First ever citizens assembly on policing wraps up in Waltham Forest

The event, which ran for three weekends across February and March, brought together 44 residents to discuss and potentially solve issues with local law enforcement

By Sebastian Mann, Local Democracy Reporter & Marco Marcelline

A table of assembly members, Credit: Waltham Forest Council

Waltham Forest was host to the UK’s first citizens’ assembly on the future of neighbourhood policing.

The event, which ran for three weekends across February and March, brought together 44 residents to discuss and potentially solve issues with local law enforcement. 

They heard from a variety of speakers and experts – among them national police officials, council executives, academics and activists – and drew up a raft of recommendations for the Metropolitan Police to implement. 

Ten were presented to both the force and Waltham Forest Council, though they have not yet shared them publicly. The council is expected to make them public in the coming weeks.

A variety of issues were discussed, from diversity and inclusion to the impact of crime on young people.

Susan Ritchie, one of 26 speakers and the director of Mutual Gain, which works to help organisations “build social capital and develop active citizens in their communities,” said people’s trust in the police was low.

She said that policing suffered from being “unattractive,” and meetings such as the citizens’ assembly could be “uninteresting” to the public. 

Data from Ipsos showed that just under half (48%) of Britons would describe their local police as ‘trustworthy’ – a drop from 56% in 2022.

The amount of people who think officers do a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ job has also fallen, from 62% in 2017/18 to 52% in 2021/22, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

In recent years, these feelings of discontent have been compounded by what were seen as serious failings by the police. 

These include the murder of Sarah Everard by a then-serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, in 2021. 

That same year, two Met officers were jailed after posing for selfies next to the bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, who had been stabbed to death in Fryent Country Park in 2020. 

The citizens’ assembly was organised in October 2023, after the Casey Review – a government-led inquiry into misconduct in the Met – found that “Londoners’ voices [were] missing from how London is policed”.

Additionally, the threat of crime and violence is a “top concern” for people living in Waltham Forest, according to council data. 

Alongside Susie, the speakers included council chief executive Linzi Roberts-Egan and James Gregory, a father from Manchester whose son was shot and killed at the age of 16. 

He described gang crime as a “knife that cuts through every community” and said that more preventative work needed to be done to engage with young people.

Activist James Gregory addresses the assembly. Credit: Waltham Forest Council

The events were well attended and the randomly-selected participants, who were paid for their time, comprised a wide age-range. 

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They were allocated to six different tables around the room. At regular intervals, they discussed what each speaker had said and pinned their two main questions – written on Post-It notes – onto a whiteboard. 

Going forward, the structured recommendations will be incorporated into how the Met polices Waltham Forest and inform how the council engages with the force. 

No specific timelines for implementation have yet been given. 

Citizen assembly member Benjamin Combs told the Echo he felt “pretty safe” in his area, but was concerned by the practice of “racial profiling”.

Benjamin, who has lived in Leyton for the past four years, and attended school there, said there was a “general distrust” of the police among his friends which stemmed from racial profiling. 

Friends of his, he said, have been approached by police officers “because they’re a group of five black males with their hoods up”. He added: “I do see a lot of people getting stopped based on the way they look more in terms of how they’re actually acting.”

Benjamin said there were additional issues with police officers “coming across as a bit too dominating” when speaking to certain ethnic minority groups. 

To dissuade fears of profiling, Benjamin said the police should explain why and what they are doing. An example of this, he said, was people being told why they are being stopped and searched in a certain area.

Moving forwards, Benjamin said he wants the police to take “accountability for their wrongdoings” and hopes that they take “everything [the assembly] recommends on board”.

Though the programme was described as “powerful” by Khevyn Limbajee, the council’s cabinet member for community safety, critics have questioned its effectiveness. 

Writing in The Spectator, theatre critic Lloyd Evans said it was “worrying” that the Met would reportedly only consider implementing the suggestions. 

He wrote: “Obviously, the cops are not remotely concerned that any serious reforms will be demanded.” 

A citizens’ assembly specifically focused on policing was the first of its kind, but Waltham Forest has hosted a variety in recent years.

In 2020, 34 residents convened to talk about hate crimes in the borough.

Several recommendations were put forward, including improvements to victim support and encouraging bystander intervention. 

Meanwhile, in 2019, action group The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO) held an ‘accountability assembly’ in Walthamstow that tackled the housing crisis. The assembly saw local residents share their housing experiences and resulted in a commitment by then council leader Claire Coghill to build 2,800 social rent homes by 2022.

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