Tottenham has a long history of troubled relations between police and the community
The Mark Duggan inquest verdict has exposed old divisions in this London borough
Mark Duggan’s family outside the High Court in London on Wednesday after an inquest jury found police had “lawfully killed” him when they shot him after stopping the taxi in which he was a passenger in August 2011. His death sparked the worst riots in recent British history. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Chief Supt Victor Olisa walked down in Tottenham High Road in north London late on Thursday afternoon, followed by a couple of TV cameras and a solitary police constable walking a distance behind.
Standing outside a bookmaker’s, Olisa, a black officer who was appointed as Haringey borough commander in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, chatted easily with locals. With little reservation, the locals chatted easily back.
Later, however, one young man shouted to Olisa, “Who are you? I haven’t seen you before. I haven’t seen you out on the streets before.” Calmly, Olisa replied, “I am out and about all the time.”
Since Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police has battled to respond to an inquest jury’s verdict that firearms officers lawfully killed Mark Duggan in August, 2011 – the incident that sparked that summer’s riots, used as an excuse for violence by most.
So far, the Met has done surprisingly well, even if the main image for most TV viewers was of a senior officer being verbally abused as he tried to deliver a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice.
Back in Tottenham, there was a small demonstration outside the High Road police station that night, but little more. Today, there will be a protest vigil. Meanwhile, the Duggan family, though bitterly angry, has appealed for no violence.
The 29-year-old, believed by police to have been a member of the violent Tottenham Man Dem, was shot dead on August 4th, 2011 by an officer who insisted he fired in self-defence when he saw Duggan pointing a gun.
Police say they acted because Duggan was on his way back from having picked up a weapon and that a shooting by the gang – said to include “48 of Europe’s most violent criminals” – was but hours away.
The Duggan story is viewed through two prisms in Tottenham. Some, perhaps most, appear to accept that Duggan “was a horrible piece of work”, in the words of one; but, equally, that he had been “executed”.
In 2003, he was arrested on suspicion of the murder of a man abducted and stabbed 17 times. He was released without charge. Three years later he was again released without charge following questioning about an attempted murder.
In 2007 he was arrested when live ammunition was found in a car in which he was travelling. Then, a gun was found – as happened later in Ferry Lane – 20ft from the car, wrapped in a sock.
Relations in Tottenham between the police and, particularly, black youths have been difficult for decades – a borough that saw PC Blakelock hacked to death in 1985 as he tried to protect firemen.
Then, police arrested people in batches. Prosecutions were solely backed by confessions, rather than any other evidence. Three convictions were subsequently quashed as unsound. A man will go on trial in March for the murder.
In the years before and after PC Blakelock’s death, police routinely stopped and searched people on the borough’s streets. One night, the local Labour MP, David Lammy and his magistrate brother were stopped.
Last year a Home Office inquiry found that the grounds used to justify a quarter of the 1.2 million “stop-and-searches” in Britain were questionable. In Tottenham, locals would put that percentage far higher.
“I am fortunate that I am white,” said local man Simon Shelley. “There is institutional racism. People are fed up of it. You are eight times more likely to die at the hands of the police than to be killed by terrorists.”
However, policing practices are changing, even if the Met is so far failing to convince locals. Stop-and-searches in Haringey were down by half in June: 534 compared with 1,261 in 2012.
However, the number of subsequent arrests was up from 8.6 per cent of those stopped to 14.4 per cent – suggesting Chief Supt Olisa’s officers are using the powers more selectively.
In the Church of England’s Holy Trinity church, Rev Bunmi Fagbemi acknowledges the efforts that are being made “by Victor”, though he laments the fact that so few officers live in the community they police.
Indeed, outsiders are often too quick to interfere in Tottenham, he believes: “So-called community leaders often don’t live here. Often, the Church of England priest is the only one who does.”
Tottenham has policing troubles, he accepts, but it has greater ones with housing and jobs. It is a place of immigration, he explains, “just like New York in the 19th century. Kids deserve opportunities.
“There is a need for a greater degree of generosity from the host community,” he says, arguing for affirmative-action policies, “just like those after the civil rights campaign in the United States.
“Without those changes, that would have been nothing more than a blip. The greater must always be prepared to bless the lesser. That isn’t about hand-outs, it is about offering a window of opportunity.”