It’s the verdict some of us thought we’d never see and which most – all? -of us would welcome. At last, two of the racist thugs who killed Stephen Lawrence in 1993 have been convicted of his murder. But only two. Let’s hope that the others are brought to justice and soon.
The tenacity of Stephen Lawrence’s parents who even undertook a private prosecution in their attempts to achieve justice is awe-inspiring. Their doggedness and refusal to allow their son’s murder to fade from public view resulted in the Macpherson Commission which considered the police’s handling of the case and delivered a damning indictment of the culture of policing, specifically in the Metropolitan police force but generically in all British police forces. Its 70 recommendations were aimed at “the elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage and the demonstration of fairness in all aspects of policing”.
Scotland was not immune nor exempt. Indeed, the then Scottish Executive (with Jim Wallace, then Liberal Democrat MSP, as Justice Minister) was quick off the mark, creating an action plan to take forward the relevant Macpherson recommendations, consulting on its proposals and establishing a steering group to monitor and keep under review progress in implementing the plan. But problems were encountered almost immediately, not least because of the very different approach and framework for policing in Scotland. For example, a key Macpherson recommendation was the establishment of a series of performance indicators to measure progress towards the commission’s key aim but this could not be taken forward in Scotland because “there is no current mechanism for setting targets for performance indicators for any type of police activity centrally. Chief Constables are responsible for operational priorities in their area and can set targets for their force area for particular areas of concern.”
But a range of actions were taken forward: the recording of racist crimes, and their tracking throughout the justice process; training for family liaison officers to better meet the needs of victims and families from black and ethnic minority (BEM) backgrounds; better support generally for BEM victims and witnesses; a review of translation and interpretation services in the criminal justice system; a nationally consistent approach to race awareness training of police officers and recruits; and target setting for recruitment and retention of police officers from BEM communities.
So how is Scotland doing, some twelve years after the Macpherson report and the creation of this action plan? Well, we do now record and report on racist crime, and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) does track the progress of racist crimes throughout the justice system. In the last few years, the number of racist crimes has been in the region of 4300 annually; the only significant shift has been a reduction in the percentage of separate offences involving racially aggravated behaviour and an increase in the percentage of offences with a racist aggravation.
We also have much better developed and funded Victim Support Scotland services across Scotland, a Victim Information and Advice service in busy courts across Scotland and a range of special measures to protect and enable vulnerable witnesses to give best evidence was enacted in 2004. And while there is a national guidance manual, produced, reviewed and updated by ACPOS, the Association for Chief Police Officers in Scotland, the provision of training on equality issues is largely left to individual forces – it is not clear how robust, independent or indeed, existent it is from force to force.
Lest we think Scotland is doing well in these areas, we only need to be reminded of the shocking Chhokar Singh case, which resulted in two inquiries and was scathing in its condemnation of police handling of the case, not least in how the family was liaised with and treated. More recently, Lothian and Borders police admitted and apologised for significant failings in its handling of the murder of Simon San, including its failure to treat his murder as racially motivated and to treat his family sensitively and appropriately during the investigation.
Moreover, we have made very little progress in recruiting and retaining police officers and other police staff from BEM communities. Indeed, many forces are still not bothering to record this information. The Scottish Policing Performance Framework Annual Report for 2010-11 shows that in Scotland as a whole, 93.7% of police officers are white, 1.2% are “minority ethnic”, 2.9% chose not to disclose and the ethnicity of 2.2% officers is unknown. There are, of course, regional variances: in Strathclyde, where we might expect more officers from BEM communities, given the size of the BEM community in parts of the force area, only 1.5% of officers are “minority ethnic”; in Fife, the ethnicity of over 10% of officers is unknown; and in the smaller force areas, the numbers are so low that they are not listed in order to prevent individuals from being identified.
Not only are Scottish forces not representative of the ethnicity of the population as a whole – still – but their failure to recruit and retain more officers from BEM communities shows how homogenous the make-up of the police actually is. Especially when you also consider that just over one quarter of officers are women. This needs urgent investigation and indeed, redress.
Also requiring closer consideration is the handling of complaints against the police. In 2010-11, just over 1% of complaints related to discriminatory behaviour but there is no focus in the report on police complaints statistics on the actual number of cases nor on what sort of discriminatory behaviour was alleged nor any other analysis. Racism is never mentioned in the report.
The culture of Scottish policing has undoubtedly improved since the publication of the Macpherson report but the Chhokar Singh and Simon San cases show how far we still have to travel to achieve the objective of the elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage. Indeed, we cannot, hand on heart, say that in Scotland fairness is demonstrated in all aspects of policing.
We are long overdue a review of the action plan to implement Macpherson in Scotland: Westminster managed it, establishing a committee inquiry to review progress ten years after the report. And the Scottish Government might want to resurrect the apparently defunct steering group to conduct that review and to assist in the creation of a framework for the single national police force to ensure that some of the obstacles in the way of implementing key Macpherson recommendations are, at long last, removed.
As Doreen Lawrence highlights so poignantly, none of this will bring her son back. But the least we can do is ensure that in Scotland we are doing all that we can to prevent more families like hers – and the Singhs and the Sans – suffering as a result of racist and discriminatory policing.