On 28 April 2022, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act received royal assent and became law in the United Kingdom, despite the Kill the Bill coalition organising people across the country to protest the proposed legislation, getting some of its harshest amendments thrown out. The coalition exposed the bill for what it was: the state trying to claw back power by empowering the police, quashing political protest and further criminalising marginalised communities.
At the same time as the government was pushing the bill through parliament, news emerged of Sarah Everard’s abduction, rape, and murder by a serving Metropolitan Police officer dominated headlines across the country. When communities gathered at Clapham Common on 13 March 2021 to mourn the many women lost to gendered violence, the police assaulted them. This seemed like a rare moment of national reckoning. White communities were finally seeing the police for what they are: agents of oppression.
As we knew politicians would not save us from the bill, we decided to channel this newfound white anger into a nationwide network of cop watch groups.
What we wanted was for white communities to join communities – Black, brown, queer, trans, disabled, women, Gypsy, Roma, Traveller, working-class, migrant, Muslim – that had been organising against state violence for a long time, to imagine together a world without prisons, police and all punitive state institutions, including our borders, psychiatric incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Police intervention is not a new strategy. Instead, it dates back to the 1970s and 80s, when our elders organised their communities against violent police repression. Today, we are building on their legacy. Police violence towards our communities is not a flaw in the system – it was designed this way. Policing was founded to protect capital looted by British imperialists. This often included incarcerating, torturing and killing native communities that the British saw as a threat to their imperial wealth.
It is impossible to remove violence from an institution built to be violent. We cannot reform racism and misogyny out of a system designed to uphold racial and gendered hierarchies. We cannot make fairer a system designed to crush community dissent and maintain control over resources and populations. We must abolish it.
The police operate under the false premise of “policing by consent”, the idea that they have the public’s support to enforce order. This is why various groups have spent years organising to withdraw consent from policing. From Black Lives Matter to Sisters Uncut, Netpol (whose guide on setting up cop watch groups we recommend), No More Exclusions, Community Action on Prison Expansion, London Campaign against Police and State Violence, Abolitionist Futures, LGSMigrants, Newham Monitoring Project, SOAS Detainee Support, the Prisoner Solidarity Network and the Anti Raids Network, the cop watch movement has been decades in the making.
As well as organising for a world without police, whilst the police still exist, cop watch groups also encourage people to intervene in every incident of policing they see. This is only one part of how we withdraw consent, but it is a powerful one. Intervening in policing means acting as witnesses to police stops around the country, offering solidarity to those being stopped and challenging the narrative of collective consent under which the police have been operating for centuries. It means rebuilding and protecting our communities and making oppressive laws unenforceable.
It also sends a message that we see the police as perpetrators, not protectors, and that they are not wanted in our communities.
Where to start.
Cop watch groups created the acronym DROP IN to help us remember our rights if stopped by the police. These are the same rights whether you are being stopped or intervening. Be aware that although these are your rights, this does not mean the police will respect them.
In many cases, the police will attempt to dismiss you, negate the knowledge you have of your rights, and act unlawfully. It is important to know our rights to challenge them and the culture of impunity they have historically enjoyed.
When intervening, it’s best to direct all interactions to the person being stopped. It should be clear to both the person and the cops that we are not on side of the police.
You can start simply by asking the person being stopped if they are OK and explain you are there to help. Then, consider whether to DROP IN.
D is for detained.
Ask the person if they are being detained. Note that being detained isn’t the same as being under arrest. If they don’t know, they can ask the police. If they are not being detained, they are free to walk away.
R is for record.
We have the right to film the cops and do not need their consent. Ask the person if they are happy with you filming the interaction. Narrate your actions as you do so, for example, “I am filming a police officer with this badge number, who is stopping someone on this street. I am standing away from the interaction. I am now taking a step back.” This provides clear evidence that you are not obstructing the arrest if an officer later claims this.
Try as much as possible to film the cops rather than the person being stopped. At the end of the interaction, you can send the footage directly to the person if they are not taken to a police station. If they are, try to take contact details for someone else to send the files to, or tell them to contact their local cop watch group who can help facilitate the file transfer.
O is for officer who?
Ask for the name, rank, badge number and station of the officers present. If they are plain-clothed, ask to see their warrant card. Make sure to film their badge numbers, which should be visible at all times.
P is for under what power?
It is important to ask the police under what power are they stopping the person. Most stops happen under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) or Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (S60).
Under both PACE and MDA, police need reasonable suspicion to stop someone. Ask if the person stopped ”fits a description”. If so, that description needs to be more than just age, race and gender. Reasonable suspicion must include information or intelligence about, or some specific behaviour by, the person concerned.
Under S60, the police do not need reasonable suspicion to stop someone. Only a senior officer of the rank of inspector or above can impose an S60 and they must reasonably believe that an incident of serious violence has taken place or is about to. S60 will be imposed on a defined area for a limited amount of time (up to 24 hours, although this can be extended). Although S60 gives the cops more power to harass communities, you can still ask the cops about the reason for the S60, what area it covers, who ordered it and for what period of time. You might be able to use this information to challenge the use S60 if it is clear the police are using it opportunistically to stop people that have obviously nothing to do with the incident that led to the S60, or if they are using it outside of the designated area or time.
I is for item.
Reasonable suspicion also includes what item the cops are searching for. The police can only search you in places where the item can reasonably be found – if they’re looking for a stolen bike, they do not need to be searching under someone’s jumper.
Searches on the street can only require that someone removes their outer layers – coat, jacket, hat, gloves and so on. If the police say they need to conduct a more thorough search or a strip search, this must take place in private. If you are under 18 there should be an appropriate adult present with you in the room during a strip search. Someone being stopped can ask for a search to be carried out by an officer of their preferred gender, but the police may not listen. They are also unlikely to extend respect to non-binary and transgender people in this situation.
N is for no personal details.
Whether you are someone being stopped or an intervener, you do not have to – nor should you – give the police any personal details or answer any questions. You have the right to answer “no comment”, to stay silent, or to say you do not want to answer.
You are only required to give your name and address under an anti-social behaviour order (ASB order or ASBO) or if stopped in a vehicle.
If you are arrested, remember: no comment, no caution, no duty solicitor. For more information on which solicitor to contact when in custody, get in touch with your local cop watch group, who will be able to provide details for regional firms.
The police have never, nor ever will, keep our communities safe. It is only through a politics of collective care that we will break free from the chains of racial and patriarchal capitalism so fiercely protected through police violence. Join your local cop watch group today.