging communication is the key as first impressions can last a lifetime.

What has arguably improved policing and the relationship between the Somali community and their police force is the higher level of co-operation and engagement between the two. However, some still say there is a long way to go. Whatever the distance left to travel to further strengthen the relationship between the two, it is a simple fact that better local policing relies on community participation and engagement. It is not enough to just point to police short comings. All Communities must come forward to help shape policing and safety policies in their areas. Expecting swift results without fostering strong relationship with their police force just is not possible. The highly politicised future of Bristol Policing with the election of a Police commissioner on 15th November 2012 ought to inject some urgency into this action as if minority ethnic communities want their priorities to be considered, taken seriously and allocated resources by a vote hungry Police Commissioner, strong support from their local officers will be imperative.


Liban Obsiye

Email: Twitter: @LibanObsiye


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