Chok and the Police

On 28th March 2017, Ben Walters (journalist and activist), Grace Willis (educator and mother), Kai (her twelve year old son), and I met with the police at Brixton Police Station to express our concerns about a Crimestoppers-style electronic billboard outside Waterloo station. This mobile display showed headshots of people wanted by the police and the majority appeared to be young men of colour. The meeting was initiated by Ben who was “disturbed to see the police effectively set up a broadcast medium outside a major rail terminal at rush hour displaying criminalised images of young black and brown men – a group already widely misrepresented in public visual culture as being disproportionately liable to criminality.”

We met with community liaison officer PC Lance Edmondson and, from Lambeth police’s Senior Leadership Team, Detective Chief Inspector John Harnwell and Detective Sergeant Kylie Robson. I was extremely surprised, probably due my nervous disposition and general wariness to do with institutions, to find that they were extremely open and receptive. They listened carefully to our concerns and shared information with us. I might be being naïve, but I believed them when they said that

  • no one else had raised the issues that we had
  • this would have changed their approach had they realised the issue of negative messaging, and that
  • they welcome public feedback.

We did draw their attention to the fact that folk just don’t find it easy or fun to chat to the police. No one wants to get involved in law enforcement if they don’t have to, walking up to police is intimidating and raising concerns seems unlikely to garner results – who’s going to listen? I don’t feel “the police” would have time or the inclination to listen to me! I am glad to say that I feel proved wrong.

If the general feedback is similar to yours, we’d never do it again, ever”

– Det Sgt Robson

By the end of the meeting, the police agreed to the following:

  • to canvas feedback (from community leaders, community, etc.) at each of the sites where this approach had been used
  • to consider carefully whether they should be used again

If they do use these mobile boards again, to

  • confirm with the billboard company that the method of displaying images didn’t skew the messaging e.g. the looping of the film didn’t disproportionately show men of colour
  • look carefully at the presentation e.g. size of font, lighting of skin tone, distribution of images
  • have interested community groups and individuals review the images and messaging in advance to flag up issues or questions which “police eyes” may not have detected
  • include positive contextualising messages i.e. overall crime figures going down and have been going down in Lambeth for the past decade
  • adjust locations of the billboards e.g. not at Waterloo where most commuters live outside Lambeth but in more affluent areas where because of demographics the idea that “PoC are wanted criminals” is especially divisive
  • consider not displaying images related to low-level crimes or those wanted for questioning but instead, using images of those who have been charged or are wanted under a court warrant
  • to try (again) the get the press on side, so that public understand what these boards are about

Bear in mind that I am not advocating for the use of these boards. As effective as they may be, they are still problematic and I suspect the long-term, deep cons outweigh the directly measurable pros. They are still:

  • an invasion of public space in the way large or bright advertising billboards work
  • the subliminal messaging of “what criminals look like”
  • engenders fear even though crime and fear of crime is on the decrease

Ben has been invited, as a resident of Lambeth, to attend the next liaison meeting. (Read Ben’s report on this meeting here.)  I have been invited to go for a walkabout the station, and to shadow a police officer doing the rounds in Brixton. They had issued press releases to explain the campaign so that the public wouldn’t be worried etc. but no one wanted to write about it because it wasn’t sexy enough news. (If anyone would like to publish my future findings following my time with the police, please get in touch.)

In conclusion, I have learned that while it often feels like one person can’t have any positive effect in a world of large corporations, corrupt politicians, and overstrained institutions, sometimes, it really does help. As members of society, we should feel able to ask these questions of the systems we set up. It is especially important to get involved even if YOU are not personally being attacked or jeopardized, so if you’re a white, middle class man (Ben), or an East Asian woman (me) or not a resident of Lambeth (Grace and Kai), we have agency.

Even if the police had been negative, Kai, Grace and I would have learned a huge amount. Thank you to Ben who “simply” asked some questions, posted a Facebook status, and organized the meeting. It wasn’t the easiest thing, coordinating the schedules of three adults in London but look at the pay off. In a time when world politics seem to be spiralling out of control, I value any chance to have local, human, contact in my community.

Further background info:

This type of visual campaign is a last resort for the police (and not instigated by budget cuts, as Ben had been told by a police officer on the street). The faces that appear on the billboards are long-term wanted persons who have been contacted and warned.

It costs a lot of money but has proven effective in both preventing crime AND bringing in long–term wanted persons.

Lambeth and a few other boroughs trialed this for 3 days at the end of last year, and based on that, implemented a week long campaign in March where there were 8 billboards both parked and driven about across Lambeth.

100 of the 579 long-term wanted in Lambeth were contacted via a clear letter (we got to read them) two weeks prior to the appearance of the billboards. People were selected based on the severity of the offence.

Because of the trial last year, some of those wanted came forth, as they didn’t want their names, faces and offences on display.

In total, 20 people off the wanted list were found or turned themselves in, a 20% success rate.

Community leaders had been approached before the campaign started and they brought up the question of representation. It was established that 55% of the wanted list were people of colour. However, Ben stated that watching the display, this did not seem to be the case. The police will be looking into this but admitted that while they did make sure that each PowerPoint slide didn’t contain all-black or all-brown faces to begin with, the display would change as people came forth or were found, and this was not monitored in the same way. They also stated that they could pick out the Latino and Eastern European faces in the display board which we, as lay people, would, in passing and without examining their names, assume were people of colour.

Feedback from community and businesses in Brixton centre was extremely positive. Crime figures went down/the streets were quieter during the week the billboards were up, indicating a preventative effect of the billboards. Businesses were asking for the billboards to be parked close to them. It is worth noting that Brixton has a specially created role, Community Liaison Officer, to bridge the police-civilian divide. PC Edmondson attends community meetings and goes on regular walkabouts to stay connected with the community.

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