Bristol’s police force – presented by the media as innocent victims of a ‘mob’ at Sunday’s #KilltheBill demonstration – are among the most thuggish, violent and racist elements of Britain’s thuggish, violent and racist police state. Charlotte Powell looks at ten examples of racist, misogynistic and ableist abuses by Bristol police officers.
CN: This article contains descriptions of gendered, racist and ableist violence, and references to sexual harassment, domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
Since Sunday evening, politicians and the media are rushing to praise and defend Bristol police officers, who were supposedly ‘attacked’ by a ‘mob’ at a protest against the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill. As usual in such situations, news stories lead with the count of how many police officers were apparently injured in the violence that they themselves initiated. There’s nothing new about this: in 1986 six hundred Bristol police officers made an all-out assault on the working class and Black community of St Pauls, and a highlight of the BBC coverage was the 7 injured police, one with a broken leg.
In weighing up the establishment narrative of upstanding bobbies beset by violent ‘anarchists’, it is worth taking a look at Bristol police’s own record. A cursory glance at the history shows a grotesque career of racist, ableist and misogynistic violence and abuse stretching back decades, with Avon and Somerset Police (of which Bristol forms part) routinely committing crimes and abuses against the people of Bristol.
1. Repeated violence against disabled people
In August 2015, police arrested and tasered an autistic man and claimed he had assaulted a police officer. This accusation only fell apart when the man’s mother was able to provide CCTV footage proving that the police officers involved were lying. The (grossly misnamed) Independence Office for Police Conduct did not judge that the officers were guilty of misconduct. Avon and Somerset Police then established a ‘dedicated lead for autism’ and claimed that all new officers and civilian investigators would undergo training covering ‘autism spectrum conditions and other non-visible disabilities’.
However, two years later, James Herbert died in police custody after being detained under the Mental Health Act by Avon and Somerset officers. The way he was restrained, kept in a van on a hot day while wearing a winter coat, and then left alone naked in a cell, all led to his death. No criminal charges were brought against the officers responsible. This is one of countless examples of murder ‘by restraint’ at the hands of police.
2. Persecuting the topplers of the Edward Colston statue
The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020 became the single most iconic moment in the UK’s wave of anti-racist activism last summer. Colston is a prime representative of Bristol’s history as a port city which grew rich from Britain’s role in the slave trade.
Perhaps because this moment symbolised the potential of the renascent anti-racist movement, Bristol police have made it a priority to hunt down and prosecute those who toppled the statue. In the following weeks, they released images of 15 people, asking the public to help identify them (putting them at risk of far-right violence in the process). In the time since, six people have been issued with cautions (which compromise individuals in situations like DBS checks), and four people are being criminally prosecuted, with the trial set for December 2021. This has happened even while Bristol’s mayor has expressed gladness over the statue’s removal.
Right-wing backlash against the statue’s removal has clearly helped inspire the abovementioned Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, which would allow for ten-year prison sentences for toppling statues – a longer sentence than many people receive when convicted of rape or murder.
3. Ignored calls for help by a man who was then killed by his racist neighbour
Bijan Ebrahami, a disabled Iranian refugee, was killed in a racist attack by his neighbour in 2013. He had repeatedly called police for help and been ignored, with police considering him a ‘liar and a nuisance.’ Four officers were accused of letting their ‘dislike’ of Mr Ebrahimi impact their decision not to intervene, and two police officers were sent to prison over the case in 2016. A report prompted by this case later found evidence of institutional racism in both Avon and Somerset constabulary and in Bristol City Council.
4. Raided a community space with excessive force to confiscate alcohol, then called it a ‘race riot’
In 1980 Bristol police arrested 140 people after a ‘riot’ was provoked by their raid on the Black & White Café in St Pauls. They raided the café to confiscate alcohol being served without a license. For a working class and majority Black community who had endured years of police abuse under the SUS (suspected person) law, this was the final straw.
‘Unemployment in Bristol at the time was 5.5% and in St. Pauls, it was 15%. Such high levels of unemployment were caused in part by the Thatcherite government’s move away from manufacturing towards service-based industries, which resulted in fewer apprenticeship opportunities.
For Black Bristolians, St. Pauls was a safe haven. There were parts of the city that they avoided, areas made unsafe by far-right groups. And with concerns about the racist attitudes held by the police, any prospect of being protected in the event of an attack was nothing more than a pipe dream.’ – Laurie O’Garro
Sixteen people were charged with rioting offences, but all were acquitted.
5. Raided the same community space in unmarked vans six years later
In 1986 police raided the Black & White Café again, along with many other buildings in the area, in ‘Operation Delivery’. A force of six hundred police officers entered the neighbourhood hidden in unmarked vans disguised as furniture delivery vehicles. The raid saw a huge number of violent arrests, with several people injured by police officers.
6. Officer sexually harassed two vulnerable women in the course of his duties
PC Jason Vernon sexually harassed two women who he visited in their homes while working on cases in which they were witnesses. One of these women was a victim of domestic abuse and facing eviction, and the other came into contact with Vernon because she was reporting sexual harassment and an assault on her mother. He was found guilty of gross misconduct in March 2019.
7. Special constable sent sexual photos and videos of someone without their consent
In 2019, an officer was found guilty of gross misconduct for sharing explicit photos and videos of someone without their consent.
8. Struck a handcuffed detainee in the face twice
In August 2018, Sergeant Martin Fox violently abused a handcuffed detainee while booking him into custody. The sergeant pulled the detainee across a desk using his handcuffs, held him by his hair, and punched him twice in the face. He claimed he ‘lost control’ because the detainee spat at him. A panel found the sergeant guilty of misconduct and he was later charged and convicted.
9. Arranged and facilitated a child sex offence
10. Attacked their own race relations adviser – twice
Claire Boddie, a Bristol police officer, shot Ras Judah in the face with a stun gun in 2017 after mistaking him for a man wanted on drugs charges. Judah, the race relations adviser for Avon and Somerset police, was in his sixties at the time and a well-known community elder; he was attacked by the officer outside his own home. Despite this patently obvious racial profiling and hyper-aggression, district judge Tan Ikram found Boddie not guilty of assault, saying that the prosecution had failed to persuade him ‘that she was not acting in self defence.’ An investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct also found that Boddie and another officer involved had ‘no case to answer for misconduct in respect of allegations that they discriminated against Mr Adunbi on the basis of his race.’
‘Perhaps justice isn’t for us, for our community, for people of colour.’ – Desmond Brown, spokesperson for the Justice 4 Judah campaign.
Incredibly, in 2018 Bristol police accosted Judah again, claiming they mistook him for the same person as in the 2017 case. Officers approached him, calling him by the name of the wanted man, then laughed and drove off. The officers seem to have been spitefully lashing out at Judah and harassing him precisely because he is the race relations adviser to their force.
It goes without saying that this is just the tip of the iceberg of police violence in Bristol, made visible by media reports – usually where there was some criminal trial and victims were able to provide evidence of the abuse they suffered. In just 9 months in 2019, 116 assault allegations were made to the IOPC against Bristol’s police force, the Avon and Somerset constabulary. On top of that, there were 54 allegations of discriminatory behaviour, 45 allegations of oppressive conduct or harassment, and 33 of unlawful/unnecessary arrest or detention. In 2018-19, five allegations of sexual assault were made to the IPCC.
All this violence was done by officers in the Somerset and Avon constabulary, which is one of 43 in the UK. It would be possible to write a list like this for every single one of those because the very nature of policing is to do violence on a population in order to control it. And when we’ve had enough, we’ve had enough.