On the face of it, it looks as though a lot has changed. More people appear to be reporting racial attacks, cases like that of Howard and Jason McGowan get on to the front pages of the national press, the new Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force has had a major success in the conviction of Michael Menson’s killers. But our investigations suggest that aside from a handful of high-profile cases in the media spotlight, the police remain indifferent to the families of victims of racist violence.
Families force the pace
No family which has suffered the loss of a loved one through racial violence should have to deal with the extra burden of conducting their own investigation and mounting a public campaign to draw attention to their case. Yet unless the family finds the strength to register their story in the national consciousness, the police are likely to repeat the well-documented errors made in the Stephen Lawrence case: failure to investigate the possibility of racial motivation, poor liaison with the family and fatal delays in collecting evidence.
So, for example in the case of Michael Menson, the Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force got involved only because the local police investigation had miserably failed, first to classify the burning of Michael as an attack rather than a suicide and then to seriously investigate the murder. Kwesi, Michael’s brother, told CARF what it was like working with the police. ‘Many of our questions were noted and taken away but responses were never given. The answers we sought, they said, could not be given for “operational reasons”. For more than 18 months, up till the inquest, we had no change. We were being fobbed off. When we suggested that the media be brought in, we were told that publicity would hamper the investigation. Only when they saw that the family was not going to go away and that we would go to the media, did they realise they had no other option but to take the case seriously.’ In other words it was the Menson family, like the Lawrences and Reels, that made the racial murder high-profile enough to force the police into a more sustained and serious investigation. Similarly, it was only after The Voice newspaper, followed by the Independent and TV’s Newsnight programme, had drawn national attention to the terrible fact that two black men from the same Telford family had been found hanged within months of each other, after sustained racial threats, that the West Mercia police decided to ask for the Task Force’s advice.
The pitfalls of PR
In this situation – with the police being kept on their toes only to the extent that they are in the media spotlight – there is growing evidence to suggest that some senior police officers are not making real changes in the policing of racial violence so much as concentrating on reassuring the public that police attitudes have changed. The danger here is that the public relations aspect of this part of policing will become more important than any change in practice. In December 1999 we saw John Grieve, the head of the Task Force, use the successful convictions in the Michael Menson case to mount a well-planned PR offensive designed to reveal the police as a force happy to admit and repair its faults.
But this appearance of taking racial crime seriously, even admitting to suspecting a racial motivation early in a case, can mask a lack of activity or a poor investigation. The family of Farhan Mire found this out to their cost. The Met told them from the outset that the murder of the 32-year-old refugee, kicked to death on 23 December 1998, was racially motivated. The family had high hopes when Ryan Kelly was arrested and charged. But, just before the trial, 16 months later, with media interest in racial violence flagging, the CPS threw the case out for insufficient evidence and said it could find no racial motivation. It transpired that a witness and suspect had disappeared and no forensic evidence had been gathered. The family had been deceived and were now left with no hope of obtaining justice for Farhan.
Anti-racist campaigners have told CARF that they are worried that in the anxiety of some officers to look as though they are taking racial violence seriously, instead of a thorough investigation, officers are casting around for a likely suspect and a false arrest of a known local criminal might occur. In the past, outrages like the Guildford and Birmingham bombings put pressure on the police to make arrests and grave miscarriages of justice took place. We cannot fail to heed those lessons.
Business as usual
But most racial attack investigations of cases which do not have a high public profile, still bear all the hallmarks of ignorance, sloppiness and partiality that CARF has exposed for over 20 years. The most dramatic evidence for this is the way that West Mercia police failed to make a race hate connection in the deaths of Howard McGowan (found hanged in July last year) and his nephew, Jason, found hanged on New Year’s Eve – in what appears to be a double lynching. According to the family, who live in Telford, Howard, a pub doorman, had suffered months of racial abuse and threats – some of which had been reported to police. After his death, Jason tried to find his uncle’s killers because he could not convince the police the death was not a suicide but related to racial intimidation. That may have cost him his life. Pathologists have also cast doubt on a suicide hanging, lending credence to the family’s view that Jason was killed by racists.
Denying racial motivation
Convincing local police of a possible racial motivation for an attack, especially when families are fighting alone without much community support or the spotlight of the media, seems to be the order of the day. For example in the murders of Ricky Reel and Akofa Hodasi the police had first to be persuaded by the families that these could indeed have a racial motivation. And at the trial of the attacker of Liban Ali, even the judge stated that he did not believe the attack was racially motivated. At the start of the Ricky Reel investigation, it was the family, not the police, who put up posters and found vital evidence.
The Hodasi case revealed a variant of the treating-victims-as-the-guilty-party syndrome. Akofa’s aunt was suspected of drug dealing because of the number of phones in her house.
This blaming of the victim was taken a step further in December 1999 when five Chinese restaurant workers, who had had to defend themselves against a white racist gang attack in London’s Chinatown, were themselves arrested. (Ironically, the treatment meted out by the police to the victims mirrored absolutely what happened in a similar attack in the same restaurant 13 years ago!)
Reducing and dropping charges
After the stabbing of Surjit Singh Chhokar by three white men, though all were arrested, only one stood trial – for assault. And in the case of Liban Ali, who just survived a violent onslaught by four attackers, only one was charged with attempted murder. Despite the Lawrence Report’s warning against plea bargaining, a deal with the CPS meant he was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, grievous bodily harm.
In other cases, such as the brutal street attack on a Zairean student in London in October 1999, or the arson attack in which James Tossell lost his life in South Wales, arrests were made and then charges dropped for lack of evidence.
Until all police forces take racial violence seriously, carry out the required level of investigation immediately after an attack, keep families informed of developments – including setbacks, and allow ongoing investigations to be scrutinised by third parties, we will never know whether the guilty are walking free or the wrong suspects were picked up. The way to restore confidence in the policing of racial violence is not better public relations but a better police response.