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Better to walk than dance with the Metropolitan Police at Carnival

What did I see in the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) at this year’s carnival?

When the MPS asked me if I’d like to be an ‘observer’ at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival, I pondered about giving up one or two of my Bank Holiday weekend days but decided to as it’s not often a member of the public gets the opportunity to see first-hand the policing operation for the largest carnival in Europe.

I was asked to get involved because I am a member of the MPS STRIDE Board which focuses on diversity, inclusion and equality within the organisation and its service delivery. This is not a paid role - it’s a commitment BTEG makes to be a critical friend for the MPS.

The MPS have a range of challenges, not least tackling gun and knife use, gangs, organised crime and illegal drugs. The MPS workforce is still not reflective of London’s ethnic diversity with just over 14% of police officers in London from BAME backgrounds, well short of the BAME population which is now 43%. BAME applications to the MPS are increasing along with success rates.

I opted to observe family day - Sunday. I hadn’t attended Carnival for over 20 years. I had good memories but recalled being caught up by crowd bottlenecks on several occasions which were uncomfortable. My first (mini) shock was being told the day would start with a briefing at 8 am at police HQ. That meant a 6 am wake-up call.  

What I heard and saw at the briefing is what I expected - a professional and organised police force. Commander Musker, the officer responsible for policing the event, reminded his senior officers about the need to protect officers and keep the public safe. I saw the impressive use of CCTV technology, the resources the Met has and how they work with other emergency services and stakeholders. The Commander shared how much work goes into making sure the Carnival’s known risks are mitigated before as well as during the event.

A handful of senior officers spoke at the briefing and it was good to see one of these was black. I got the sense it was a matter of professional and personal pride for these senior officers to execute the policing operation with minimum public disturbance or serious injuries. This was reassuring for me.

It was the first time I’d been in the company of a large number of MPS officers. From a race equality perspective, there were around 150 or more officers in the briefing room and only a handful were visibly from black and Asian backgrounds. I assumed these were senior ranks. During the day, I was introduced to several senior women in the MPS and that was positive to see. 

I asked Commander Musker about the use of section 60 orders which allows the police to stop and search people in a defined area without having suspicion. He indicated that Section 60 is one of the tools he has at his discretion and is used if necessary. As it turned out section 60 was used on the second day as the number of incidents increased.

After attending the morning briefing I was assigned to two police officers from west London and was told I could go anywhere I wanted. The two officers, both white, made me feel welcome. One of the officers had been in the force for some time and the other for a much shorter time. We spent nearly three hours walking around the Carnival. I wanted to see the knife/gun arches in operation and, more generally, I simply wanted to see how the officers assigned to me interacted with the public and vice versa. The two officers escorting me around were approached by many members of the public asking for directions and toilet locations.  

It was a very hot day. I wore a t-shirt and jeans, the officers had full uniform and equipment which made walking around challenging. Officers had been reminded to keep hydrated (and not to join in the dancing!). Having not attended Carnival for a long time I was struck by the number of residential units and businesses that were boarded up.

There were large numbers of police from different strands of the force waiting to be called if needed, including the tactical support units dressed in black and with what appeared to be riot protection gear. I asked a community leader colleague, who also attended on Monday with his teenage daughter, how he felt about the policing of the Carnival. He said that there were a lot of police on the streets and made a particular point about feeling intimated by the tactical support units marching through the Carnival in rows of two or three. Having seen these units in the cordoned off streets and in the main police base on the Sunday I understood why they would appear intimidating moving through Carnival crowds. The MPS should look at the way these units are deployed during Carnival if there isn’t a major incident about to happen.

I had chosen perhaps the least challenging phase of Carnival in terms of policing intensity. My teenage daughter and her friends attended Carnival on the Monday - I have to be honest, I was anxious about that because of the tragic spate of knife crime murders in the capital. But one has to be rational and young people have to experience Carnival for themselves. There are serious incidents every year at Carnival where the public and police are injured by a tiny proportion of people. Every assault is one too many but crime isn’t put on hold for two days in London because of Carnival.

Carnival is a fantastic spectacle delivered by London’s Caribbean community and our public bodies - I am proud about that. It was great to see the vibrant costumes and the roadside caterers and people from all age groups and ethnicities having a wonderful time.

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