STORIES | WINTER ’20
an excerpt of a memoir by KEVIN MAXWELL
ILLUSTRATIONS by MELISSA ROBLES
After a week’s annual leave, with no goodbyes, I transferred to Bootle Street Police Station, a grand old stone building in Manchester’s city centre, the headquarters for the old City Police. Moving during your probation was unheard of, except in extenuating circumstances, granted by an assistant chief constable or above. During the week off, my mum and partner supported me, but a strain started to develop in my relationship with my partner, who was now a junior doctor.
I soon learnt the inner-city police was in competition with other local stations like Longsight, which covered Moss Side in south Manchester, a predominantly black area that had had its own Toxteth-like riots. My new station was called ‘Brutal Street’ by my colleagues, a reputation it lived up to. I arrived at the station’s front desk with my uniform and equipment, and was sent straight to see the sub-divisional commander, who held the rank of superintendent, in his office on the first floor. The first thing he asked me – in front of his deputy, the sub-divisional chief inspector – was, ‘Have you come to my station on a crusade, waving a gay and black flag?’
Alarmed, I said that I hadn’t. It was the Union Jack that stood proudly on my bedroom shelf back in Liverpool, along with the flags of the Commonwealth that I collected. I was not a member of any political association, staff or otherwise. I just wanted to do my job.
I was placed on a patrol shift, known as a ‘relief ’. The shifts were either from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (day), from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. (afternoon), or from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. (night). There was also a 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. afternoon shift on the weekend. There were five patrol reliefs at my station, A to E, as well as other units, like plain-clothes and the criminal investigation department (CID). My relief shift had more than twenty other constables, three sergeants, an inspector and a dog handler; my station had the biggest reliefs in the Force. I was, once again, the only black officer.
There was another gay officer at the station, who had experienced homophobia and as a result was now office-based. We paraded on (i.e. they took roll call, checking who was on duty or on annual leave, etc.), and were given our duties and our intelligence briefings in the parade room, for which we could now sit instead of stand, as used to be the way. The parade room was a place of banter, complaints about ‘the job’ (‘like no other’) and easy chat.
I settled into life at Bootle Street, working uniform response ‘999’ policing (i.e. attending emergency calls), but quickly realised that it wasn’t very different to Wigan. Members of the public would often turn on minority officers, especially when they were being arrested. They were very vocal when it came to race, and more so when it came to religion, which I believe worsened as a direct result of the 9/11 attacks.
I was once called to a disturbance at an entertainment complex called The Printworks in the city centre. I ended up arresting a drunk man who was causing trouble. As I was placing him in the back of the police van, he loudly snarled at me, in front of my peers and the watching public, ‘Get your stinking Muslim hands off me.’ Although I was a Catholic, my dark skin was reason enough for him to assume that I was Muslim.
In fact, the inner-city police could have taught the small-town police a thing or two. Manchester was policed by people from the small, predominantly white Lancashire towns that surrounded it. When we policed a white working-class area, those we came into contact with were known as ‘chavs’ or ‘scum’, those we called ‘shit-bags’ in Wigan. When we policed a black or Asian area, they were ‘niggers’ and ‘Pakis’ respectively, and in the gay area they were ‘queers’. In Chinatown, they were ‘Chinks’. Many people didn’t even know the difference between a Sikh, a Hindu and a Muslim. It all came with the territory.
Sometimes this sort of behaviour could backfire. I was on the 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. weekend shift in the nightclub riot van, when our vehicle pulled up alongside a black motorist on Deansgate, outside the bars on the strip. One of my colleagues opened the van’s side door and started to berate the driver of the vehicle, though neither I nor my colleagues could see a reason why. Whatever it was, the sergeant sitting in the passenger seat encouraged my colleague, whilst everyone laughed. That is, until the driver got out of his vehicle and identified himself as a lawyer who worked with the Force. He asked for my colleague’s number and that of my sergeant’s. After my colleague apologised, the sergeant was left red-faced. We drove off in silence.
One day, a white female colleague and I were leaving the station yard in a marked police vehicle when an Asian taxi driver drove by blocking our path. At the top of her voice, my colleague shouted out to the taxi driver, ‘You stupid Paki!’ Embarrassed and disappointed, I gave an imperceptible shake of the head, but couldn’t find it in myself to do more. What could I have done? I thought, as I sat next to her. She was well connected and popular, especially amongst the male officers. Had I said something to her, or to someone else later, I would have been ostracised for having challenged or reported her – being a grass, untrustworthy, not a team player. And the careers of cops who weren’t trusted by other cops would stall.
This close-knit camaraderie bred some more intimate relationships. Many cops at my new station were having extramarital affairs with other officers and police staff. It wasn’t my business to question the morality of these relationships, but they strengthened bonds in the police, including between junior and senior members of staff. Some tutor constables were sleeping with their tutees. Some officers even got together with people they had dealt with as victims of crime, including domestic violence. There were officers who didn’t care that others knew, as long as their partners didn’t find out – and of course they rarely did, because of that blue wall of silence, because no one trusts a snitch. Cops ‘did’ cops because they understood ‘the job’, they said. I was privy to several extramarital affairs between those in the highest ranks down to the lowest, on duty and off duty, in police offices, toilets and cars. The safest option seemed to be to turn a blind eye, especially as some of the people engaged in affairs were dictating my career.
These affairs didn’t stretch to gay relationships; I knew several straight officers who had gay tendencies – some ‘played’ (i.e. experimented) with gay officers – but homophobic attitudes still continued. For example, one Christmas, when I was working on a crime report in the station writing room, a female colleague began to complain about not wanting to go to Via Fossa, a bar in Manchester’s gay village, and deal with a theft. Apparently she didn’t want to be dealing with ‘queers’ and their ‘drama’ anymore. Within the safe confines of my mind, I challenged her, calling her out for her homophobic language – but fear kept me from actually saying anything. I did not want to make any enemies.
On another night, after work a group of us went to the local nightclub, 42nd Street, which was on the same road as the police station. I went to join a circle of my colleagues, just in time to hear one of the male officers announce, ‘If a gay guy ever tried to hit on me, I would break his nose.’ His words were meant for me; it was an observation he felt it was important to air as I joined the group. This officer had tested me previously, by asking me in front of others if I liked women. My brain shouted, ‘So, just because I’m gay I’m attracted to you?’ But again, I kept it to myself. He carried on, saying he didn’t think what gay people did was ‘natural’. I held my tongue, smiled and drank my drink. Maybe he was scared that gay men would treat him like he treated women.
On another night, later, Officer Don’t Hit On Me and I bumped into each other in the gay village at Sackville Street car park, when we were both on duty but working separately. He told me and my van partner that he was annoyed by ‘queers’ and their ‘problems’, having just gone to an incident in the area. His eyes were on me as he said it, and I could sense his satisfaction. He knew I wouldn’t say anything, just as I hadn’t the last time. Anytime I tried to make friends with my new colleagues and had to sit through more of this, I came away feeling isolated. It impacted on my relationship with my boyfriend, who had already felt the pressure of my experiences at Bruche, Wigan, and now Bootle Street.
Sometimes my feelings of isolation were compounded by the fact that, seen from the outside, I was part of that blue wall. During the spring 2003 protests against Tony Blair, George Bush and the Iraq war in Manchester – the biggest political demonstration in the city since the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 – three separate marches converged at the city’s town hall. I was on one side of the police line, and my friends from university, including my best friend and confidant Dan, were on the other. We smiled as we pretended we didn’t know each other, to save any embarrassment.
A Chinese officer at my station was in a situation similar to my own. He was struggling to fit in, and I sat and listened as my colleagues talked about how they would let him struggle and fail, in the hope that he would leave the police and return to the chip shop in Manchester where he came from. He was tutored for much longer than was normal, and as a result they described him as useless, lazy and incompetent. He did fail, did resign, and did return to the chip shop, to their utter delight. Whilst they roared with laughter over his resignation, I just stayed silent.
I was starting to resent myself for the way I kept quiet. I wanted to scream. But what could I have done and who could I have spoken with? The sub-divisional chief already warned me about ‘flying the flags’. As the most senior officer on the sub-division, he set the tone, and the other officers, especially the most junior ones, followed. I found myself eating in the writing room during my breaks, whilst my colleagues ate in the rest room next to the gym. The rest room was an uncomfortable place, pumping with testosterone. There was a television and when particular programmes came on – any programmes to do with gay people or rap music – my colleagues would circumspectly air their views, cautious of using fully racist or homophobic words.
Once I was with a male colleague who had pulled over a female motorist on Newton Street outside the police museum, for committing a minor traffic offence. She asked why he had stopped her. He replied, ‘Because I can.’ She fired back that he couldn’t stop her for no reason, so she received a ticket for failing her attitude test. When we got back in the car, out of earshot, I told him that he was completely out of order.
‘What are you going to do? Snitch? If you do snitch, you’ll be on your own.’
I knew what he meant. It meant no one trusting me or wanting to associate with me, no one coming to my assistance, if ever I needed it, on the radio – or driving over so slowly that it would ensure I got a little banged up first. Being liked on relief wasn’t just important, it was essential to your survival. This was the reason good cops would say nothing about bad cops. One of the unwritten rules for cops was valuing our brotherhood before anything else. The police badge wasn’t just a shield, but a family crest. The only thing I could do was to avoid working with that officer again.
In 2003, in an interview to mark the tenth anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death, Commander Cressida Dick, head of the Met’s diversity directorate, said that Scotland Yard remained ‘institutionally racist’, ten years after the murder. ‘It’s very difficult to imagine the situation where we will say we are no longer institutionally racist,’ she told The Independent. ‘The point about racism is it’s about the structure of society and power differential and how institutions operate.’ Dick said she did not believe there was a single institution able to say ‘we are not racist’. Responding to the figures about the disproportionate number of black and Asian people being stopped and searched, the Lawrence family’s solicitor Imran Khan said, ‘We may have individual officers who have taken on board the recommendations from the Lawrence inquiry – but it has not produced a structural change.’ Baroness Howells, the racial equality campaigner, said that the police were undergoing a ‘process of unlearning’, ‘because Britain never had an apartheid system we never realised how deep the prejudices were.’
It is no coincidence that there was a massive recruitment drive in Greater Manchester after Chief Constable David Wilmot’s comments at the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. The GMP was a Force that struggled to attract minority recruits: I was one of approximately 40 ethnic minority male officers out of 8,000. After I’d joined Bootle Street, another black officer was placed on my shift. I thought it strange, placing two of the few black or Asian officers at the station – and amongst the more than nine hundred staff at the division – on the same shift, but of course it wasn’t done at random. Management even sent us out together on patrol, making it look as if there were plenty of black cops in the division.
Out on patrol together, this officer told me that he had moved divisions after encountering difficulties with his colleagues and supervisors, just as I had. It was as if all black and Asian officers ran into trouble – but surely, I thought, not every black and Asian officer was a ‘problem’? The few people I had seen challenge the culture and behaviour, like Virdi, were vilified. I heard my white colleagues describe black officers as radical for challenging racism. I heard my straight colleagues describe gay officers as activists, for challenging homophobia. I was a young man with my future ahead of me and I didn’t want to go down the same route as Virdi, so I forced myself to remain one of them instead.
Those in the same leaky boat as me kept their heads down, and I empathised with them. Some would go further, and deny the very existence of racism or homophobia in the police, emphatically repeating that it was not a problem in the Force. However, this attitude could undermine the experiences of other minority cops, and those members of the public who complained about racism and/or homophobia at the hands of officers.
Michael Fuller, a deputy assistant commissioner with the Met Police, was appointed the UK’s first black chief constable in 2004, leading the Kent Force. I was happy for him, but I knew he’d got ahead by toeing the ‘white’ line. I agreed with Darcus Howe, the broadcaster, writer and civil rights campaigner, on the appointment: ‘I am pleased that Fuller has broken the glass ceiling. But I have no great expectations that he will be part of the revolution in policing that this society so desperately needs.’ Upon taking up his new job, Fuller said, ‘I am a very professional police officer’. Why, I wondered, did the black chief have to remind the public that he was ‘professional’, and ‘very’ much so? In his 2019 memoir Kill the Black One First – written after he retired, and was no longer in a position of influence – Fuller says, ‘I had come this far in the Met by not talking about my colour. By not discussing racism . . . Police racism was an ugly beast in the corner which I didn’t want to poke.’
I was amazed by the account of one black cop, who insisted he had never encountered racism of any kind in the GMP. Detective Inspector Tony Alogba from Ashton under Lyne said he had never been the victim of racial jibes or taunts, and had always believed that the Force had done everything possible ‘to eradicate alleged racism’. But although the officer had a Nigerian surname, when I saw a picture of him on the Force’s external ‘local policing’ website, my first impression was that he was white. He was almost certainly mixed-race, with much lighter skin than mine. He had the privilege of ‘passing’ – being perceived as white – and his experience in the police was different to that of darker-skinned people.
The account of former Inspector John Phazey of West Midlands Police confirmed for me how widespread racism was, when, after completing his thirty years (of basic service required to receive a full pension), he said that he routinely heard officers using derogatory terms for Asian and black people. But he went on to say that the derogatory terms weren’t racist: ‘It didn’t mean any more than someone saying Paddy for an Irishman or Jerry for a German.’
I began to realise that officers of colour could often be deeply conflicted, particularly seniors, who were insensitive to those below them. They did not necessarily feel solidarity with other black and Asian officers, especially as they had been trained to serve as enforcers of an institution that has historically been anti-black and pro-white. Some were ignorant of the structural racism around them; some were aware of it, but thought the best way to get ahead was to emulate the attitudes of white colleagues.
Two of the other mixed-race officers who had joined with me struggled with identity crises. One hated everything about ‘blackness’ and the BPA; the other refused to be called black, accepting only that they were mixed-race. Though I respect their choice of self-identification, it was alien to me. I was mixed-race, but had always identified as black too. I had never wanted to be white, and had never been ashamed of being dark-skinned.
Gay officers also faced challenges in the Force. Many of my colleagues speculated that being gay was a lifestyle choice. They saw gay men as effeminate and as the job was for ‘masculine’ men, thought that gay men were bad officers. According to the officer who had shouted ‘Paki’, whenever court cases didn’t go the police’s way, it was because the judge was a nonce and ‘down the gay canal, getting noshed off ’ by a male sex worker. ‘Feminine’ traits, like active listening and rapport-building, were considered weaknesses. Lesbian officers, and women officers in general, faced similar prejudice. They were either bikes or dykes – you rode them, or they rode one another.
It was lonely, living inside this mad world, and I never found any gay allies. The majority of gay officers I knew of were working in offices, away from operational colleagues and their extreme views. Prior to 2003, the police were at war with the gay community. Over thirty gay men were murdered between 1986 and 1990, but the police did nothing or little about it, despite concerns from the community. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 saw the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality for consensual sex between men over twenty-one in private, but afterwards gay men were targeted more than before, under the homophobic laws concerning ‘gross indecency’ and ‘buggery’ – until May 2004, when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 repealed them. After this, homophobia in the police went underground. Homophobes simply found other ways to vent their hate, like targeting gay men under the still used law against ‘outraging public decency’. Instead of protecting gay people and addressing hate crime, the police directed resources towards raids on public toilets, saunas and bars. The former chief constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, said that gay people were ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making’. Despite facing criticism for his remarks, he continued: ‘The law of the land allows consenting adult homosexuals to engage in sexual practices which I think should be criminal offences. Sodomy between males is an abhorrent offence, condemned by the word of God, and ought to be against the criminal law.’
Some of my colleagues told me they had blackmailed bars on Manchester’s Canal Street (in the gay village), getting crates of liquor out of them in exchange for not being raided. Many gay men were arrested for victimless behaviour.
When I joined Bootle Street, my colleagues and I often targeted gay men under the now-outdated anti-gay laws, like the one against ‘gross indecency’, which was used to criminalise sodomy. We knew we could find men on the canal towpath and punish them for sex acts. The police leadership directed us to do it, stating that these homosexuals were causing a public nuisance, thereby dividing the LGBT community into the ‘workable’ gays and ‘the degenerates’.
In 2003, the gay community started to become complacent, even though there was still much distain and prejudice towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. Many of my queer brothers and sisters believed that they were now equal in the eyes of the law, forgetting the dismissiveness, lack of interest and victim-blaming many LGBT people had gone through at the hands of the police. Some gay people even praised the police’s ‘cleaning up’ of the canal. As a gay man on the scene and an officer frequently policing Manchester’s gay area, I was aware that many LGBT people didn’t report incidents or hate crimes to the police because of their experiences, like being brushed off by the Force, including by gay officers.
During football matches we worked in ‘serials’, consisting of three riot vans – which were hotspots for homophobia – and each serial included an inspector, three sergeants and eighteen constables that policed the city before, during and after the match, as well as the stadium itself. Internally, the full-time riot officers, the Tactical Aid Unit (TAU), were known as ‘knuckle- draggers’. Officers swapped shoulder numbers to confuse the public, whilst other officers might not wear them at all.
Three years after I joined the Force the overt homophobia started to change, as a direct result of the Labour government’s repeal of outdated laws like the one against ‘gross indecency’. In the year I joined secondary school, in 1989, the number of convictions for the consenting gay offence of ‘gross indecency’ was greater than in 1966 – a time when male homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Ensuring that people forgot this chequered history was a strategic public relations exercise on the part of the police, and many white gay men jumped on the bandwagon to further their own police careers. The police created public relations departments devoted to LGBT issues, which they wouldn’t have dreamt of doing for the black community, knowing that a good, public-facing relationship with the LGBT community mattered if they wanted to clean up their image. As part of this new deal, police officers were allowed to parade in uniform at Pride for the first time in 2003, and officers would blow their whistles whilst handing out sweets to the clapping public. Constable Andy Hewlett headed the Gay Police Association’s uniformed contingent as part of the National Pride Parade in London in June 2003. He was one of thirty-five officers who paraded in uniform at the event for the first time in the history of the police. Another forty-five non-uniformed officers took part. Together, they walked from Embankment to Hyde Park.
Later, Pride became militarised and corporatised, moving far from its riotous foundation. (By contrast, black carnivals like Notting Hill were prepared for and seen as a ‘battle’ by the police.) However, gay friends of mine outside the Force, especially older gay men, thought it important never to forget the mistreatment of LGBT people by the police, in order to ensure that it never happened again.
At the beginning of 2003, I’d heard that the Force’s Lesbian and Gay Staff Affiliation, LAGSA, was having its annual general meeting at Bootle Street, and decided to attend. The lesbian sergeant they had wanted me to work with at Leigh was one of the leaders. LAGSA, which was founded the year I joined the police to address issues of sexuality across the Force, was run by white lesbian officers. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, there was friction between LAGSA and the white gay men who ran the national Gay Police Association from London, which the Manchester affiliation hadn’t signed up to, and the local LAGSA and the national GPA were run separately. My only hope in attending the annual general meeting was to find like-minded people who would understand my difficulties as a gay man. Whilst I did find some sympathetic ears, there was one big problem. I was a different colour to everyone else in the room. They were all white.
LAGSA were annoyed that the BAPA had been provided with a ball at Manchester’s Town Hall by the Force. As I sat in the back, listening to the general discussion, a lesbian member of the executive committee remarked, ‘If the blacks are getting it, so are we.’ Mine was the only face in the room that fell at her words.
Throughout my time in the police, I’d heard the term ‘The Gay Mafia’. It struck me as a tasteless joke, but it was actually a reference to the power some white gay police officers, in and out of the closet, held in the police and other public institutions, like the government. Many affluent, white gay people were ruthlessly ambitious. Strikingly, many would distance themselves from the LGBT movement (and ‘activists’) and the struggle for equality, focusing on their careers and only coming out after achieving rank, power and prestige. This lack of solidarity could be damaging for the visible minorities – whether it was LGBT officers who wouldn’t toe the line, or the officers of colour who had no way of not being ‘out’ as non-white.
There was a hierarchy in the police. First came the white straight male, then the white straight female, then white (male) gay officers, then white lesbian officers, then ‘straight’ officers of colour. Black gay officers didn’t make the list. Disabled officers weren’t even considered. It was becoming such a lonely existence in Manchester’s Police, that I started to look into London’s police force. I thought the capital – diverse and multicultural – might suit me better.
In the years after the 9/11 attacks, a new fear of global terrorism also saw a creeping tendency towards militarisation in the British police forces. Many gay officers started wearing the black-and- white Union Jack on their uniforms at Gay Pride Parades, which originally symbolised the ‘thin blue line’ officers killed in the line of duty, but had been repurposed as a patriotic symbol. There was a fetishism, almost an obsession, with uniform amongst some LGBT people. It was as if the uniform made them think they knew who they were and what they belonged to, and the royal family played a part in the ideology of many white gay and lesbian police officers. Many spoke about the ‘good old days’ of the British empire – most black and brown people would never speak about colonialism, slavery and apartheid with such fondness.
I wanted to be accepted into this brotherhood, but I was aware of what it was costing me. I felt so ashamed. Like the majority of officers, I was rapidly becoming institutionalised. Once, I was driving alone along Princess Street in the city centre when I stopped a driver for a genuine routine vehicle check. I pulled over the car. The driver was black. Despite our shared skin colour, he accused me of stopping him simply because of his blackness. I hadn’t victimised him in any way or done anything else untoward to him – but in my uniform, I wasn’t black. I was blue. To him, it didn’t matter what colour my skin was, he was just tired of constantly being stopped by the police. Despite my own experiences with racism, I failed to empathise with him. It took some time for me to realise this, and with a deep sadness I understood just how different the experience would have been if he had been white.
For me, the hardest pill to swallow was the realisation that I was part of the problem. That black man I’d stopped for a vehicle document check had poignantly confessed how much he hated being a black man in Britain. I had smiled at him, thinking that my reality was different from his. I had become the coconut. I had suppressed my misgivings and began to feel it was ‘us’ against ‘them’, imagining that I was part of ‘us’. I am still deeply ashamed of what I said to that young black motorist: ‘If you don’t like living in the UK, why don’t you go and live somewhere else?’
I had become all that I hated. And I had started to dislike black and Asian people for making my existence in the police difficult, especially after 9/11. Police chiefs used the words ‘war on crime’ (like the ‘war on terror’) to describe their purpose. They commented on television that they, the police, had the ‘biggest gang’ in the fight against the baddies. Cops saw themselves as soldiers in a street war – all the more so because many of them had actually been soldiers. Some compared their experiences on the streets of wet, cold and windy Manchester to their tours in desert countries. Many officers would adjust their uniforms or personalise them to look more militarised, with Union Jack badges and the St George’s Cross cropping up a lot. All this talk of war, gangs and fights fuelled them with adrenaline. This adrenaline could cause rage and excitement to spike – the ‘red mist’ that sometimes descended during arrests, and at other incidents. Sometimes five, six, seven and even eight officers piled on top of a person being detained. Blinded by that red mist, officers would lose their sense of judgment. This is one of the reasons why the number of deaths by asphyxiation in police custody is so high. When people struggle violently over a long period, the metabolic process becomes anaerobic and they don’t take enough oxygen into the lungs. During the struggle, high levels of lactic acid build up, and if officers constrain a detainee’s breathing, preventing them from taking in oxygen, the person loses consciousness and cannot be revived, which leads to positional asphyxia.
When someone was detained and handcuffed, if they were being ‘mouthy’, the handcuffs were tightened. If the prisoner shouted out that the cuffs were hurting, the reply was: ‘Then stop struggling.’ If a prisoner was still mouthing off as they were placed in the back of the police van, his or her head would deliberately be banged against the roof of the vehicle. If they were injured, officers would explain that they had attempted to resist entering the vehicle and had injured themselves in the process. Any more attitude? Easily fixed by slamming on the brakes to make the prisoner, not wearing a seatbelt (there were none) and hands cuffed behind the back, crash against the cage doors. The excuse? The traffic lights changed suddenly, or something ran out into the road.
There were prisoners who entered the police custody area with a full set of teeth and left with some missing. Others were strip-searched and asked to bend over, just for humiliation. CCTV was introduced in Britain in the 1970s to combat crime and antisocial behaviour, but if there was CCTV at the station that might record something which would contradict an officer’s testimony, it was found to have been switched off, lost or malfunctioning at the time of the incident.
Later in court, detainees might complain about their treatment to a magistrate or judge, but to no avail. An officer’s word always had more merit. What judicial person is going to believe the word of an alleged offender, a scroat (police slang for the scrotum), over an officer? The truth is, an officer’s word shouldn’t have any more bearing than an ordinary citizen’s. It’s not as if cops are born with a truth pill on their tongues. But the truth and reality are often two different things, especially for those up against the Force.
In 1998, the former British army paratrooper Christopher Alder, who was a trainee computer programmer, died whilst in custody at Hull Police Station. CCTV had recorded chimpanzee and monkey noises being made in the background whilst the Falklands veteran was handcuffed and face down on the floor, surrounded by officers. The footage showed him gasping for breath, his trousers and pants pulled down to his ankles, as the officers chatted and joked around him. They later said they believed Alder was ‘play-acting’. After being put on trial for manslaughter and misconduct in public office, all of the officers were acquitted on the orders of the judge.
During one of our night shifts in June 2003, shortly after 3 a.m., we received a call over the radio about a man who had smashed a bus shelter on Piccadilly, in the city centre, near the main train station. A team from my shift arrived and the man was subdued on London Road. His name, we found out, was Delbo King. King, a black man, was pepper-sprayed and dragged to the ground by four of my colleagues, as another stood by and watched. Once he was pinned to the floor, one of my patrol sergeants began to kick a handcuffed, restrained King. The junior officer involved was accidentally pepper-sprayed in the confusion. The entire incident was caught on Manchester City Council’s CCTV. The video footage also showed King’s head being banged against the door frame of the back of the police van as he was being put into it (the ‘subduing’ tactic). After the altercation, back at Bootle Street in the early hours, the video footage capturing the incident was played in the patrol briefing room for my shift, for us to have a laugh at the sergeant and some of my team kicking King’s arse on the street. The twenty- minute camera footage later shown in court clearly showed King being booted by my sergeant. After his arrest, he received bruising to his genitals and one of his teeth was broken. King admitted to damaging the bus shelter, but the police said King had abused officers and resisted arrest. This was easy to ‘prove’: during training, we were taught to shout demands like ‘stop struggling’ or ‘get back’, even when the person had been forcibly restrained or was nowhere near us.
Anthony O’Donnell, King’s solicitor, said he had been the victim of ‘gratuitous violence’ by the police. GMP received a lot of negative press for the incident, triggering nationwide outrage. Mark Littlewood, a spokesman for the human rights organisation Liberty said, ‘On the face of it, the police have some serious questions to answer. Clearly these officers have to be given a fair opportunity to explain their actions, but it is hard to see what could justify this kind of violence.’ Graham Stringer, the MP for Blackley, called for an independent inquiry, stating: ‘If people see things like this taking place, they could lose trust in the police, so there has to be an independent investigation into what happened and why management within the Force didn’t take action sooner.’
King said he just wanted my colleagues to be brought to justice: ‘I am sickened about the whole affair and I intend to seek justice.’ A former British Paratrooper who had served in Northern Ireland, he went further: ‘I am not some scumbag drug dealer. I have served Queen and country. I admit I was drunk but I wasn’t violent towards the police and after they cuffed me that should have been the end of the matter.’ He finished by adding, ‘They seemed to enjoy what they were doing.’ I often saw this behaviour. It was toxic masculinity at its worst.
The deputy chairman of the Police Complaints Authority (which took over from the Police Complaints Board in 1985), Wendy Towers, promised ‘a full and impartial investigation’. A criminal investigation found that my sergeant had no case to answer. He was moved from patrol to an administration role, and then to the divisional tutor unit, as a supervisor of new recruits to the police. He was later named a ‘diversity champion’. It reminded me of the case of Rodney King (no relation) in 1991. Rodney King, a black taxi driver, had taken a beating from officers of the Los Angeles police department after he refused to stop when they tried to pull him over on the freeway. They were later acquitted of the assault, sparking the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which resulted in the death of over 50 people and more than 2,300 injured. LA 92, a documentary about the riots, shows archive footage of Sergeant Stacey Koon, the officer in charge of the scene and one of the defendants in the assault case, responding to questions about King’s treatment with the words: ‘It’s violent and it’s brutal . . . Sometimes police work is brutal.’
is a UK based author who is a former detective of both the Greater Manchester Police and the London Metropolitan Police. Maxwell continues to do advocacy work focused on equality within the criminal justice system. This excerpt from Forced Out is published by Granta.
is a visual artist who also uses her queer superpowers to educate children and their teachers by designing programs at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.