With a new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police appointed, several commentators have taken the opportunity to voice their opinions on what should or should not be done. Imran Khan, the solicitor who acted for the Stephen Lawrence family, let it be known that young blacks (and I suppose he includes Asians) should not join the police. Yet there are a number of black and Asian officers already in the Met, some of them very senior, quite a number of them organised in an association, and they have been constructively critical of the Met's flaws. Does Imran Khan want them all to resign, or is he saying that they should be isolated and left to stew in a cauldron of injustice?
I have long argued in this column that we need a leap forward in the number of blacks in the Met, as in other institutions of the law. I am certain that the growing numbers of black and Asian solicitors have added to the quality of the fight against injustice.
I do not expect miracles from the new commissioner, but I do believe that changes are already under way. I live in Brixton, where, since 1981, we have had five serious clashes between blacks and the police. What is happening now?
Brixton is a hive of activity; the jostling, hustling and bustling is constant and unrelenting. A new batch is on the streets now, free from the rigours of the classroom. New faces; new tricks. I was easing along Railton Road one early evening recently. Just opposite the Dexter playground, a group of policemen had arrested a young black man. I knew him vaguely, and the group he hangs out with reasonably well. He was very, very angry and physically strong. Even though he was handcuffed, he was still a handful. I stood a discreet distance away with my baseball cap pulled down over my face. What was interesting was not his behaviour, but that of his friends. They seemed angry that he was kicking up a dust and causing an alarm. "Calm down," they said to him. "You have done nothing wrong and it will be sorted soon." Years ago, they would have reacted differently and the incident would have led to group violence.
Then another unusual occurrence. An inspector walked up to an extremely elegant black woman. "Madam," he said, "are you aware of what is taking place here?" She said she wasn't, and the inspector went on to explain in detail. Someone had called the police because a group of young men were seen pushing a car along the street. When they arrived, they detained one young man, who then struck an officer. They were taking him to the station but, if the owner verified his story that he had permission to tamper with the vehicle, they would release him. This, too, suggested a change in attitude, this time on the part of the police, who have learnt to accept that young blacks are not automatically guilty. I hope the new commissioner supports this development and is not swayed by the counter-attack from the Police Federation, which claims that the decline in stop-and-search has led to an increase in crime.
But occasionally you still get reminders of the old days. Only the other day, I was having a drink at my local, the Angel on Coldharbour Lane. The clientele is largely black and mature. A group of us middle-aged men was yapping away on the pavement when a black youth hurried past at a trot. He was wearing a woollen hat in the heat of the afternoon. I knew he was up to something. I suspected a robbery of sorts.
Instantly, a wail of sirens filled the air. Squad cars came from everywhere. You would have sworn some brutal murder had been committed. By then, the young man had slowed his pace and was walking along coolly. About five officers, one of them black, were chasing furiously after the slowly walking target. They stopped him and he surrendered meekly.
There was, I thought, no need for all the drama. It was hugely intimidating, all machismo for no apparent reason. I suspect that this was a squad which did not belong to Brixton, and that the event demonstrates the unevenness of change.