Police don’t understand young black men

In the London Borough of Islington where I live – one of the capital’s richest and poorest places – another young life has been lost to violence on Britain’s streets. Knife crime is now a widespread social problem, with an 8 per cent increase reported across England and Wales within the past decade, and a 50 per cent increase in London in just four years. The police reaction is always the same, always knee-jerk. Many, including the government, do not understand why these crimes are happening.

After the killing of Nedim Bilgin, Section 60 powers were introduced, allowing officers to search without cause. Those stopped are often the very victims of these horrific crimes: boys of colour and white working-class men. Many young people are angry with society as a result of this sense of victimisation. They feel forgotten.

Coming from a black family on a white working-class northern English estate, I knew early on that I had two paths to choose from. I joined the police. But even I wasn’t immune from the police’s oppression which blights young lives. I was stopped several times and asked to account for myself – once, when I was returning home from an RAF cadets unit meeting.

It would have been easy, and justifiable, for me to grow angry with the police and society, like many of my friends. I was fortunate to have had a disciplinarian yet loving mother. But good parenting is not the only answer: parents themselves face racism and discrimination, and they take it out on their children, who take it out on each other and society. For many, violence does do something to get rid of pain and anger.

Hate is the root of much suffering and more officers of colour is not the answer to that. We need officers who not just look different but think different. Young black people do not feel any less oppressed if the person searching them is also black. Just like within the police force, people become silent about things that cause them hurt in order to fit in.

Young people feel protected in a gang, just like the police feel protection behind the badge. The promise of “brotherhood” is tempting for many cast aside and marginalised. It is easy to get caught up in a fraternity that is hard to break free from, like being institutionalised in the police or prison; reoffending just to go back inside and be with your friends.

We have young people with no qualifications and, particularly those within BAME groups, seen as troublesome at school and expelled disproportionately. For those who find employment, the pay is often low and the working conditions poor. In a gang you are offered security, friends, money and status.

Then comes rivalry: you do what you have to to stay on top, to protect your income and security. This is how “good kids” turn bad. It is how knife crime proliferates. The police themselves use the same approach; they say they have the biggest gang in the “war on crime”. That rhetoric fuels adrenaline among young men keen to prove their masculinity and protect their own social network.

Young people are killing each other without a care in the world because they feel that, outside the protection of a gang, society doesn’t care for them. It doesn’t: I’ve felt that too, I just don’t hurt people as a result. 

We demonise our “feral” youth and then the police target them with unfair practices. More than half of young people in jail are of BAME background. Many of these young people frame their understanding of, and interactions with, the state through the police – our civilian “enforcers”.

Rather than the answer, policing is the cause of these crimes. Black men are disproportionately stopped and searched (nine times more often than white men) – a figure that has more than doubled since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report 20 years ago. They are also three times more likely to be arrested and three times more likely to be tasered.

Joining a gang and getting yourself a reputation, “doing what you have to do”, is not just the easy but only answer for many. The cycle continues until the death of themselves or another while we avoid collective responsibility.

More police and powers, or banning young people from social media, as introduced by the home secretary, Sajid Javid, are not the answer. History shows that measures like this only lead to more oppression. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is right when it says that our “overreliance on policing, prosecution and punishment is socially harmful … and prevents us from tacking the complex problems our society faces”. It’s not about making excuses for the awful acts committed by some young people, but to understand why they are committed.

Published by The Independent on 5 February 2019.