Policing Brixton: An Insider's Account

By M@

Last Updated 14 May 2024

Policing Brixton: An Insider's Account
A police car with police tape
Image: iStock/gannet77

A former volunteer police officer describes his experiences on the streets of Brixton.

Matt Lloyd-Rose was a primary school teacher in South London. When he left the classroom, he became a volunteer police officer in the same area. Into the Night is his account of his nightshifts with the Met Police.

It's a cracking read, deeply rooted in the Brixton-Clapham-Stockwell area. Matt gives a thoughtful, philosophical account of what it's like to serve with the police, from the viewpoint of someone with a background in education and the care sector. It was BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week and has won plaudits from the likes of Iain Sinclair, Jay Griffiths and Sukhdev Sandhu.

The following is a short extract.

Into the Night by Matt Lloyd-Rose a book about serving with London's Met police

We were being briefed before a shift patrolling Brixton. The Sergeant was urging us to be proactive: to stop people, talk to them, and get grounds for a search where possible. "I’ve done more shit stops than you’ve had hot dinners," he said. "If you look at someone twice, that's enough to stop them to at least have a chat. What you'll find is that you get a feeling, then you talk yourself out of it — but that's your sixth sense and, more often than not, you'll find something."

There are different kinds of stops, according to the level of suspicion: 'stop and talk', 'stop and account', 'stop and search' and 'stop and arrest'. "Stop and search is the most powerful tool in our armoury," the Sergeant told us. "Your job is to go digging. Do people hide things in the groin area? Of course they do. If you're not making them uncomfortable, you're not doing it right."

When we stop someone, we radio to check whether they are known to police. Codes are also used to describe a person's ethnicity. IC1 – White, North European; IC2 – White, South European; IC3 – Black; IC4 – South Asian; IC5 – Chinese, Japanese or other South-East Asian; IC6 – North African or Arab; IC7 – Not Recorded or Unknown.

We looked at the Top Five Robbers in that evening's briefing: all young IC3 males.

"Isn’t there a risk of stereotyping people?" someone asked.

"It’s not stereotyping, it’s based on intelligence," a regular replied. "They know why you're there. They are the problem or they know the problem. My own experience as a young Black man? I’ve been searched many times, many times. I still get searched. I used to get out my warrant card at the start, but now I just let them find it."

It was a cold evening. Most people were rushing between places, rather than loitering on the street, and there were not many obvious targets to stop for a chat. At the end of Coldharbour Lane, outside the Dogstar, we saw a group of IC1 males smoking. One of them tucked something out of sight as we approached. "What have you just hidden in your pocket?" we asked. The man was in his late twenties, with blond stubble and an electric-blue spike through one eyebrow. He pulled a joint from the front right pocket of his tight white jeans. A puff of smoke came out with it. "Anything else we should know about?" He pulled a transparent tube containing an unsmoked joint from the front left pocket. "This is a bit awkward — I'm a civil servant," he said as we wrote out a Cannabis Warning.

A Metropolitan police helmet
Image: Matt Brown

I was patrolling with a regular. We walked down to Railton Road and wove around its backstreets.

"Where are we?" the regular said suddenly. "What’s the street name?"

"Leeson Road," I replied.

"How did you know that? Did you read the street sign?"

"No. I used to live here actually. There's my old house." There was a light on behind the mesh curtains on the kitchen window.

"Doesn't count, then," she said. "I was trying to catch you out. One of the things you learn as a copper is you've got to know where you are. All the time. Every street you walk down, you've got to clock the sign and remember it."

"In case you see a crime and need to report it?"

"In case you get into bother. Imagine something happens to you. Imagine you're in trouble and you've got a couple of seconds to call for help, what are you going to say? Urgent assistance, I'm somewhere in Brixton?"

We continued along Railton Road, towards the school where I had taught. I felt awkward being so near it on foot. My pupils lived on these streets. We passed Chaucer Road, Spenser Road. I spotted a woman, IC3, late thirties, walking towards us: the mother of one of the boys I had taught. I braced myself for the moment of recognition. But then she walked straight past, barely glancing at us.

I felt mixed emotions. I did not really want to be spotted in my uniform, but nor did I like this sense of distance from a place I knew well. As a police officer, I had greater access to people, but less of a connection to them. The way we approached people, it often felt as if we were an external agency supervising the community, rather than an active part of it.

We passed my old school, walking straight past its playground. As we did, my mind flooded with memories of playtimes and PE lessons, children running and dancing, falling out and making up. Thinking about standing there on lunch duty, mediating disputes while identically dressed children raced past, it occurred to me that I had rarely sat down as a teacher. Policing seems like the more physical job, but over the course of a day, I must have walked similar distances to a beat officer, just in tighter circuits: loops of the playground, figures of eight around the low red tables in my classroom.

I felt a pang of nostalgia for the children I had taught and the hours we spent in that room. Out policing, I missed the sense that I was building something with a specific group of people — habits, routines, a shared culture. I thought about some of the teachers I knew and what good police officers they would make. They brought the best out of people. I was not sure why, as police officers, we did not see our role in the same way.

We left the school behind, emerging onto Dulwich Road and passing a tall green pole that looked like a lamp post without a lamp. "It’s a stink pipe," I said to my partner. "There’s a sewer down there." I had learned about stink pipes in my final term as a teacher, when I took my class on a local history walk. Stink pipes let noxious fumes escape and reduce the risk of explosions. The sewer below us was the River Effra.

Turning onto Shakespeare Road, we spotted an IC3 teen approaching. When he saw us, he stiffened and seemed to conceal something in his palm. We stopped him and searched him for drugs. "Where are you going tonight?" we asked. "It's my eighteenth birthday," he said, "I'm going to meet some friends." We found nothing so we thanked him and said goodnight.

We walked along Railton Road towards central Brixton. A white Ford Astra with flames stencilled along both sides streaked towards us, did a sharp turn, and pulled up in Marcus Garvey Way. We walked over and knocked on the driver's window. He rolled it down, an IC3 male, late teens, and looked up at us with a blank expression.

"You need to pay attention to your speed round here," said my partner.

"How fast was I going?"

"That's not what I’m saying," she replied. "I'm saying you were going very quickly and there are a lot of drunk people wandering around this area who could walk into the road."

"How fast was I going, then?"

‘You know that we haven’t recorded your speed, we’re just having a word.’

"So why are you stopping me if you don't know how fast I was going?"

"All right then, if you want to do this properly: you're not wearing your seatbelt so that's a ticket right there. Turn off the engine and get out of the car."

"Nah, listen to me. Listen. I just get annoyed because police see my car and they assume I'm a boy racer. That's why I'm asking how fast am I going, because police always stop me because of this car."

"Did you do all of this yourself? The stencils?"

"Yeah – all of it!"

He got out of the car and started to show us around, pointing out the sound system, the under-car lighting, a skull stencilled on the roof, and the flashing LEDs on the gearstick.

My partner was into cars and followed the young man, asking questions.

"Really nice work," she said as the tour ended. "Now you look after yourself." She waved and we walked away.

"Take care, yeah," he shouted after us.

I was bemused. At the start of the interaction, I had felt certain it would result in a fine, or at least a search. The young man's sudden warmth had saved him. The turnaround reminded me of something the criminologist Egon Bittner wrote, about how a person's attitude often determines the outcome of an encounter with the police. If we feel respected and can walk away without losing face, we are more likely to be lenient. If someone causes us grief, we are more likely to do something. The officers Bittner observed tended to detain people they perceived as 'inappropriate in their manner, vaguely dangerous, dissolute, disruptive, or in various other ways a bane'. And in this way, he wrote, laws become 'all-purpose control devices' and arrests are 'not preliminary to punishment' but 'punishment in themselves'.

A plaque to Olive Morris in Brixton
The book also delves into the shameful history of policing in Brixton, including the racist discrimination that led to the 1981 Brixton uprising and the mistreatment of Olive Morris. Image: Matt Brown

We walked to Brixton High Street and bumped into the illegal hot-dog vendor outside the tube. He had probably already been dismissed from Clapham High Street. We told him to go home and watched as he scraped the sausages and onions into a cardboard box, placed it on a shelf under the hotplate and wheeled his trolley past Iceland and down Electric Avenue.

We looped round to Atlantic Road and walked past the shutters of the butchers and fishmongers. There were pools of blood and disinfectant in the gutter, red mixing with blue, the smell of both mixing in the air. An IC1 male walked past us, FUCKING CRIMINAL stamped onto his belt in steel letters.

We heard angry shouts from Electric Lane and ran around the corner to find two large groups of IC3 teens facing off.

"We're friends, we’re friends!" they said when they saw us, and started laughing. "Calm it down, guys," we said. "Go home."

We walked away, but as soon as we turned the corner the shouting resumed and we ran back again. "We've told you once," my partner said. "Go home or get nicked." The boys dispersed and we kept walking.

On the street behind the police station, we spotted a van with a broken rear light and knocked on the window. A six-foot IC3 male, early thirties, stepped out. He grinned and spread his arms wide, as though about to embrace us. "If you work round here, you've got to smile, you know. Look at your face! It's like you’ve already decided I've done something wrong!"

Into the Night by Matt Lloyd-Rose is out now in paperback from Picador. Matt also writes the weekly newsletter Social Imagining. You may also remember him as one of the co-authors of CurioCity.

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