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In UK, Police Response To Protests For Racial Equality Is Markedly Different


Images of U.S. police shoving peaceful protesters have made an impression on people around the world. In London, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, many don't like what they've seen.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Thousands marched peacefully to the U.S. Embassy here last weekend to protest racism, even though the demonstration violated the government's social distancing rules. One was a data analyst named Charlene (ph). She didn't want to give her full name, but she did share her reaction to video of police officers in Buffalo knocking a 75-year-old protester to the sidewalk.

CHARLENE: It sent chills down my spine. I felt cold. I felt angry. I felt - I wanted to cry.

WAEL IBRAHIM: I feel there's a problem with the way you train your police forces. It's pretty clear that a lot of these people just don't really know what they're doing.

LANGFITT: I bumped into Wael Ibrahim (ph) as the march headed towards Parliament. Ibrahim recently graduated from University College London. He says police in the capital seem' to manage demonstrations with a much lighter touch than those in America.

IBRAHIM: The police understand that the best way to handle a protest is not by escalating violently because then, it's going to cause bedlam, and people are going to start stampeding. There's going to be more injuries. No one wants that.

LANGFITT: I've covered many protests here in the last few years. The cops' general approach is to hang back, monitor and prevent violence.


LANGFITT: On Brexit night at the end of January, mounted police formed a wall to block an anarchist bicycle gang from crashing a giant celebration outside Parliament. When one bicyclist rushed towards a pub, police grabbed him before he could start a fight. Ibrahim thinks the difference here isn't just training but philosophy.

IBRAHIM: I think, frankly, the American police system has a lot to learn from the British police system, where we police by consent.

LANGFITT: Lawrence Sherman grew up in America and directs the Police Executive Programme here at the University of Cambridge. He says policing by consent means not always enforcing the letter of the law if it doesn't serve the public interest.

LAWRENCE SHERMAN: That's a huge cultural difference between British and American police. But it really boils down to having a philosophy that says the most important thing is not to enforce the law at all times. The most important thing is to keep the peace and minimize the amount of harm and injury to anybody in our society.

LANGFITT: Policing by consent stretches back to a massacre in 1819 in the English city of Manchester, where a private militia used sabers to slaughter protesters demanding the vote. Robert Peel, the father of modern British policing, was horrified. Lawrence Sherman explains.

SHERMAN: He wanted to create a police force that would manage protest without the military. And that's been a kind of bedrock of the British philosophy that you don't try to dominate the population with force. You try to build consent.

LANGFITT: This did not mark the end to police brutality here - not by a long shot.

ANDREW ADONIS: When I've looked at the U.S. protests, they remind me very much of the scenes in Britain in the 1980s.

LANGFITT: Andrew Adonis, a member of the House of Lords, recalls the violence of the Margaret Thatcher era.

ADONIS: Firstly, in the miner strikes, there were virtually pitched battles between the police and striking miners on some of the coalfields. And we had really serious confrontations between largely black protesters and largely white police - most famously in a London district called Brixton.

LANGFITT: But Adonis says since then, police have improved community relations and built a more diverse force. People of color here still have many complaints about the police. This week in the House of Commons, a lawmaker called on the government to halt the policy of stop and search. According to Britain's Home Office, black people are nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped than white ones. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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