Experience of something distorts the way we think about things. In the Social Sciences you are expected to use sources of data to back up an opinion and rarely will there be any definitive answer. I often read something by an academic or a researcher and I feel they may have missed the actual ‘lived in’ experience and the reality of what being in the Police means. They may have got the numbers right, they may have seen something they think is always the case, or they may have got some of the reality right, but what they often really do miss is the daily emotion and meaning. A report on paper often does not match how I perceived or felt about something. My own experience has obviously had an influence on how I look at reports such as this one by the IPCC. So, has my impartiality and objectivity been changed by my experience? Has this, then, affected my ability as a student? This blog aims to point out some aspects of using data, such as presented here, in order to build an argument.
This excellent report by Kerry Grace, Melanie O’Connor and Yvonne Sekiwa from the IPCC presents findings into death following or during police contact (https://www.ipcc.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Documents/research_stats/Deaths_Report_1516.pdf ). It is a really good study for students to have a look at because it is a fairly small sample size, it has a limited number of outcomes, it is well written and presented and to many it will be an interesting subject. As a student you are expected to be able look at secondary sources of data, such as this, and pick out some strengths or weaknesses, be critical of the report or use it to support and build up an argument. If done well this would gain you extra marks. I will not work through the whole report, as that is not really my intention. The subject matter is clearly emotive and when making blanket statements caution should be taken. Families may be devastated at the loss of a loved one and police officers may suffer immense stress and face dismissal or prison.
The first problem is a definitional one, and you will need to clarify this early in your assignments. This report highlights death after police contact, which is a different scenario to the oft cited death in custody used by the media, so it is important to make sure what your source is actually looking at. There are a small number of categories that are included in Box A;
Road traffic fatalities
Deaths in or following custody
Apparent suicides following police custody
Others deaths following police contact that are subject to an IPCC investigation.
Remember that in these definitions the key point is that there was some police involvement or contact, either prior to or during the events leading to the death of a person (s). This is not to say the police are to blame and this, again, is something you would probably want to outline fairly early on in your assignment. The police do have safeguards whilst people are in custody such as risk assessment, previous history, nurses or doctors present and regular checks on people.
Police forces are under a duty to report certain incidents to the IPCC (see Box B for different types of investigation). The IPCC will then investigate the death, manage or supervise a police investigation. The IPCC is a separate body to the police and let me just say, the relationship is not necessarily a match made in heaven. The IPCC recruit from a wide pool of experience and they very much want to be seen as an independent body. I would expect my students to go to the IPCC website and have a good look at some of the material, for example you could cite the core values (https://www.ipcc.gov.uk/page/our-values).
In the report, Box A highlights all the definitions you would need. Some are, perhaps, not what you expect. For example, a suicide occurring within 2 days of being in police custody. That is in no way suggesting the police were involved in the process. Being critical, one would expect some of the people who had been in custody to be under an immense amount of personal pressure. For example, someone who had been found to be in possession of child pornography and subsequently arrested for it, may well feel shame and the prospect of losing friends, job, respect and their liberty a very difficult and traumatic situation. Also note the police may save the life of some people who come into custody but that is difficult to ascertain. I know for a fact I saved people who would otherwise have died, so sometimes the intervention is vital but difficult to measure.
Table 6.1 states that of the 60 people who committed suicide following being in custody 22 were detained on suspicion of committing sexual offences. Therefore, I would suggest some offences are more traumatic for victims and offenders (although we may not want to admit this). The report also highlights the suicide figures are dependent on individual “forces making the link between an apparent suicide and a recent period in custody” (Grace et al, 2015 p.5). Also consider the mental health and substance misuse the police come into contact with for a more rounded picture. Therefore, you can probably challenge the figure to some extent. The findings for 2015/16 are briefly summarised in the table below;
Table 2.2 allows us to compare the numbers over the years. An ongoing issue with police and crime related statistics, is that it can often be difficult to completely rely on figures because recording practices so frequently change. This is highlighted with the ** symbol. This problem also comes up in a previous blog I posted following the recent crime statistics released in July 2016 (http://www.theconsensustutor.co.uk/#!blog-1/ercqh). Another recent report by HMIC into Greater Manchester Police found they had failed to record 38,000 crimes.
Follow the report through and you will find it breaks down the numbers into other categories such as race, gender, ethnicity and also includes mental health issues. The police deal with so many incredibly vulnerable people and it is widely accepted that a cell may not be the most suitable place for them. One of the key debates surrounding Policing at the moment is the number of incidents that involve mental health. One may well expect people with mental health difficulties to be more vulnerable and more liable to suicidal tendencies, but you would need to find supporting figures to support that.
Developing an argument out of reports such as this one, is something you will be expected to do. The figures in this report will need to be backed up with additional sources. If you progress onto page 6 you will see that there were 12 pursuit-related incidents in which 13 people died. There are critics of police pursuits, especially when people end up dying or being injured as a result. You may find news reports to use which may call for changes (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7000318.stm) and you may then use a counter argument that identifies changes, such as this one from The College of Policing (https://www.app.college.police.uk/app-content/road-policing-2/police-pursuits/). The suggestion is that the police feel it is a vital part of road policing which needs to be safely and rigorously managed. You could highlight some difficulties from budget cuts such as fewer dedicated road police units (http://cutshaveconsequences.uk/) and (http://www.polfed.org/documents/Annual_Report_2014.pdf) or fewer police helicopters . If you were discussing complaints against the police generally, I would want you to discuss the role of the IPCC. For example, Robert Reiner (2010) believes the IPCC, along with The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and The Human Rights Act 1998, have a significant counter measure role to play against the rising power given to the police via legislation (a checks and balances role). A counter argument could also include the fact that the IPCC is not without criticism (http://metfed.org.uk/news?id=6861).
Now, I will try to become more Sociologist than ex-police officer. The reasoning for this paragraph is that you are expected to put your arguments into a wider social context and will also have to use some theoretical perspectives. These investigations by the IPCC are a good thing. The Police may not always feel like that and may feel threatened over their actions, which are subject of scrutiny and questioning. As a firearms officer recently questioned, he had a split second to decide on his course of action and that is then subjected to months’ scrutiny. When some things are taken out of context they can look very different.
The role of ‘policing the police’ will always be presented with difficulties. However, the victim’s friends and family may well need answers as part of the grieving process and the public need reassurance about issues such as abuse of power and corruption. Policy makers need to know whether existing legislation is fit for purpose and organisations such as civil liberty groups need to know there is a level of accountability. In an age when accountability and transparency is demanded, the police cannot expect to be able to step outside the normal laws of the land, even though they are understood as having a legitimate capacity to break our normal understanding of laws. Take for instance imprisoning someone, using CS spray, breaking into a house and hitting someone with a baton. In most cases these would be against the law, but are regular business for the police.
Some view the Police as an instrument of state power. The new police were formed following urbanisation and demands following a new industrial movement in the 1800’s, which required more disciplined workers. Conventional thinking was the police were an instrument of ruling class demands. This quote highlights the position well “Because the English Bourgeois finds himself reproduced in his law, as he does in his God, the policeman’s truncheon.” (Engels in Storch, 1975). Fast forward to today and many of the incidents investigated by the IPCC may come about due to an accident, non-compliance of policy, abuse of power or criminal conduct. It is, therefore, important you consider the wider needs for an organisation such as the IPCC and why it must remain neutral. Both the IPCC and the Police are government bodies and represent different state interests. So, whilst it may be popular to suggest the police are above the law, there are enough cases on the IPCC website to suggest this may not be the case.
The IPCC is also undergoing major transformation and this is mentioned in the report. It aims to undertake more enquiries and investigations into police actions. It will need to produce more reports such as this and you will be expected to use them at undergraduate and post-graduate level. My personal experience allows me to use my ‘sociological imagination’ better than most. I know the red mist, I remember worrying about prisoners in custody and placing them on a ‘suicide watch’, I recall giving first aid to people in custody, I recall people banging their heads against the walls until they passed out and I recall the police humour, built more upon trying to deal with the issues rather than a dislike for prisoners. I am pretty certain that every officer who had anything to do with any of those deaths in the report did not walk away from the incident asking themselves what could they have done differently? There are always stories and narratives behind the statistics. I find those narratives interesting. Does my experience change who I am and how I think? Absolutely.