20 Aug Interview: Barrister Dr Tunde Okewale MBE talks police brutality and hyper-sensitivity towards black people
TUNDE OKEWALE MBE INTERVIEW – Crime statistics in the UK disproportionately suggest black people have a far greater impact than may actually be true.
In 2002, the percentage of police-related deaths involving individuals from a black or minority (BAME) background was almost twice the corresponding figure for representation in the population. By 2009, that imbalance stood around 5%, with BAME deaths accounting for 17% of police fatalities, despite this group accounting for just 12% of the population.
Whilst only 13% of London’s population is black, 36% of the 12,605 recorded uses of force by the Metropolitan Police between April-June 2017 involved people who self-identified as black.
Black people are six times more likely than white individuals to be stopped and searched by police. In 2015/16, that figure stood at three to one, which shows a heightened sense of hyper-sensitivity towards black people in recent times.
Hypersensitivity in this context means a disproportionate reaction to the attitudes and behaviour of black people. This anxiousness is a result of the internalisation of negative and often aggressive stereotypes towards people identified within this race group.
In the UK, there is an undeniable hyper-sensitivity towards black people on the behalf of law enforcement, something not exclusive to the UK but seen in many corners of the world. It is therefore crucial to address that imbalance.
“What we have is an over-representation in relation to representation in the criminal justice system, educational and economical attainment, yet there is considerable under-representation in terms of leadership,” explains Tunde. “If you look at the decision-makers and people in power, they’re not representative of the communities they often govern.
“Globally, there appears to be hyper-sensitivity towards young black men. This may result from negative stereotypes surrounding young black men, for example they are often perceived as more dangerous and aggressive, prompting an excessive reaction towards them. This stereotype, although not created by the black community, is often reinforced when the black community create media content such as music videos and films. This may paradoxically create a sense of legitimacy to the negative stereotype.
“If your perception is a particular group of people pose a threat or are dangerous, your response is going to be proportionate to that perception, even if that perception is erroneous.”
Tunde Okewale MBE is a criminal barrister and the brainchild of Urban Lawyers, a legal-focused organisation with three primary aims, which include educating people about their legal rights and creating dialogue between communities and the police.
The third primary function of Urban Lawyers is helping law students enter the profession, a service Tunde himself would’ve benefited greatly from many years ago after he left university with a 2:2.
Whilst training to become a law professional, the lack of a 2:1 in your degree creates many barriers and can often deter people from entirely from the profession, but with more roadblocks comes a greater hunger to succeed:
“When I got the grades from university, one of the things that impacted me the most was my self-confidence,” recalls Tunde of his earlier academic days. “Particularly, when you want to study law, there’s this feeling that you have to have the best grades and you have to be the best, which is true. So when you don’t have the grades, you are made to feel inadequate and doubt whether you can do it.
“I overcame this initially by finding people in law who were in similar position to myself, who didn’t necessarily get the grades, but were still able to succeed in making a legal career. I found a solicitor, and he explained that I had to prove myself and demonstrate to people that despite not having the grades, that I was still capable.
“I volunteered to work at another solicitor’s firm. They recognised that I was as good as the people they were paying and they offered me a job. Working there enabled me to meet the barristers at the chambers that eventually offered me pupillage. That’s pretty much how it worked – an organic process of me working hard, meeting people and creating opportunity.”
At this point, Tunde finally had a foot in the door. But that’s it, just a starting point in a severely competitive industry. A far cry from his position as one of the UK’s most respected barristers and recipient of an MBE. How did he go about taking the next step?
“It was a case of going the extra mile and doing things that others didn’t necessarily want to do. For example, one of the things I did at the start of my career was contact every law firm within a two-mile radius. I’d knock on the door, introduce myself and let them know I’m a barrister that works close-by.
“One of the things that helps you to become well-known is visibility. There are lots of people that are good at their jobs, but if people don’t know who you are, you won’t get the work. My professional development has been dual-part – getting the results, but also making sure I remained visible, so people knew who I was.”
Police brutality is an area of law which Tunde has vast experience in, through Urban Lawyers, working as a barrister and his contribution to ‘The Citizens Inquiry into the Tottenham riots’. He has been vocal in trying to create effective dialogue surrounding the death of Rashan Charles, who was chased into an East London shop and killed by a police officer who alleged he had swallowed drugs.
In instances where people are alleged to have swallowed drugs, the immediate response is usually a medical one, namely, getting that person to hospital immediately. Many people feel that Rashan Charles’ perceived act of swallowing drugs was met with excessive force, so I asked Tunde why the response to an act of swallowing illicit substances, was so violent.
“It goes back to my point about hyper-sensitivity. There is this automatic hyper-sensitivity towards particular groups of people – in this instance, young black men. There is this fear that they are dangerous and that the only response must be one of violence. This fear is on negative stereotypes.”
Since 1990, there have been 10 unlawful killing verdicts regarding deaths involving the police. None of those verdicts, nine returned by jury and one by a public inquiry, have resulted in a successful prosecution. That’s less than one in every two years, but still 10 too many.
An overspill of frustration at the justice system resulted in a violent protest in Dalston in the aftermath of Rashan’s death.
“A violent response to an injustice, in one way, reinforces the stereotype which people are trying to get away from. In another way, it highlights the dissatisfaction that people have with the system, and how people believe that’s the only way they can communicate. I certainly feel that because there hasn’t necessarily been an adequate response from the police and the government , since Mark Duggan, that some members of the public feel that there is no justice from people from particular communities.”
Mark Duggan’s death in 2011 only further eroded the relationship between black communities and the police. The first reports of that story suggested Mark Duggan shot at police first, which did not happen. There are also serious doubts about the presence of a gun found at the scene. Yet he was deemed to be ‘lawfully killed’, a verdict upheld by the High Court.
“It is regrettable that if people believe that they cannot receive justice, they take the law into their own hands. You see that a lot. People do not have trust or faith in the police, and that’s dangerous, because that means the police cannot properly do their job. It’s their job to serve and protect the public, and if the general public don’t trust them, it makes their job much more difficult.
“In many instances, you’ll have cases where crimes happen, but due to the lack of trust in the police service some people will not positive engage with the service. You now have certain members of the community who have now developed a hyper-sensitivity towards the police. Which, results lack of community cohesion.
“For example, if a young person is stopped by the police they may automatically respond in an aggressive manner because they have no faith in the process. It then becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of hyper-sensitivity towards one another.”
There is no overnight fix to breaking that cycle of hyper-sensitivity between black communities and the police, but what conditions need to be in place to achieve a more positive outcome?
“Acceptance is often the first step towards curing most types of conflicts or disputes. Then secondly, having the dialogue towards the problem solving. The problem we have is that when things go wrong, people don’t want to accept responsibility and often look for someone to blame rather than focusing on remedies.
“We’ve seen that with Grenfell, there was an initial unwillingness to accept responsibility and a tendencies to blame others. People are more focused on blaming others than solving the problem, so when something bad happens, people want to find the person to blame, rather than thinking about how they can fix it.”
The Grenfell Tower blaze is widely considered to be a case of corporate manslaughter, businesses cutting corners with a complete disregard for the safety of those they’re meant to serve. However, it’s unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted as such.
“The process has not fully started yet. There has not been a public inquest or enquiry into it, so we cannot clearly identify the causes or those culpable. If there are civil sanctions and the cause of death is determined, the CPS will still need to decide whether they are going to bring criminal charges. This is what usually happens in death in police custody cases. There are loads of civil suits, but there hasn’t been one criminal case against a police officer that’s killed somebody in custody. Not one in this country.”
Addressing the imbalance between how black communities are treated by the police relies heavily upon decision-makers and those in senior positions embracing such a change, which has proven tough.
“I personally think that it’s achievable. If you look at the decision-makers and people in power, they’re not representative of the communities they often govern. Whereas, if you have adequate representation, the likelihood is that decisions are going to be made that reflect and take into consideration the experiences of those people.”
Appointed by the Queen herself after lengthy service, QCs represent the highest echelon of barristers in the UK. But only 6% identify as being from a BME background, compared to the 12% who practice the Bar. 5.5% of police officers are from a BME background, only 3% more than the figure for 1999. There is a scarcity of ethnic minority legal professionals, from top to bottom, so, how, if at all, can that disparity be addressed?
“I think it’s something that happens with time, and it shouldn’t only be something that occurs when people show a willingness to do it. You need to be able to adequately deal with the needs of the people you’re supposed to be helping. Someone should not have to say they want to work on their equality values, it should be part of the process. Full stop.
“The police have been trying, but it’s a long process. These issues have been part of the fabric of an institution for hundreds of years, so it would be too optimistic to expect change to happen overnight. However, it doesn’t mean we should be complacent and happy about the pace of progress.”
In the absence of progress from public institutions, charities, organisations and the like fill an important role, and of those catalysts of change is Urban Lawyers, whose name lends itself to Tunde’s earlier community-based work, which began in Hackney.
“The genesis of Urban Lawyers was a result of people often asking me how I became a barrister and whether I could help their friend out who’s in trouble.
“For me, the best way to be of service is to create an organisation that can service those needs, and that’s what Urban Lawyers does. It provides information and education about your legal rights, but also, we help people that want to get into the legal profession, get into it.
“When I first started out, people outside of Hackney did not typically know who I was. I remember I did a session in south London, and again, the response wasn’t very warm. Fortunately, Swiss from So Solid recorded a video with me, and at that time, their music was really taking off. He spoke about his experience with the police and supported me throughout. Because of that, people took more notice and because of that, I came into more contact with people that influence in the community.”
Urban Lawyers serve multiple functions that benefit young people and the community more generally, something which played a big part in Tunde being awarded an MBE for services to the community and working with disadvantaged young people in 2016.
“I have been very fortunate to receive lots of support both in my professional career and with Urban lawyers from The Honourable Society Inner Temple” explains Tunde of Inner Temple.
To be called to the bar and practice as a barrister in England and Wales, an individual must belong to one of the four Inns of Court, professional associations for barristers and judges, which Tunde was lucky enough to become a member of. Tunde has and continuously work closely with the Inner Temple’s Schools Project. The inn has always been progressive and keen to improve social mobility in the profession.
Hence, it’s fair to say that he has come a very long way from leaving university with ‘insufficient grades’ and plenty of industry barriers to overcome.
“I’ve been a barrister for about 10 years, and before coming to the bar, I worked at a solicitor firms for several years. Before that, I was working in the community, so it’s not something that happened overnight. I’ve been working for years. If you’re patient, things will happen, not quickly, but suddenly.
“The MBE was pretty cool, but it just means the work becomes even harder now, because once you have that, it becomes a question of – what next?”
Find out more about Tunde Okewale MBE and Urban Lawyers here.