Police indifference to BME community concerns perpetuates racial violence, according to ongoing research by the Institute of Race Relations.
The police have been forced to acknowledge the racism embedded within their own ranks recently, primarily as a result of the quick-witted teenager Mauro Demetrio, who surreptitiously recorded a PC telling him that ‘the problem with you is that you will always be a n****r’ and who has since claimed that he was effectively strangled after being arrested. In the aftermath, a flurry of high-profile allegations have emerged about police brutality, and overt police racism has been brought to public attention in a number of cases.
What these have exposed is an ongoing reality of police harassment and violence normally hidden from public view. And rightly, there has been outcry from community activists and civil liberties groups demanding that those responsible are held to account. Amidst this furore though, police racism in a different guise has continued unabated with almost no acknowledgement. This racism stems not from the abuse and bullying which is meted in the back of police vans, but from their inertia (verging on downright refusal) to respond to BME community concerns. Still, years after allegations were made by organisations like the IRR in the 1970s, cases of racial violence are still not investigated and allegations are not taken seriously. And it is a torpor which gives a green light to ongoing campaigns of harassment.
In Peterborough last month, taxi-drivers made this clear in a meeting with the police, where they expressed fury over the handling of an assault on Gholam Hussein, who was viciously beaten in an unprovoked, sustained attack leaving him hospitalised, with one eye socket broken. Despite a witness being able to point out at least one of the perpetrators, nothing was done. It was also made clear by Seymour Pantry, the chairman of the Barnstaple Residents’ Association, disabled and with a prosthetic leg. Mr Pantry’s teenage brother was killed in a racist attack in 1980, and he himself was beaten to the ground earlier this month by a man who screamed racist abuse at him when he was prone on the floor. The police’s decision to release the offender with a caution – partly on the basis that he admitted the attack straight away after being arrested – has left Mr Pantry angry, stating that they ‘did not do their job’.
Such ineffectual responses make a mockery of the 1999 Macpherson Report which included a searing critique of the police’s response to racist attacks. They also fly in the face of claims by the police and some politicians that since the report, the police have undergone a process of steady and largely uninterrupted reform. In March, the sons and son-in-law of Shah Alom, the owner of the Bengal Fusion restaurant in Somerset, were arrested. This happened after they tried to protect themselves and their business from a group of people who smashed windows and shouted racist abuse. None of the attackers were arrested when the police arrived, and the restaurant owner has since stated that the combination of vandalism and the police’s response to it has forced him to consider leaving the area where he has lived for the last twenty-two years.
Experiences such as Mr Alom’s are not one-offs. On the contrary, police practices which ignore the realities of racist attacks, whilst simultaneously criminalising self-defence, are leading to people across the UK being hounded from their homes, work-places and schools, often fighting against the system which claims to safeguard them. In Northern Ireland, Charles Awoyelu and his family were forced to flee their home recently after a prolonged campaign of racist abuse which included having a rock thrown through their 8-year-old child’s bedroom window as she slept. The family were lucky enough to have short-term access to a rent-free property through contacts at their local church, but when that came to an end their application to have their home repurchased under a special scheme for people who have been intimidated, was rejected. Eligibility for the scheme is reliant on the local Chief Constable signing off that the police think the victim’s life is in danger, and as a result of this decision the family face having to continue paying the mortgage on a house they have been hounded out of.
In Bedfordshire, meanwhile, an elderly Muslim man instigated legal action against his housing association last month because it will not relocate him, despite a three-year-campaign of racist abuse which led to his wife leaving the country and his children living in fear. The local police acknowledged receiving ongoing calls from the man about the harassment, but nothing appears to have been done. Nothing, that is, aside from him being handed with the bill for the damaged property by the housing association.
Responding to the recent allegations of police brutality, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard-Hogan Howe has pledged to become the ‘implacable enemy’ of racism in the police, promising to root out those engaged in overt violence and abuse. In echoes of Lord Scarman’s description of a few ‘bad apples’ three decades ago, these grandiose claims perpetuate a portrayal of racism as something confined to the prejudices of a few rogue officers in an otherwise benevolent institution. The examples above (only a snapshot of the realities of policing for many BME communities) expose the fallacy in such a view. Police racism is not just a matter of prejudice or individuals over-stepping the mark, it is also significantly entrenched in policing priorities, practices and procedures.