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1 December 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Why the Met faces a crisis over race

Black officers are close to the most dramatic police protest since the strikes of 1919. Yet the top

By Nick Cohen

Unless there are concessions from the top brass of London’s Metropolitan Police, the following scene will occur at some point next spring. Black and Asian police officers will assemble near parliament. They won’t be protecting ministries from demonstrators, but will be demonstrating themselves. As they march on New Scotland Yard, the protesters will tell the television cameras – and I think I can guarantee that the cameras will be there – that on no account should the city’s ethnic minorities think of joining the Met. If they do, the odds are they will be disciplined rather than commended and will leave the force after a few months or years, bitterly regretting their decision to have anything to do with the cops.

The lines of policemen and policewomen kitted out in full uniform and parading in Westminster would be a great spectacle. I don’t think there has been anything like it since the police strikes just after the First World War. The protest almost happened in October, just before the Met was forced to pay a six-figure sum in compensation to Chief Inspector Leroy Logan. He was a distinguished black officer who had been heaped with commendations. In 2001, he was awarded an MBE. Dr Richard Stone, an adviser to the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, described him as “the sort of police officer who all of us who are supportive of high-quality policing would like to meet”. None the less, Logan was the subject of a formidable anti-corruption investigation that took five months and cost “hundreds of thousands of pounds”, according to Logan’s solicitor.

The alleged crime was that Logan had claimed an £80 hotel bill on expenses when he was not entitled to do so. He was, as it turned out. He and his allies suspect that his real offence was to have supported Superintendent Ali Dizaei, whose prosecution by the Met has helped poison race relations in the force. The investigation into Dizaei cost millions of pounds rather than hundreds of thousands. All the money and the warrants for phone taps that were thrown at the case were for nothing. After two failed attempts to prosecute him at the Old Bailey, Dizaei will return to work on 1 December with his integrity intact.

The Metropolitan Black Police Association is already refusing to co-operate with recruitment drives in London. Given that every senior officer and home secretary has been saying for years that the police need more officers from the UK’s ethnic minorities, the boycott is already a minor embarrassment. A lid is being kept on the major embarrassment of public protests for the time being. Black officers are waiting to see the responses of the Met and the Metropolitan Police Authority to a dossier of allegations of racial discrimination before taking the nuclear option. The dossier names names, it is meticulous in every respect, and to the casual onlooker it is utterly mystifying.

Ever since the Met and other forces accepted the finding of the Macpherson report, published in 1999, that the police were institutionally racist, the politically correct police constable has been a guaranteed space-filler for the conservative press on slow news days. Sir William Macpherson of Cluny and Blairgowrie, 27th chief of the Clan Macpherson, former member of the SAS and keen golfer, has been cast in the unlikely role of New Statesman-reading radical. He is meant to have turned the police from enforcers of the law into guilt-ridden social workers who are more concerned to avoid offending the overdeveloped sensibilities of minorities trapped in victim cultures than to stop and catch villains. In an editorial that is typical of hundreds in the cuttings files, the Sunday Express cried that “Police officers are so terrified of being labelled racist, they deliberately avoid questioning black suspects during routine patrols.” The Telegraph accused Sir William of having “blood on his hands”. Because of him, the men of violence were stalking the streets of Britain unchecked.

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But the theory of honest coppers being stabbed in the back by the liberal elite doesn’t ring true. It is not just that for every story about the police threatening to interview a bishop for going on about gays there is one about how the stopping and searching of blacks has inten-sified, but that PC policing has proved to be a surprisingly effective anti-crime strategy. In London at least, the Met can point to genuine successes against criminals which have flowed from the post-Macpherson reforms.

Accepting that the force was racist was the first step to getting the law-abiding black community on the Met’s side. Witnesses who would have shut up in the past are now singing like canaries. The number of so-called black-on-black murders has collapsed, while the number of successful prosecutions of black gangsters has shot up. By following the simple practice of thinking about how to deal with people who want to be on the law’s side, the Met is learning to police black London.

All officers are sent on a two-day anti-racism training course at Hendon and presented with a fat book explaining the religious and cultural practices of every cultural group in London, from African Caribbeans to Vietnamese. Senior officers know they must spout the language of diversity if they want to get on. Ever since Jack Straw set up the Macpherson inquiry, tackling police racism has appeared to be a government priority. Whatever their political differences, both conservative critics and liberal enthusiasts agree that the Met is a thoroughly multicultural institution.

And yet recruits from the ethnic minorities are fuming and threaten to come as close as serving officers can to going on strike. Their grievances are, at one level, petty. The dossier presented by the London officers is not in the same league as the recent BBC film of a police recruit donning a Ku Klux Klan-type hood and describing how he would “kill a Paki”. They do not compare with the Dizaei or Logan cases. Rather, the dossier takes you down to the level of office politics, of who said what about whom behind their back. These are small stories of men and women facing minor charges, which matter to them because they affect their careers but which ordinarily would not be of much interest to outsiders.

There are claims of “disrespectful and insensitive treatment by the management chain”, and angry discussions of the meaning of the “Dignity at Work Initiative” and the Met’s “misconduct procedure”. They are backed by one big and uncomfortable truth: the Met cannot hold on to recruits from the ethnic minorities. Black or Asian officers are three times more likely than whites to resign while they are at the Hendon training centre; they are twice as likely to resign in their first two years of service.

That said, the document that the Black Police Association says the Met must accept makes for strange reading. It could just as easily support a Telegraph view of the police being entangled by identity politics as it could a liberal view of an endemically racist police force.

What, for instance, do you make of the following story? An officer arrives at a London station during the summer heatwave in a short-sleeved shirt. He attends a briefing with his colleagues. They are all wearing long-sleeved shirts, but some are not wearing ties. The officer in charge says that all officers must wear long-sleeved shirts. Our man tells him that he has a long-sleeved shirt in his car and tells the boss he will change into it if required. He gets no response, and so stays as he was. He goes out on duty. He notes that other officers on the street do not have their ties on and are smoking in full view of the public. The next day he is charged with not wearing a long-sleeved shirt while on duty. He alleges the charge is racially motivated because, he claims, his superiors saw tieless white officers lolling around smoking fags and did nothing about them, but picked on him for the lesser crime of wearing the wrong type of shirt.

This is scarcely the stuff of award-winning undercover investigations into neo-Nazis in blue uniforms. Rather than providing sensational stories, it and the other 18 cases the Black Police Association has collected are testimony to chronic mistrust in the Met. Officers from ethnic minorities proclaim that the Met cannot be trusted to treat the public fairly when it cannot treat its own staff fairly. They assume that they are the victims of racism. The accusation may be impossible to prove, but the suspicion is there and its veracity is taken for granted by black officers.

The dispute has the potential to turn nasty. The Black Police Association is telling the Met that certain middle-ranking offi-cers have particularly bad records. Whatever the truth of the accusations, that they can be made at all shows that the assumption that the police are obsessed with anti-racism may be dated.

Setting up the Macpherson inquiry in 1997-98 was one of the few liberal acts of Jack Straw’s time as home secretary. However determinedly he attacked civil liberties and privatised the criminal justice system, his severest critics have to admit that no Tory home secretary would have dreamed of putting the police through a public examination of their failings.

Since David Blunkett took over in 2001, the climate has changed. Harry Fletcher of the probation officers’ union Napo helped the Met draw up its training programme for dealing with ethnic minorities. He does not believe it is working. Officers spend a mandatory couple of days at Hendon learning about “policing diversity” and that’s that. There are no follow-up courses or booster sessions, largely because the Met hasn’t got the manpower to cover the gaps on the streets left when officers head off on training days. When he spoke to officers who were on the perfunctory course, several said they thought it was “bollocks” but went through the motions because their superiors wanted them to put on an appearance of being good boys and girls.

The Met doesn’t have any slack because, like every other police force, it is a victim of the manic target culture. Try to imagine the giddiness that must afflict senior officers. At the time of the Macpherson inquiry, it was the Home Office’s priority to get ethnic minorities onside. Chief constable after chief constable leapt up, like sinners at a revivalist meeting, and confessed that their forces were institutionally racist. Fair enough: the police had to come to terms with modern society and, as the London example showed, when they concentrate resources on tackling the criminals who afflict the lives of blacks they can make substantial gains.

But modern politics and the modern media will not allow the steadiness of purpose needed to change the culture of an institution. Journalists whip up frenzies and the government reacts. If protecting the likes of the Lawrence family is all the rage one minute, then clamping down on burglaries or muggings or carjacking or the theft of mobile phones is the next minute’s craze. Crime summits are held in Downing Street. Targets are set. Home secretaries tell forces they must reduce crime X by Y amount. Resources are diverted to hot spots and, by honest means or fiddled figures, the target is met. Chief constables mutter that murder is just about the only crime which hasn’t had the target treatment, and if they took the Home Office at its word they would divert detectives from murder inquiries.

But chief constables cannot control the political culture. Its shallowness was best summed up by a memo leaked from Downing Street in 2000, in which a rattled Tony Blair demanded a response to a series of apocalyptic headlines about the criminal state of the nation. The Prime Minister wrote: “We should think now of an initiative, eg locking up street muggers. Something tough, with immediate bite that sends a message through the system.” He wasn’t sure what the initiative should be – “Maybe, the driving licence penalty for young offenders.” But whatever it was, it “should be done soon, and I, personally, should be associated with it”.

In these circumstances, it is a minor miracle that the anti-racist initiatives generated by the Macpherson report lasted more than five minutes. There is little evidence that Blunkett is committed to them. The Home Secretary is closer to the right-wing press than any other member of the government. When the BBC exposed neo-fascists at a police training college in October, he at first thought it was a higher priority to condemn the corporation for using subterfuge to find evidence of racism, rather than to condemn police recruits who dressed themselves in Klan hoods.

There is one further factor, which it may be tasteless to raise but must have some effect. Blunkett has so successfully overcome his blindness that it is possible to forget that he is blind. Whatever you think of his policies, he masters his brief and takes on all comers. He neither gives nor demands quarter. But, inevitably, he cannot see different races and cannot spot the casual, petty racism of everyday life. It would take an enormous effort of imaginative sympathy to understand it, and there is little evidence that such an effort has been made.

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