These days, I find it incredibly difficult to watch video footage of confrontation involving police officers. Too many memories I suppose.

Yesterday though, I caught sight of the clip that was circulating on social media – of a black father being tasered by police officers in front of his young son. I could only watch it once – and once was almost too much. 

I found it enormously distressing – for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because of the child. The image of him kicking his little legs in obvious anguish as the officer picks him up has been playing on a loop in my mind.

Before I go any further, I should make clear that I’m not going to offer any comment on the specific police actions shown in the film. Given the fact that there’s an independent investigation underway, it would be enormously irresponsible to do so. In any case, I wasn’t there. And I’m not taser trained. And I don’t know all the facts. Trials conducted in the ten-second-court of online opinion have never been a good idea.

But neither can I ignore the significant public response to the posting of the footage – the overwhelming concern expressed by community leaders and others, as well as the perspectives offered by those with apparent connections to policing (it’s difficult to be absolutely certain of those connections when so many of the social media accounts concerned are anonymous).

For some, the footage represents yet another example of alleged police brutality, specifically targeting a member of the black community. And this time it happened in front of his traumatised child.

For others, the video offers an example of police officers doing an almost impossible job in enormously challenging circumstances, knowing that the decisions they are compelled to make in fractions of seconds will be pored over in forensic detail by people who have all the time in the world.

So who is right?

I suppose that I come at this from two perspectives: that of a retired police officer who spent more than twenty-five years in blue, and that of a concerned human being who still has a whole lot to learn about the world. There are overlaps between those two perspectives of course, but there are distinctions too.

So let me first put my uniform back on for a moment. Based purely on the list of offences that the man has been charged with, it is alleged that a whole series of things happened before the officers shown in the footage ever had an opportunity to speak to him:

  • The man chose to make an unnecessary journey during COVID lockdown
  • The man chose to do so driving an uninsured car
  • The man chose to drive despite being unfit through alcohol
  • The man chose to drive at excess speed
  • When the police indicated for him to pull over, he chose initially not to stop
  • He chose to do all of these things with a child as his passenger

Those were all choices that he alone made – they had nothing whatsoever to do with the police. And every single one of them placed a young boy at immediate risk of significant harm. Had he made a different set of choices, there would have been no reason for the police to speak to him in the first place. There would have been nothing to film.

And, as an old copper, it sometimes feels to me as though we run the risk of overlooking these things in the furious race to accuse and blame. 

(Note: I need to be absolutely clear about something here. I am not for one moment suggesting that the choices set out above are, in and of themselves, justification for any police use of force. That’s not my point at all. I’m simply saying that a whole series of things happened long before the use of force even became a consideration: a whole series of things that have nothing to do with the actions of any police officer and everything to do with the choices of one man.)

But I’m not just a retired police officer. I’m a human being too. I’m a dad. And I can’t shake the image of that little boy and his frantically kicking legs. 

I understand why people are angry. I understand why they are demanding answers. But there’s something I need to work a whole lot harder to understand – and that’s the reasons why an incident like the one reported this weekend has such deep significance and resonance for members of Britain’s black communities. I can tell you all sorts of things about my time as a police officer but, when it comes to black history and black experience, I have nothing to teach and everything to learn.

Which means that I need to listen.

Institutional racism

When the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report was published in February 1999, its findings were utterly damning of the Metropolitan Police. The authors of the report accused the Met not only of incompetence and corruption, but of being institutionally racist.

As the Met faced up to its undeniable shortcomings and to the overwhelming task of repairing the damage done, talk in the corridors of Scotland Yard turned to how best to begin the process of rebuilding relationships with London’s ‘hard to reach’ communities – those regarded as being most angry with, and alienated from, policing. 

But from the outset there was something wrong with the language – and with the mindset that lay behind it. The members of these primarily black and Asian communities weren’t hard to reach at all. They lived in the same neighbourhoods as everyone else; they attended the same schools and universities and worked in the same offices and businesses. The only real distinction was that, more often than not, they came from the poorer side of the street. 

Slow realisation prompted a change in the terminology. ‘Hard to reach’ became ‘hard to hear’ – with differences of language, history, custom and culture suggested as reasons for the ongoing communication difficulties being experienced by the establishment. But that wasn’t right either. The labelling – and the thinking – was still wrong. It took time, but eventually policing began to understand. These communities were neither ‘hard to reach’ nor ‘hard to hear’. The truth was that they were simply ‘not listened to’. They had been speaking out for years, but most of the rest of us hadn’t been paying the slightest bit of attention.

Policing has changed beyond recognition since the late 1990s, but there is still so much to be done. And the reaction to yesterday’s events is proof of the fact. 

I still need to listen:

  • To the voices telling me that incidents like these have a huge impact on the relationship between police officers and the communities they serve – a relationship that is built and maintained on the basic notion of trust. 
  • To the voices telling me that incidents like these carry echoes of hundreds of others that have happened in the past. 
  • To the voices telling me that, in England and Wales in 2018/19, tasers were used against black people at a rate almost eight times greater than against white people.
  • To the voices telling me that those taser numbers carry echoes of stop and search numbers – and of every other form of disproportionality experienced by black people in this country.
  • To the voices telling me about the reality and the consequences of the systematic inequality that exists in every part of our society.

And I don’t have adequate answers to it all. 

But I know that I need to listen. Because listening is the beginning of hearing. And hearing is the beginning of understanding. And understanding is the beginning of healing and hope.

John Sutherland is the former chief superintendent for the Metropolitan Police. He is the author of Crossing the line: Lessons from a life on duty (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)