By Zoe Stavri / @stavvers
Following my last dissatisfying evening with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, it seemed almost masochistic to sit through a similar propaganda exercise all over again. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, though, as when presented with the opportunity to hear Hogan-Howe give a lecture on “total policing” at LSE, I felt a compulsion to go along.
This time the circumstances were slightly different. It was a free lecture, open to all who cared to queue up to listen to what the Commissioner had to say. As Hogan-Howe took to the stage, polite applause rippled through the crowded lecture theatre, somewhat muted by the quantity of people pointedly not clapping. I knew that this was going to be interesting.
As Hogan-Howe spoke, in what was largely a rehash of the points he made at the Meet The Commissioner session I attended, his points were punctuated by periodic buzzes of disagreement: tuts, sighs and mumbles. I began to feel excited about the prospect of the Q&A session. This time, the room was not fully supportive. This time Hogan-Howe did not have the support of a sympathetic fellow police officer purposely picking questions from those who were broadly satisfied with Hogan-Howe’s methods. This time, perhaps, the Commissioner would be forced to give some answers.
The talk finished to a mix of polite applause and hisses, and the questions proceeded. I had been correct in my assumptions: this time Hogan-Howe was not getting off lightly. There were questions on protest policing tactics, on deaths in police custody, on racism in stop-and-searches and on the role of the police in the riots. Hogan-Howe attempted to duck each of these thorny issues.
His refusal to answer questions was frustrating, and heckling began. It was a curious type of heckling, though: it was not a no-platform, nor personal abuse, but people shouting statistics at the Commissioner. It was then that I realised just how deeply problematic Hogan-Howe’s relation with evidence is.
Hogan-Howe’s justification for the total policing tactics applied to protest—which essentially equates to a phalanx of riot police surrounding protesters on every side, picking off and arresting individuals for seemingly nothing—was because crowds are unpredictable, unruly and this was the only way to keep people safe. This notion is based in what is known as the classic approach to crowd psychology, for which there is very little evidence. While donning the NATO helmets and brandishing the round shields may work for this terrifying mob which exists largely in the imagination of dead sociologists, against a real crowd of real people, this approach is unhelpful and possibly actually harmful. Hogan-Howe should know this. Recommendations for using a radically different approach to public order policing was made years ago.
When asked about deaths in police custody, Hogan-Howe attempted once again to dispute the figure of 333 people having died in the last thirteen years. He declared it to be “far lower” without providing any alternative figure. He then suggested that the figure of 333 deaths may include people who have been run over by police cars, as though that somehow makes the number who have been killed by the police more acceptable. This suggestion was greeted by laughter.
On stop-and-search, Hogan-Howe pre-emptively provided misleading figures, saying that “about 90%” of stop and searches find nothing. In truth, this figure is more than 99.5%. He also disputed findings that black people are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, desperately trying to deflect with a figure that “in Wanstead it’s more like four times”. I have been unable to find a corroborating source for this statistic.
Perhaps realising he was out of his depth with the numerical argument, Hogan-Howe conceded that there was a racial discrepancy and changed tack, attempting to avoid this line of questioning with the rather childish announcement that anybody who was not happy with stop-and-searching must want more people to get stabbed, as a stop-and-search “might” catch someone “carrying 200 knives”. Once again, staggered laughter rang out from the audience.
Almost immediately afterwards, Hogan-Howe was asked whether it was a problem to him that racially-biased stop-and-searches were to be a contributing factor in the riots, a finding from a study conducted by LSE, the very institute at which he was speaking. This was dismissed by the Commissioner who clearly did not understand the value of qualitative research. Despite this, he concocted his own understanding of the situation, wherein the riots were merely a scenario where the police had “lost control”.
It is difficult to discern whether Hogan-Howe’s attitude towards fact is rooted in wilful deception or simply ignorance. What emerged was that total policing was not evidence-based, but rather buzzword-based. It is certain that he has faith in his own approach: for example, in his tenure as Merseyside Commissioner, stop and searches under the contentious Section 6o increased almost twenty times over.
Whether this approach will be harmful, or at best ineffective, remains to be seen. One effect of his bullishly uninformed tactics is certainly clear: Bernard Hogan-Howe is a polarising figure. As he left the stage, the polite applause once again rippled before being drowned out by many chanting “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE, FUCK THE POLICE.” He scowled, apparently unable to comprehend why some people may be unhappy with him.
At the beginning of his lecture, Hogan-Howe claimed that he did not like “collection of data for the sake of it”, preferring a focus on “counting the right things”. Based on what I saw that night, “the right things” are only the things that Hogan-Howe wants to hear.
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