The police force we deserve?

Brian Cathcartargues that the British should stop congratulating themselves on their response to rac

Towards the end of 1993 a conversation took place between two high-ranking officers in the Metropolitan Police. Both later testified under oath about that conversation at the Lawrence inquiry, giving different and quite incompatible accounts of what they said. I have since wondered occasionally how Sir William Macpherson, the inquiry chairman, would deal with this. Which man would he believe? How would he justify accepting one version and not the other?

The answer, when it came, was a piece of simple, lawyerly brilliance - just the sort of clarity of thought you want from a judge. One of the two officers, Macpherson declares in his report, was "palpably wrong and cannot be telling the truth".

It's not a dodge or a fudge; it deftly sidesteps the squalid detail and tells you the essential and indisputable fact that you need to know. Either a deputy assistant commissioner told a lie at a public inquiry, or a detective chief superintendent did. Whichever it was, it is just as bad.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such shameful moments are captured in the Lawrence report, adding up to what the Met itself has admitted was a "systemic failure". This failure cannot be blamed on inadequate resources, nor on a few bad apples, nor on lack of official support - by 1993 the Tories had spent 14 years endorsing the view that the police were the only barrier between us and chaos.

Worse still is the race verdict. Bad enough that detectives muck up an investigation and bad enough that senior officers lie about it, but to have so sweeping and damning a finding on race is nothing short of calamity. Again, there is no excuse; the need for racially aware policing has been obvious for decades, but in south-east London in 1993 senior officers presided over an operation that took little account of it.

This report has come from a man whom no one in their right mind could describe as radical. Sir William Macpherson is a Scottish aristocrat in his seventies who, besides being chief of his clan and a former High Court judge, is also a member of the Queen's ceremonial bodyguard north of the border. No Tom Paine he.

He has left no room for doubt: Londoners do not have the police they deserve. But what happens next?

Officers of all ranks have in recent weeks retreated into a bunker of denial, rejection and bitterness, prophesying that Macpherson's robust words and recommendations will bring every sort of doom down upon the capital. Relations with the black community will be worse than ever, they say; bobbies on the beat in Brixton and Tottenham will be stripped of all authority and ridiculed as racists.

Even if true, it would be no excuse for continuing as before. As Macpherson has said, if the problem is not acknowledged it cannot be addressed. The Police Federation will do its members no good by bleating about unfairness at the hands of the inquiry. The report identifies terrible failings among all ranks and Met officers cannot expect to regain public credit by denying them or avoiding the consequences.

We saw during the inquiry hearings that from day one of the original Lawrence investigation senior officers accepted publicly that Stephen was the victim of a racial attack, but that even for them this had little practical meaning, while several sergeants and constables involved refused to accept the race motive at all. Officers in the witness box said that this was merely a matter of perception, and that crimes were classified as racial purely for the purposes of compiling statistics. It was doubtless to overcome such attitudes that Macpherson felt the need to be so blunt.

And yet, for the police, it should not be all punishment and shame.

A few weeks ago, at a seminar about the future of policing, a black participant observed that we want our police forces to listen to criticism and change where appropriate. And to do that, he said, they have to be allowed to learn from their mistakes. This is more than management-speak or therapy-speak. When the dust settles, further police-bashing will help no one.

Much more useful, while the Met reconstructs, would be a period of public introspection about race, for in this area it may well be that, to our own shame, we have precisely the police service we deserve. The Met is accused of pernicious institutionalised racism; look around in your workplace (if you have one) and ask yourself, could it be happening there? Do you stereotype people in ways that might cause them offence or disadvantage? The answer to both questions, without implying malice, may very well be yes.

One merciful side-effect of the Lawrence case is that British people, when asked about racism, have stopped saying: "Oh, we may have a problem here, but it's not nearly so bad as in France or Germany." This was a particularly shifty form of denial, offering no comfort to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of black and Asian families who suffer constant harassment and abuse in British cities. According to British Crime Survey figures for 1991 (the most recent we have) there were 32,250 racially motivated assaults in those 12 months. That is almost 100 per day. If it is better than France or Germany, that is scarcely something to boast about.

A common response to such figures - and another British race cliche - is to blame the police. Look at what happened in the Stephen Lawrence case: the crime was inadequately investigated, the victim's family was patronised and their complaints rejected, and the killers escaped justice. Macpherson's conclusions suggest that in other cases, involving lesser offences, such a response is not unusual.

Yes, it reflects police failure, but it also reflects public indifference. If the great mass of the British public cared more about race crime, then there is no doubt that the police would investigate it, and the justice system would punish it, more effectively.

Public opinion, we should remember, woke up very late to the Lawrence case and deserves little credit for what has now happened, almost six years after the murder. It was the stubborn persistence of the Lawrences and their relentless pursuit of legal remedy that ultimately shamed the country into sympathy and indignation.

Just as the police now need to change, so we in the wider public need to reassess our attitudes to race and racism. When that has been done we might have a police service we deserve - in the better sense.

Brian Cathcart's book "The Case of Stephen Lawrence" will be published by Viking in May

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?