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Racism In Policing, From Macpherson To Casey: Has Anything Changed?

The 22nd April 2023 marked the 30th anniversary of the tragic and racially-motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence, who was killed at a south-east London bus stop in 1993 at the young age of 18. In the wake of Stephen’s murder, the Lawrence family fought tirelessly for justice and after their tenacious protesting and lobbying, a public inquiry was held. The Macpherson Report, published six years after Stephen’s death, was the culmination of that inquiry and found the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into his murder was “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership”. The report made some 70 recommendations with the overarching aim of “the elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage and the demonstration of fairness in all aspects of policing”.

The anniversary of Stephen’s death falls just weeks after the publication of Baroness Louise Casey’s report on the Met Police, which echoed the finding of the Macpherson report, concluding the Met to be institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic. This begs the question: What, if anything, has been done to tackle racism within the UK’s largest policing force?

Findings of institutional Racism

The Casey Review is the most recent report in a plethora of evidence showing that institutionalised racism continues to run deep through British Policing. As the report itself recognises, ‘There is a very long history linking British policing with mistreatment of, and prejudice against, Black and ethnic minority communities.’

The Review was commissioned in the wake of the scandals that have rocked policing nationally, where racism has played a clear part in the failings and incompetence surrounding police contact and investigation. Recent examples include the adultification and unnecessary strip search of Child Q, a 15-year-old Black girl, and the abhorrent handling of the murder investigations of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, in which officers took and shared photos of the deceased’s bodies on their phones.

Despite the damning findings of the Macpherson Report, it appears that the Met has failed to enact sufficient measures to bring about substantive change over the past 24 years. It refutes the proposition pushed by top officials, including former Commissioner Cressida Dick, that problems are limited to a few ‘bad apples’. The rot goes all the way through.

The following are key findings of the report relevant to racism pervasive throughout the systems and culture in the Met police:

  • Systemic racial bias alongside significant administrative failings are leading to a disproportionate number of black and ethnic minority officers being subject to disciplinary proceedings. Black officers are 81% more likely to be subject to a misconduct case than White officers.
  • Black, Asian, and ethnic minority groups are substantially underrepresented in all police forces across the country. At the current rates of recruitment and attrition, and predicted officer uplift, the Met will only manage to increase its Black, Asian, and ethnic minority representation to 22% of all officers by 2055.
  • There is ‘over-policing’ and disproportionate use of powers against certain communities, including the use of excessive force, stop and search and intimate searches, in the pursuit of a subject or during an arrest. These powers, particularly in the context of use of force and Stop and Search, are being deployed at the cost of legitimacy and trust.
  • The Met has become unanchored from the principles of policing by consent and public confidence has dipped below 50%. Londoners are most likely to think the Met treats White people fairly (69%) whereas only 30% think the Met gives fair treatment to Black people. 32% think the Met gives fair treatment to ethnic minorities and 35% think the Met gives fair treatment to Asian people

Reactions to the Review

Though most have welcomed the report’s findings as an honest assessment of the current state of affairs, this has not been universal across top officials. In response to the report, newly-appointed Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley accepted the “diagnosis” of the findings but disagreed with the use of the term, “institutionally racist”, deeming it to be too ambiguous and politicised. He did, however, vow to implement change.

A key finding of the Casey Report is that the Met repeatedly dismisses external views and criticisms and does not learn from its mistakes – it starts from a position of countering or denying wrong-doing. The prevailing attitude has been that of “scrutiny is an intrusion” and there is a widespread culture of denial and obfuscation.

In continuing to debate the terminology “institutionally racist.”, Sir Mark Rowley perpetuates a perception that he, and be extension the Met, are not wholly acceptant or understanding of the findings underpinning the report. Where there is not full acceptance, there cannot be true scope for reflection and lessons to be learned, leading to fundamental change. Debating the phrasing trivialises the damning conclusions of structural and systemic issues, and gives the impression to a public already lacking confidence in policing, that the Met continue to treat the issue of racism and prejudice without real seriousness. The focus must be on the substance of the failings, rather than nit-picking the labels.

Former and Current Met Officers of Black, Asian and ethnic minority heritage have been quick to express their frustration with the lack of progress and their disappointment at Sir Mark’s refusal to accept the term ‘institutional racism’. Mr Charles Ehikioya, chair of the Metropolitan Black Police Association, expressed the following;

“Over two and a half decades on, we are still talking about what was on the ground then. The empirical evidence and even ongoing situations suggest that we’ll get exactly the same going forward… [Officers] seem to have forgotten the Peelian principles (ideas that Sir Robert Peel developed to define an ethical police force) of which number seven is ‘the police are the community and the community are the police’ – that seems to have be thrown out of the window.”

Scotland Yard’s former top female Asian officer Nusrit Mehtab, who served in the met from 1989 until 2019 when she resigned and launched legal action citing alleged racist and sexist abuse, commented that the findings of the report reflected her own lived experience as an officer. She has questioned whether Sir Mark is the right person to lead reforms if he is unwilling to accept the term ‘institutional racism’ and in her view, Sir Mark needs to consider the message being sent to the Met’s 35,000 police officers by not accepting one of the report’s central finding

Is there hope for change?

Individual bias and prejudice have no place in policing. Where they persist they must be strongly challenged, including through robust disciplinary action and dismissals for unacceptable racist behaviour. Individual forces must be vigilant and proactive in shaping their organisational culture, with training and management systems in place to address the conscious and unconscious biases and prejudices of individual officers. Accountability is of the utmost importance.

Baroness Casey makes a number of recommendations within her report. She has cited a lack of change in the past stemming, in part, from a tendency of the Met to implement short term projects and campaigns, lacking in substance and without seeing them through. She suggests that an independent progress review should be implemented at two and five years following the publication of the report. Her conclusions end with a paragraph in bold stating that if insufficient progress is made, ‘more radical, structural options, such as dividing up the Met into national, specialist and London responsibilities, should be considered to ensure the service to Londoners is prioritised.’

Dr Neville Lawrence OBE has said the Metropolitan police’s failure to change over the last 30 years disrespects his family’s sacrifice and loss of their son. After the experience he, his family and friends have been subject to at the hands of the police, he does not believe the force is capable of change and that discrimination is baked into its culture.

Many hoped that that the Macpherson inquiry would spark a transformation in the force. This time there is greater cynicism. Austerity, the spate of highly publicised instances of prejudice and ineptitude, and a political appetite of granting yet further police powers, are all serving to erode the public’s relationship with the police. Now is the time for the Met to look inward and stop attempting to defend the indefensible. Reform is necessary and overdue and if the Met police want to build back trust and public confidence, they can no longer be complacent to change.

The ambition of the Macpherson report twenty-two years ago is still very much yet to be realised today. It is notable that the same themes emerge regularly in the many past inquiries and investigations into racism in the Met which continue to be prevalent at the time of writing. Given its past record, it is clear Sir Mark Rowley has an uphill battle on his hands if he wants to make the systemic and cultural changes so desperately needed. If Baroness Casey has her way, and the political appetite is there, it is possible we may see a policing overhaul in years to come.

Dr Neville Lawrence OBE is represented by HJA in the Undercover Policing Inquiry and investigations into corruption in the original investigation into Stephen’s murder and senior Metropolitan Police officers’ failures to disclose important information to the Macpherson Inquiry.

Further Reading