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Face recognition technology at Notting Hill Carnival – another example of over-policing of black communities that will not make society safer.

Notting Hill Carnival is the second largest in the world and celebrates Caribbean culture, and it is one of the safest festivals in the world. Yet, every year, the apparently numerous arrests made at Carnival is widely reported and used as justification to threaten the existence of Carnival itself and to employ police tactics that are unfair and discriminatory.

Last year, the Metropolitan Police Federation called for a full-scale review of Carnival after 454 people were arrested. But this seemingly high crime rate must be viewed in the context of the roughly 2 million people who attend each year.

A breakdown of the arrests reveals that many related to the newly criminalised nitrous oxide (laughing gas) that many people were unaware had become prohibited under the Psychoactive Substance Act 2016, as well as other minor infractions. Most do not represent a serious threat to public order that the mainstream narrative on Carnival presents.

Glastonbury Festival, which entertains mostly white revellers, was praised in the media last year for its low crime rates, despite that if there was the same proportion of arrests at Carnival as Glastonbury, we could expect around 750 arrests at Carnival, given the numbers involved.

The heavy policing of Carnival is way above that at other festivals or events which do not host a majority black crowd. Glastonbury and other festivals are well-known for the abundance of drug-use by festival goers, but police are not deployed in large, intimidating numbers to stop and search young people, as has become the norm at Carnival. A section 60 is usually authorised, allowing police to search anyone, without reasonable suspicion. This disparity in approach towards the policing of public events is institutional racism, whether the officers involved intend it to be so or not.

Every year ahead of Carnival, police undertake large numbers of dawn raids on people’s homes and pre-emptive arrests of disproportionately black men and women all over London. This year, 656 arrests were made. The commander in chief of policing Carnival admitted, “I don’t really care what we arrest them for, I’ll be [as] lawfully audacious as I can to get them off the streets.” This minority report style of policing would not be tolerated if it was targeted against any other group or community, other than in the policing of terrorism (which is also disproportionately focused towards ethnic minorities).

Interference and discrimination

Most of those arrested in the lead up to Carnival, even outside the borough of Kensington and Chelsea which hosts the event, will have had bail conditions imposed prohibiting them from attending Carnival. In many cases, this will be a potentially disproportionate interference with the right to private life under the Human Rights Act 1998 and/or discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010 and could lead to successful claims against the Metropolitan Police.

Similarly, for the second year, the police introduced the use of facial recognition technology to scan the faces of the crowds at Carnival and compare them to their database, as well as retaining images for future investigations. Civil liberties groups and community groups have lambasted this move as unlawful, discriminatory and ineffective. There is no clear mandate for the use of this invasive technology from Parliament or anywhere else and it has been shown to be inaccurate and biased towards black people.

Infringement of rights

This type of policing infringes our rights to move and associate freely and to privacy. There is no justification for a technology that is used against suspected terrorists to be employed against black communities and any argument that it is necessary to reduce crime and protect people is misguided.

A further criminalisation of black communities at Notting Hill is the use of bureaucracy to control and change the identity of the event. For the first year since Carnival began, this year it was not organised by the local community but by an external company. Several of the sound systems were prevented from obtaining licences altogether or moved from their traditional locations, including Mangrove Sound, with its long association with the black civil rights movement.

This is part of a wider discriminatory use of licencing to restrict black music and culture from thriving in the city. Promoters and licensees in many areas are asked to complete the Metropolitan Police’s Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696 before hosting some music events. The form includes a question about the ethnicity of the audience as well as the age and gender and has been widely criticised as a tool to prevent black events from taking place.

The impact on black communities

This imposes unfair restrictions on black communities in their ability to associate freely and on young black artists, restricting their opportunities to promote and build support for their work in their home town. The discrimination towards perceived black audiences was exposed when a planned fundraiser for the Grenfell fire victims’ families and survivors was cancelled by the bar where it was to be hosted, because the proposed music – bashment and trap – would “attract poor quality demographic and result in problems”.

The policing of Notting Hill Carnival is part of the wider narrative of crime and disorder that has long been used by the police and the media to defend discriminatory and unfair policing.

Police tactics that erode our civil liberties and target specific communities are potentially unlawful and fly in the face of the principle of policing by consent, established since the birth of our national police force.

The author of this blog is Elena Papamichael who has left the firm. If you have a question about the issues raised in this blog, please contact the Civil Liberties & Human Rights team on 0330 822 3451.