Saturday, 16 August 2008

Police hold Green for 5 hours, a personal account

On the back of some obnoxious comments in the press today about the climate camp protesters, I thought I would share an email from Matt Wootton, a Green Party member in Lancaster, about his treatment by Kent Police:

From Matt:

I just wanted to share some of the political perspectives I gained through being arrested, handcuffed and put in a police cell for just a few hours at the climate camp at the weekend http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/3504 "Police hold Green activist for five hours for possession of Vitamin C."

Obviously my arrest was not a usual occurrence, for me or for the police. As Derek Wall said at the weekend: "This is another example of how over-the-top the policing of this event has been. This shows that the priority of the police is not to protect the public but to suppress legitimate protest."

But I pity anybody that's in that sort of cell for more than a few hours. It was a windowless, concrete, plain white cell. It had a bed - well - a platform with a sort of plastic-covered thin hard foam mattress, a metal toilet, and a sink inset into the wall. The only good thing about it was the acoustic, but after a couple of hours I had run out of slightly melancholy a cappella folk songs to sing (a sign of the times is that I stopped myself from singing in any foreign language in case I was overhead and it started a line of enquiry about my right to remain in the UK or something ridiculous).

There was a "sink" of sorts (like you get on a Virgin train), inset into the wall, that you could just about get our hands into, not anything else. It spurted out hot water that was - I suppose - drinkable, but not exactly what you'd call drinking water. There was a metal toilet without a seat, but no toilet roll. There was a "bed" (and an equally hard pillow); I loved it because I have a bad back, but not to everybody's tastes... There was no blanket of course. Everybody is tacitly treated as a suicide risk, hence no blanket, no toilet roll, no towel, plastic fork at meal times.....

After I was released I heard of a tale at the camp of a 14 year old boy who had been arrested and kept in his cell with no clothes at all, apparently because he was deemed a "suicide risk" (maybe he answered affirmatively to the question I was (I'm sure routinely) asked by the custody officer: "Have you ever self-harmed?"). Taking his clothes away is, I'm fairly sure, a contravention of the code of practice that detentions operate under. The most ridiculous aspect of this is that I can't think of anything more likely to make a 14-year old WANT to commit suicide than being arrested (probably for the first time in his young life) on possibly a spurious charge, stripped naked, and put in a cell without any proper drinking water, anything
to drink out of, and a metal toilet bowl where you're obliged to wipe your ass with your hand. (Thankfully I didn't need to go...). This kind of treatment makes it pretty clear to me why people in this country - rightly or wrongly - consider the police to be "bastards".

When people are on remand (i.e. charged but not yet brought to trial) I take it they are kept in better conditions than a police holding cell...? I'm not an expert on this so I would be grateful for anybody's input if you know.

It certainly puts the 42 days detention debate in a different light: if it possible to spend up to 42 days WITHOUT charge and it is just an "ordinary" police cell that one is being kept in, then I have every sympathy for whatever "barmy" LibDem it was (was it Norman Baker?) who called for televisions to be provided for those in detention. Of course television should be provided. Why? Because if we are to take the maxim "innocent until proven guilty" at face value, then police holding cells need to actually be more like secure
waiting rooms than punishment rooms. This sounds terribly wet, but it isn't, because until you are charged you are waiting for the police to make a case just that you MIGHT be guilty. At the moment it seems that the police's maxim might as well be "punishment begins at the front door to the police station", when in fact "punishment" (if such a thing is warranted at all, which is a different debate) should and must in my opinion only be meted out AFTER sentencing has occurred, not long before.

Apart from anything else, the kind of psychological effect on one's mental wellbeing that sensory deprivation starts to have on a detainee is obvious and completely unwarranted. The police should not be damaging (even temporarily) the psychological health of (potentially) innocent people, or preferably anyone for that matter.

I spent two periods of an hour at a stretch in the cell and each time - in the absence of natural light, human company, my phone, entertainment or a clock, that hour felt like 30 minutes (time flies when you're having fun). If a few hours in and out of a cell has that much of a disorientating effect on me, I hate to think what it would do to someone after a day, three days, a fortnight. Nobody deserves to be disorientated to that degree; it's bordering on cruel and usual punishment, although it does have one effect that the police probably like: it makes you feel powerless. This, I would suggest, is not a healthy thing in itself, and has implications for the exercise of an individual's rights in the face of a will more powerful than their own.

Enough of the cell: my very brief experience of a British police station generally has shown me that the police are all too eager (perhaps unintentionally yet casually) to abuse their discretion: in my case for example by not allowing me a phone call to tell my girlfriend when I was likely to get out (and indeed, more than once claiming they were "too busy" (they didn't look that busy to me)). This privilege was denied despite being clearly granted in paragraph 5.6 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) Code of Practice C, which of course has been scrutinised by Parliament. After telling me that him granting me a phone call was "at his discretion" the custody officer's mouth nearly dropped into his plastic cup of coffee when I answered him by saying that surely Annex B paragraphs 1 and 2 did not apply in this instance... The police are so used to having power that the operate on this discretion, rather than on the rules, in my limited experience.

On the whole, I have to say the police were fairly reasonable. The custody officer in particular was an intelligent and witty man, who even expressed privately that he thought campaigning against the government's Climate Change policy was a "good cause" that he supported.

But the level of "customer service" stills leaves a lot to be desired. Even when I was released without charge and allowed to return straight away to the camp, there was not an apology as such. And my innocent wallet was retained, and I was obliged to pay a taxi cab £17 to take me back to the camp (where I was promptly searched again..!!). Many people would scoff at the idea that the police should be providing customer service. But if innocent people are actually to be treated as if they are indeed innocent, we still have a long way to go.

Another issue of course is the fingerprinting and the DNA swabs that we taken from me and put on the national police database. If we are to complain about abuse of personal data, surely this is the sort of thing we need to take up our time with: this is taken completely by force, and unlike the protection afforded me by the Data Protection Act I have no right to ask the police to delete my details. I am not alone in being added to the database: only last week an unrelated headline in the local Cumbrian newspaper The Westmorland Gazette ran: "HUNDREDS of children and dozens of pensioners have had their DNA recorded in South Lakeland and stored in a national database. Cumbria Police, operating in South Lakeland, have taken DNA samples from 872 children aged 15-years-old and younger, including 18 aged ten years or younger – a revelation described by one Kendal councillor as “truly horrific”. " http://www.thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk/news/3581858.DNA_stored_on_police_data_base/

People don't trust the police in this country, and the lack of civility in police custody reinforces an idea that the police are indeed a "paramilitary" sort of operation, and that while in their care you should expect different standards of service than you should expect of the rest of the British state. Surely that link of public trust needs to be restored - all but the most idealised Green society will make use of a police force. And surely we need a police force that DOES provide 21st century levels of customer service, one that can truly demonstrate that it takes the maxim "innocent until proven guilty" seriously, and can inspire respect instead of resentment...?

Matt Wootton - Green Party

1 comment:

Malcolm said...

I was on the gate when Matt arrived back at the camp. His was one of many cases over the week that left me with a very poor impression of the police during the week. The case of the 14-year old being another.

I felt sorry for a number of the individual police officers who didn't have these type of duties in mind when joining and clearly were not enjoying themselves. But the decisions being made at a higher level were in many case awful. This came to a head on the peacful march of about 1000 people. We had agreed to every one of the polices demands, including the bizarre decision to take us along a dual carrigeway and try to force us to walk along a broken glass strewn verge. Despite this, when at the side gate to the plant (despite press reports we were barred from marching to the main gate) a helicopter flew overhead at five to one and announced that if we did not leave within 5 minutes the police would use force to disperse us. The police imposed conditions of the march were that we would remain at the gate until 1 before being escorted back to the camp. Bear in mind this was a peacful march that included many children and had complied with all police requests.

I will be writing to both the police and my MP to express my deep concerns at the action of the police over the whole week. As a resident of Maidstone I am aware of a number of people who were discouraged from exercising their right to protest due their fear of the police.