No-one doubts that the case of Stephen Lawrence has resulted in unprecedented public awareness of racism in institutions and in the police in particular.
Even hostile commentators are no longer able simply to shrug their shoulders and talk about a few bad apples. Nevertheless the debate so far has been considerably less penetrating as to the causes and conditions of racism in the police than it was in the wake of the 1981 Brixton riots. Most campaigns have limited their demands to the resignation of Sir Paul Condon and the extension of the Race Relations Act to cover racist policing. Both are important demands but they do not carry with them any structural analysis of why racism in the police is so much worse than in society at large.
From 1982-84 the focus was on police accountability, on which prominent black people speaking out against the establishment such as the GLC Police Committee Chair, Paul Boateng, concentrated. A young Labour MP called Jack Straw introduced a private member’s bill to make the Metropolitan Police accountable to a police authority. The GLC’s demands for an elected police authority for London, an independent police complaints system and for the police to be made subject to the same laws and procedures as the ordinary citizen received widespread if largely hostile coverage.
Fifteen or more years later the scepticism of those who said the Scarman report recommendations would not do has been more than justified. Scarman’s Police Liaison Committees were largely ineffective; the new disciplinary offence of racism was not used to bring racist officers to book and the requirement to record reasons for stop and search did not prevent an escalation of the use of this power against black people. Now the number of black people stopped and searched is greater throughout London than it was in the immediate run-up to the riots in Brixton. This has also been openly excused by a Commissioner who has claimed that most street crimes are committed by black people and has denied the existence of institutionalised racism in the police.
But though Condon should go, it would be a terrible mistake to think that this will make any real difference in the absence of organisational change. Even the extension of the Race Relations Act may make little difference in practice. My firm of solicitors and other firms have brought numerous successful damages claims against the police for abuse of power involving wrongful arrests and assaults ‘after-the-event’ litigation. When London juries, realising that there was no response to such actions, started to award very large punitive damages, they were slapped down by the Court of Appeal. This undermined the deterrent effect of such awards. No doubt the same thing would happen if new legislation on race resulted in a revival of large damages awards.
The Lawrence Inquiry team actually came up with some surprisingly radical ideas for improving police accountability. Jack Straw has said that he will legislate for more freedom of information on ‘administrative and operational’ matters in policing. But the test for openness he proposes is more restrictive than that recommended by Macpherson. What will the new openness cover? Will it open up currently secret policies on important issues such as how to restrain people, when guns may be used or the use of informers? At present there seems little justification for the secrecy surrounding the way in which we are policed and enormous sums of our money spent, other than to protect police wrongdoing. And will police complaints reports remain secret once there is a decision not to prosecute anyone? The Lawrence Inquiry recommended that they should not. Legal aid is to be available for inquests in ‘exceptional circumstances’: what will these be? Why is legal aid not to be available for all inquests in which a jury is summoned, since these by definition involve matters of public concern.
And finally of course, there is the ongoing problem of the utterly discredited police complaints system. Setting up an independent system will require government money but this is a small price to pay to avoid other Lawrence cases.