What Happened to the Bristol Police?

Many thought Avon and Somerset police were alright, for cops. Now they’re reassessing.

by Rivkah Brown

1 May 2021

Police officers stand guard during a protest against a new proposed policing bill, in Bristol, Britain
Police officers in Bristol on March 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Peter Cziborra)

In the weeks leading up to their 2019 summer uprising, Extinction Rebellion organisers in Bristol liaised closely with Avon and Somerset Police (ASP), as they always did. XR notified the police that their five-day protest would begin on 15 July with a shutdown of Bristol Bridge, the viaduct connecting Redcliffe to the Old City. But when activists arrived that Monday morning, pink boat at the ready, they discovered something unexpected: the police had already blocked the bridge on their behalf.

Aden Harris, a 16-year-old climate activist, was there that day. He remembers ASP’s Bristol commander Andy Bennett cycling down to chat with protesters. He also recalls a Welsh policeman approaching him – ASP had brought in reinforcements, as they do for large protests – only for a local police liaison officer to tell him to leave Harris alone. “‘How dare you speak to our friends like that?’ It was that sort of tone,” says Harris. “Friends” was not an exaggeration: “There are people in the [XR] movement who would at one point […] sit down for dinner with the police liaisons.”

Harris was well aware that this kind of entente cordiale was unusual. “We had this view that we were lucky,” he says. “We’re all activists, we’ve all been to London, we’ve experienced the Met. We almost felt like we had a policing system that was above elsewhere, a policing system which was community-oriented […] a model for UK police forces.” Two years later, his feelings have drastically changed.

A few weeks ago on the same bridge Harris blockaded in 2019, riot police snatched a young woman from a crowd of protesters, then pursued the remaining stragglers through Castle Park with dogs. Saturday 3 April’s Kill The Bill protest was the city’s fifth in two weeks, and by no means its most brutal. By most accounts, that was Friday 26 March, when officers were filmed clubbing a woman in the face, batoning a man in the foetal position, blading protesters with riot shields and assaulting a journalist. 62 protesters were injured on the first three nights of protest; meanwhile, ASP has admitted that the broken bones and punctured lungs it claimed officers sustained on Sunday 21 March didn’t happen.

As well as the dramatic scenes played out on the streets, much of ASP’s violence in response to the demonstrations has been meted out off-camera. Earlier this month, the Observer broke the story of two young women who had endured terror-style raids on their homes by male ASP officers. “They pushed her up against the wall,” recalled the father of 16-year-old Grace Hart, who it later emerged had not attended any of the Kill The Bill protests. “They had Tasers out. She had red dots on her body. […] Three of those could have killed her because of the voltage.”

For young Bristolians like Harris, whose path into activism has been smoothed by relatively permissive local policing, ASP’s behaviour has come as a shock. “It’s bizarre how heavy-handed they’ve been […] they’ve gone from inviting us for chats and coffees to ‘We are going to crack your heads in should you move.’” This volte-face, says Harris, has disabused this “peace-loving hippie city” of its “naivety”. He cites a growing number of Kill The Bill protesters in black bloc, the all-black outfits and protective gear often worn by anarchists in preparation for violent confrontations, including with the police.

Local activist Kiran Khatra similarly remarked on the breakdown of trust between police and protesters. “What little trust had been earned, what little headway had been made, has been lost – years of police outreach work extinguished like the smallest of flames. […] The new wave of activists are savvy, they do not engage, there are no names of organisers on billboards.”

Two years ago, ASP were doing activists’ work for them. Today, Bristol has become synonymous with the police power trip that the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill threatens to enshrine in law. What changed?

To someone like Judah Adunbi, not much. Adunbi has lived in Bristol for around 60 of his 67 years, and been a local celebrity for much of that time. He made national news in 2017, however, when he was tasered not once, but twice, by ASP officers. After one of the officers, Claire Boddie. was cleared of both professional misconduct and criminal assault, Adunbi launched civil proceedings, which went nowhere and bankrupted him.

The grand irony of all this was that in the early 2000s, Adunbi had been a founding member of the Independent Advisory Group (IAG), a consortium of community leaders set up to counsel ASP on race relations. He quit in 2009, despairing at the group’s inefficacy; a year later, the prison inspectorate rated ASP ‘poor’ in the “comparative satisfaction of [its] BME community”. When Adunbi – who plans to release a film about his ordeal later this year – compares his encounters with ASP today with those of the 1980s, he says he sees more continuity than change: he’s still up against the same “racist police”.

If you’re a traveller, working class or Black, ASP’s reputation for hands-off policing sounds like a bad joke. The force’s tortured relationship with Bristol’s large African-Caribbean community has a particularly long history. The wave of race riots commonly thought to have originated in Brixton in 1981 in fact began the previous year in Bristol – “Bristol yesterday, Brixton today” went the slogan. The trigger for Bristol’s 1980 uprising was ASP’s raid on the Black and White Café, a popular hangout in the inner-city, multi-ethnic district of St Pauls. According to Roger Ball, a historian of riots at the University of the West of England, internal ASP documents stated that the cafe was “full of Black men and prostitutes”.

The raid was unsuccessful: after four hours of resistance from locals, the police were routed. Both Adunbi and Ball attribute this forceful pushback not just to the raid itself, but to pent-up frustration with years of racially motivated over-policing. “It wasn’t just about the raid of the cafe,” says Adunbi. “It was a combination of a hell of a lot of suffering that we have been through prior to 1980. 1980 just ignited the flame.” Ball remembers that during the 1980 raid, ASP officers would march through the streets of St Pauls in military formation, with senior officers up front: “People described it like colonial policing.” The embarrassing failure of their raid stung ASP, who turned up the heat even further, culminating in Operation Delivery.

The 1986 operation, which saw 600 ASP officers flood the tiny area of St Pauls, stunned the city – and perhaps the police themselves. According to Ball, 1986 was the moment when ASP started to understand “how the process of interaction could turn people who were peacefully marching into a rioting crowd”. They changed tack.

During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher began trialling an uncharacteristically restorative approach, pumping money into deprived areas in the hopes of preventing the kind of unrest that had characterised the early years of the decade. The measure was relatively effective: in St Pauls, the crime rate plummeted.

Taking its cue from the government, ASP softened. From the late 80s through to the early 2000s, the force appointed liaison officers and established advisory groups, such as the one Adunbi sat on. “There would be meetings in the Malcolm X Centre [the community centre in St Pauls],” Ball remembers, “and the police would be sitting there with local councillors. […] They’d get a load of shit sometimes, but they were there. That wouldn’t have happened in the 70s or 80s.” 

Things seemed promising at first, but soon fell apart. Adunbi quit the IAG in 2009, feeling that the police didn’t want the group to be truly independent: “They wanted yes-men and women […] They wanted people they could control and dominate.” The riots that broke out in Bristol and across the country two years later marked another low point in the police’s community relations.

In the so-called Tesco riot of April 2011, ASP used what was widely regarded as a flimsy excuse – a young man with learning difficulties had run into the supermarket, wearing a fake bomb belt made of plastic bottles – to send in 160 officers to raid Telepathic Heights, the squat where the young man lived and which ASP had long had in its crosshairs. The raid set off days of rioting in the city.

Ball senses a similar push-pull dynamic at play in ASP’s policing of the Kill The Bill protests: the police overstep, the people resist, then a humiliated force seeks revenge. The latest revolution of this vicious cycle was catalysed by the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue.

When, on 7 June last year, hundreds of Bristolians decided to throw the bronze effigy into Bristol Harbour, veteran protesters braced themselves. “My 80s radar was like, ‘look over your shoulder, the riot police will be charging at you any minute,’” says Ball. To his surprise, ASP held back. The police made only a dozen or so arrests that day, and pursued even fewer prosecutions; the famous “Colston four” are due to stand trial in December.

There are many reasons for this. For one thing, after decades of campaigning, local support for the statue’s removal had reached a critical mass. Adunbi believes the crowd’s racial makeup also played a determining role: “It was taken down by a hell of a lot of white people. […] I do believe that if it was Black people who removed the statue, the matter would have escalated into violence.”

Yet according to a number of people who spoke to Novara Media, Colston’s toppling, like the 1980 raid, was seen by higher-ups as a concession to Bristol’s Black population – one that required urgent and emphatic redress.

The statue’s removal caused consternation throughout the statue-hugging Conservative party, though it particularly incensed home secretary Priti Patel, who called it “utterly disgraceful” and “sheer vandalism”. While Patel publicly put pressure on ASP to “follow up” on events to ensure “justice is undertaken”, it is widely believed she came down hard on police chiefs in private, too.

“Come on, up your game, get tough, restore credibility.” That’s how Rowland Dye imagines the conversation went. The 68-year-old local activist saw a step-change in ASP’s approach in the months following the statue’s removal – in fact, he felt its effects first-hand.

In January, Dye went to stand outside a local magistrates court during the plea hearing of the Colston four, but was told to go home by police exercising coronavirus powers. He complied, but as he was walking away, the police arrested him. Dye found this decision strange until he realised it had nothing to do with him – it was about making a show of strength after a moment of perceived weakness. “Somebody made a decision that they wanted a spectacle,” he says, “a PR victory in the media.” Last week, the police admitted that the blanket ban on protest they’d used to arrest Dye and three others was unlawful, and agreed to pay them damages.

To Dye, the Kill The Bill protests have been the ultimate opportunity for ASP to prove its mettle – and prove it they have. Having previously given protesters express permission to set up an encampment on College Green on Tuesday 23 March, ASP swooped in and broke it up. Later, riot police descended on a group of protesters sitting outside Bridewell police station.

As with Dye’s arrest, police intervention at the protests has often seemed arbitrary rather than strategic, premeditated rather than reactive. Nor does it only seem that way to members of the public. In an interview with the Bristol Cable, a retired ASP officer said the force should apologise for its handling of the Kill The Bill protests, lamenting that the “police are once again finding themselves on the wrong side of history”.

Many of those who spoke to Novara Media noted that this police crackdown has been facilitated by a changing of the guard within ASP. Next week, the West of England will elect a new police and crime commissioner (PCC) to replace Sue Mountstevens, who has been in the role since it was created in 2012. Then, in July, chief constable Andy Marsh will step down when his five-year contract expires. Though news of Marsh’s departure has been welcomed by those who feel he has overseen, even directed, ASP’s brutal response to the recent protests, this is not quite the case.

In fact, chief constable Marsh is part of a more progressive faction within ASP, and is tolerated, even relatively well-liked, by local activists (though Adunbi says he is “nonplussed” by Marsh, who “pays lip service” to racial equality while “his officers are out on the street doing the same negative stuff”). Whoever replaces Marsh – the appointment will be made by the PCC, and likely to go to either the Tories’ Mark Shelford or John Smith, an independent who has served as Mountstevens’ deputy – is likely to be significantly more hardline. Indeed, awareness of Marsh’s imminent exit has, according to locals, emboldened elements within the force to take a tougher stance on the recent protests.

This appears to typify ASP’s tendency to scupper its own progress, particularly on race (the force upheld 1% of racism allegations made against it between 2014 and 2019). Adunbi says that a major factor in his quitting the IAG was the transfer of Mike Roe, then ASP’s Bristol commander, out of his role. Adunbi doesn’t know the details, but he has his suspicions. “We started to associate ourselves with […] policemen who treated us with respect. The constabulary normally opposes this sort of stuff, so they found a way of not encouraging continuity, because once you build up a certain positive relationship, it’s very difficult if you discontinue it.”

Ball perceived similar self-sabotage at work in Nick Gargan’s dismissal. Gargan was ASP’s chief constable in 2013, when a multi-agency review concluded that the murder of Iranian refugee Bijan Ebrahimi by his neighbour Lee James was in large part the result of racist negligence by the force, which had ignored his repeated calls for help. In fact, police officers had arrested Ebrahimi after James accused him – in ways Ball says “you might racialise” – of being a paedophile.

Gargan responded to the independent review with drastic action, forwarding over a dozen officers for disciplinary action – four were fired, two imprisoned. A year later, however, Gargan found himself suspended, later dismissed, after a number of women accused him of inappropriate conduct.

However fitting the punishment, Ball believes its timing may not have been coincidental. To him, Gargan’s foremost crime in the eyes of ASP was not sexual misconduct but “confront[ing] the police with an institutional response to a murder. He’d gone and said, ‘right, we’ve got to look at ourselves as a group of policemen here, as an institution […] the whole thing has all failed completely.’ […] And he was out.”

Has ASP made any improvements to its work with Bristol’s ethnic minority population over the time he’s lived in the city, I ask Adunbi? Perhaps to their curbside manner. “They used to approach [Black people] in a most disrespectful manner. Now they treat the people they’re questioning with respect.” Harris gives a similar account of things, though one that suggests the hollowness of police civility: “I’ve noticed my friends who are visibly people of colour are treated very differently [by the police]. But in Bristol, they are still really lovely whilst doing it. It may be racial profiling, but they always [do] it in a very soft manner.”

Ball understands this as the transmutation, rather than the eradication, of ASP’s racism. He relates something a Black Bristolian once told him in the course of his research: “[He said that] the difference was that in the 1980s, you knew where you stood, because they’d call you a Black bastard […] It was explicit. Now, he said, it’s implicit. […] You know that there’s racism there, but it’s just not explicit. It doesn’t mean that the power relations have changed – I mean, this person can still use force and put me in prison, or hurt me and get away with it […] so in a way, he says it does your head in more these days.”

 

Given the role of race in organising society, and the role of police in defending the social order, most abolitionists would struggle to entertain the notion that the police, in Bristol or elsewhere, could ever have a genuinely positive relationship with ethnic minority communities. The Black Bristolian currently standing as the Greens’ candidate for PCC clearly doesn’t.

Cleo Lake, a local councillor and former Lord Mayor of Bristol, is well-known in the city as a champion of racial justice. Having previously chaired the Justice for Judah campaign, in March Lake successfully brought a council motion for a city-wide reparations plan. Today she is the only West of England PCC candidate calling for an independent inquiry into ASP’s handling of the Kill The Bill protests. 

Lake’s measured, voice-noted responses to my questions express a desire to see greater police accountability. Among her policy proposals are an “IAG for youth”, an ASP ethics committee police and a crime panel “to hold the PCC to account” – an idea perhaps inspired by the police committee Ken Livingstone set up in 1981 as leader of the Greater London Council and which were, according to Ball, among Britain’s only successful attempts at democratising policing.

Lake’s answers also communicate a deep faith in the institution of policing. She says she found Red, White and Blue, the third instalment of Steve McQueen’s five-part BBC series Small Axe, “very useful”. The episode takes up the story of Leroy Logan, the Black man who, despite his own intimate contact with police brutality, becomes (and remains) a high-flying Met officer.

Lake says one of her first acts as PCC – a role she is unlikely to win this year – would be to interview officers who worked at the protests “to assess how traumatised police as well as protesters were by the events and the subsequent media coverage.” She says she believes in “reparatory justice” and that with the right training, “empathy” and a “willingness to learn”, the force can and will change. 

The Bristolians gearing up for another Kill The Bill protest this Saturday will be hoping Lake is correct. Yet few of those who spoke to Novara Media – particularly those who struggled through the second half of the twentieth century, who experienced the race riots and the miners’ strike and the poll tax riots, who cycled through familiar patterns of police advance and retreat – share her optimism. “I am old enough and wise enough not to be surprised by the way in which the police are treating these people,” says Adunbi. “I’m a Black man, I wear long dreads – nothing the police do will ever surprise me.” For him as for other seasoned activists, Bristol’s reputation as a “peace-loving hippie city” with a “community-oriented” police force, one that is currently behaving wildly out of character, is short-sighted. The past, they insist, never went anywhere – though now it is returning with a vengeance.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media. She is also the editor of Vashti.

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