Few people realise that the first riot in Tottenham didn’t happen in August 2011. It happened in the April of that year, in Northumberland Park, when a few police officers were attacked by a group of thirty or so men, after they saw a man being stopped by them. It got a couple of lines in the local press: it just wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. The relationship between the community and the police in this area has always been strained – right back to the Broadwater Farm riots, largely instigated by frustration over Sus laws – the Stop and Search of their day, and the death of another local.
Many find the strength of feeling in Tottenham over Mark Duggan incomprehensible. If you say that swathes of people there think he was executed, they won’t believe you – but it’s true. There’ll be plenty of comments below this asking why we should care about transparency issues over the death of an alleged gangster. The first reason is that it’s a golden opportunity for the Met to prove, in a time of almost unparalleled media pressure, that it doesn’t act with indiscriminate violence.
But there’s a much bigger reason. It’s becoming clear that the Duggan case is about a great deal more than the death of one man. There are now issues surrounding it which go to the core of our civil liberties.
This week millions of TV viewers saw television footage of police officers in the moments after Mark Duggan was killed. The broadcasting of this footage was condemned by the IPCC, who are investigating the incident: the same day, we learned that the man who fired the fatal shot – along with 30 other officers – is refusing to be interviewed by the watchdog.
The watchdog seems toothless and the situation absolutely ridiculous, but terrible headlines are becoming the norm. The IPCC has had a torrid time from the moment a press officer inadvertently told the press that Duggan had been killed in an ‘exchange of fire’, to the day two members of the community reference group it had set up resigned in protest over the removal of evidence from the shooting scene.
One has to feel for Rachel Cerfontyne, the unfortunate commissioner who has twice had to sit before the locals at the Haringey Police and Community Consultative Group. The first time round, she was called an idiot and a whitewasher. This was before the second visit, when she had to break it to them that the IPCC might have information that couldn’t be disclosed to the coroner or the family; this could mean an inquest doesn’t happen.
Neither of the issues at stake – the police’s refusal to be interviewed, the information that can’t be made public – are the IPCC’s fault. On the first issue, a fault line is clearly opening up between the watchdog and the force – one which is starting to undermine the constant complaints that it isn’t ‘independent’ at all. The IPCC claims that the officers’ lawyers are advising them not to speak to it for fear of incriminating themselves. Other lawyers claim that there’s nothing stopping them being hauled in other than the watchdog’s cowardice. Whichever way one looks at it, it’s an almighty failure of the legal system to provide transparency, and one which might be best solved with diplomacy.
But more troubling is the latter issue. It seems a safe bet the law which is preventing the IPCC from revealing the information is Section 17 of the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act, which prohibits the use of intercept product as evidence – we don’t know for sure, because as poor Cerfontyne had to tell the incredulous locals, to tell them which law is blocking them would in itself break it.
The condemnation has been almost universal. The only bodies that seem to want to keep this law in place are the security services, who say it could compromise their sources or make suspects less likely to talk on the phone. These criticisms don’t apply to the Duggan case. Deborah Glass, the IPCC’s Deputy Chair, has said the law simply stops her from doing her job. As David Lammy told Radio 4 last night, the Home Secretary doesn’t like it, the police don’t like it, but nothing’s being done. There is a review of the law (the eighth, in fact), which will report back “in due course”.
In the meantime, the tension and mistrust in Tottenham continues to simmer and ferment. In the absence of concrete proof that there was no malpractise in the Duggan case, the police can just try their best: working with Neighbourhood Watch groups and voluntary sector bodies, holding more public meetings, stronger involvement with schools – in short, committing to community engagement in the long term. It should have been prioritised long ago. Thanks to our ludicrous legal system, it has to be prioritised now.
Alan White’s work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain’s Gang Culture, republished this year.