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Should I call the cops if I witness a theft?

Agony uncle
Illustration by Emma Peer

Q: I was on a train in South London recently when I saw a group of young teenage boys walking down the carriage brazenly trying to steal from people’s bags. Passengers were distressed. I spoke to the person next to me, a local schoolteacher, who suggested I call the police. I did so, but paused when the question came: ‘And what race are they?’ I am a person of colour so I know as much as anyone that London’s police force is institutionally racist and disproportionately targets dark-skinned people. Telling the operator that the boys were black would licence officers to profile all the young black boys in the area, possibly leading to violent and alienating encounters. At the same time, nobody should be a victim of this type of theft. In short: is it right to call the police when you can’t trust that they won’t act in a racist manner? – Concerned for South London

A: In the United States, to call the police on a black person – especially if they have mental-health issues – is to put them closer to death. It’s as simple as that. In London, we know from the MacPherson Report that the police force is ‘institutionally racist’, as you say, and that deaths in custody are at their highest for a decade in England and Wales. Across the world, it tends to be the poor, the marginalized, the indigenous who feel the brunt of racist policing, as the historical and essential function of the police is protecting the interests of private property.

In this context, the notion that it’s not worth calling the police when you see people breaking the law is just stating the obvious for some communities. The Chicago-based educator Benji Hart writes that ‘finding alternatives to calling the police…has long been a way of life’ for black, poor and undocumented people in the US. He writes about watching a community elder chastise a group of youngsters who engaged in violence: elderly folk, with strong ties and respect in the community, can often play a mediating or disciplinary role that bypasses the state and this can lead to a more meaningful resolution of social conflict than calling in armed brutes.

But what if you’re not part of a community or if this happens in a transitory public space like a train? Having reflected on your dilemma, I would have seriously considered not phoning the police, particularly given the lack of violence and age of the suspects. As Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper, an expert in police violence at the University of Greenwich, tells me: ‘If our primary concern is the safety of everyone involved, both passengers on the train and the group of young people, then calling the police is unlikely to make either group safer.’ What’s likely to happen is the police arrive ‘long after the incident has taken place, collect statements (and perhaps some evidence) and move on’.

And even if they do apprehend the suspected thieves, Elliott-Cooper continues, ‘there is little evidence that prison or other punitive measures make people less likely to become involved in crime – in fact, it is quite the opposite: the trauma and isolation of incarcerations often further alienates people from their communities, families and services they may need to access. And while non-custodial sentences may have less of a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of a young person, there is still little evidence that it reduces the likelihood of getting sucked back into crime.’ The police cannot fix social problems. They make them worse. Deep social and economic transformation is called for. Until this happens, avoid enabling unnecessary encounters between the police and the policed.

New Internationalist issue 522 magazine cover This article is from the October 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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