West Midlands Police chief: 'We are in a much better place than US policing but we are not there yet'
West Midlands Police Chief Constable, Dave Thompson, speaks of the 'shocking and horrific' death of George Floyd, how it has added to tensions here in the UK, and the challenges facing the force since the coronavirus pandemic.
This weekend saw extraordinary scenes in the USA. As men set off for space riots broke out across American cities. It has a striking symmetry to the tensions in America on the day in 1969 when Apollo 11 set off for the moon as Black Americans protested about racial injustice. Views captured by the famous poem of the time by Gil Scott Heron. It is depressing so little has changed.
In August 2014 I wrote a blog about watching America respond to a series of black men die in incidents with the police whilst I was on holiday in the US.
The death of George Floyd was quite simply shocking and a horrific act by someone meant to uphold the law. It had no place in policing and a former officer has been charged with murder.
Over the years I have much contact with US policing. It is so very different to what we have in the UK. There is no national approach. Specifically no common approach to the use of force. The best effort was one produced by the Police Foundation, a charity, and based on our UK Conflict Management Model. This is very evident during the demonstrations which have looked heavy handed. While I would praise chiefs like Atlanta’s Chief Erika Shields out reasoning with crowds, it is a sad reflection of the absence of capabilities like the role Protest Liaison Officers do for us.
So why is this relevant to us?
I think this has added to tensions we are now policing here. Young black people across the West Midlands will rightly feel strongly about these events and the fact they are in the US makes no difference. They affect how policing is seen on our streets.
Last week the IOPC released a press release concerning a series of incidents they are investigating in West Midlands Police where force has been used by a number of officers. The subjects of these incidents were black men. These matters require independent investigation, which should give the community confidence, but they are a backcloth now to events amplified in America.
Coming out of the Covid restrictions is very hard. A hot weekend has seen many large groups of young people gathering. Staying apart is so much harder for young people at the time they want to mix. Losing your summer when you are 18 is a bit different than when you are my age. They are unlikely to be back in school until September with nowhere to go. We are likely to find ourselves in conflict with young people as we deal with calls and gatherings. This is going to be tough for us.
There is a level of violence now surfacing between gangs and individuals as temperatures pick up and competition in the drugs market is intensified. Young people on the street are easy prey to those who want to recruit them into gangs. Enforcement will create tensions.
We are going to see the economic impact of the last few weeks play out in the summer as furlough moves to redundancy and this will hit young people in our inner cities very hard.
The criminal justice system is backlogging cases which means matters are not moving through the courts at sufficient speed.
We are getting busy again with normal business.
I think we would all draw the conclusion that this makes the summer a challenging period for West Midlands Police. It is one we now have to rise to. I cannot praise enough the incredible work you have done during the lockdown. I think we are now entering the toughest phase.
This requires a continuance of intelligent policing we have shown. One that seeks co-operation through good humour and persuasion that seeks to understand and protect young people, not see them as a problem. That is not afraid to act; but always considers how our actions impact on communities.
There is an active role for leaders. I expect when officers are dealing with challenging groups good command and control is in place. The most challenging incidents need real leadership. Some of you may have seen the large gathering a selection of teams dealt with in Handsworth. Sgt Carl Thomas’s style and tone is a good example of how we need to approach these incidents. We are always on display and professionalism must triumph over frustration.
It also remains inescapable that our work to make WMP a fair and inclusive organisation that welcomes colleagues to join from underrepresented groups remains vital. A force that serves all communities and is fair in how it uses its powers. One where racism is eliminated. A force that is universally recognised as serving all communities equally.
We are in a much better place than US policing but we are not there yet. These events mean we must continue to become that force.