Guest post: Stephen Lawrence – 18 years on

A reply to yesterday’s post on the Macpherson report from @proudteuchter.  Needless to say, he doesn’t totally agree with my analysis!

Stephen Lawrence – 18 years on

Any murder or act of violence is shameful and devastates not just the nearest and dearest but whole communities, or in the case of Stephen Lawrence, an entire nation.

Yesterday saw convictions and the belief that justice has (at least in part) been done. There is of course the possibility of an appeal and if that appeal is successful will we be championing ‘justice’ in the same manner as today? I say this not to be controversial (well maybe a wee bit) but as an absolute believer that the justice system and justice in general should be free from the external influences of emotion and public reaction. I know many lawyers who champion the view that it is better a guilty man goes free, than an innocent be imprisoned. However unpalatable that may be to the families of victims, I support that view as a greater good is built upon it. The manner in which ‘innocence’ is determined may be more controversial than the concept and it is an unfortunate truth that any process which involves human beings is not infallible.

There is much to be learned from the history of this case. I say that as someone who has read the entire Macpherson report and believe much has already been done. Understandingly a great deal of attention was focussed on the police service following this report but we should not forget its recommendations applied to many areas outwith policing. It is perhaps understandable, therefore, that yesterday the Burd opined on this very subject. I am obliged to her for the opportunity to add to the discussion.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry did not examine policing in Scotland at all. However, what followed was a widespread ‘guilty by association’ and a belief that the (whole of) the police service was intuitionally racist and simply not up to the job. This was contrary to what Macpherson himself said;

6.6 The phrase ‘institutional racism’ has been the subject of much debate. We accept there are dangers in allowing the phrase to be used in order to express some overall criticism of the police, or any other organisation without addressing its meaning …

6.24 It is vital to stress that neither academic debate not the evidence presented to us to say or leads us to conclude that an accusation that institutional racism exists in the MPS implies that the policies of the MPS are racist. No such evidence is before us. Indeed the contrary is true… Furthermore we say with emphasis that such an accusation does not mean or imply that every police officer is guilty of racism. No such sweeping suggestion can or should be made…

It would be all too easy to say this was an easy headline for the press (it was). There were many failings, including senior officers not understanding their powers of arrest; but even in the scandal hit times of today I would like to think a report as devastatingly critical as that published by Macpherson would still have dominated the news agenda.

Where I agree with the Burd is that reports such as Macpherson should enable any organisation to take a sharp intake of breath and look closely at its own approaches. In the event that decision was taken by Jim Wallace, who set up an inquiry in which the police took a lead role. HMIC (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary) also instigated a thematic inspection around the same time and informed that work. This was heavily influenced by the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar. There was never a global acceptance the conclusions of Macpherson applied in Scotland – and more importantly much of what was recommended was either in place or being worked toward anyway. There is nothing wrong with trying to be better.

Where the Burd and I diverge is with her conclusions thereafter.

Surjit Singh Chhokar was brutally murdered in November 1998. His murder, like that of Stephen Lawrence devastated the (Scottish) nation. His death (and the failings in process) pre-dated MacPherson and as such it is simply impossible to ally the two. There were undoubted failures but these did not happen as a consequence of failing to follow Macpherson’s recommendations: quite simply they couldn’t.

As I have already said, any process which involves human beings has a weakness. There are many of all races, colours and creeds who would make such a claim of policing and elsewhere and I for one would regrettably agree. Before Christmas, we saw Johann Lamont (in her inaugural outing at FMQs) make a similar point on child protection. No system will ever be free from human error.

As unfashionable as it may seem, I think the police in this country do a hell of a job in the face of an overwhelming desire on the part of many to decry their actions. As dangerous as it is to claim to be the voice of the silent majority, I believe most Scots would share that view. The police service like every other service and industry will have its racists, sexists, homophobes, fat-ists, ginger-ists, myopia-ists and any other form of intolerance ist or ism that exists; of that I am sure. What I am equally sure about is that such behaviour is not tolerated at all and stamped on by colleagues of all ranks if and when it manifests itself. I doubt the same is true of anywhere else. The Burd makes much of the lack of statistics and the demographic make up of the police to support her assertions of much to do.

On demographics, the numbers appear shocking but I insist numbers don’t tell the whole story (and you have to know what the start point is). Research by the STUC (2004) estimated Scotland’s BME communities to be approximately 2% of the total population. Against that starting position, 1.2% declared, 2.9% who prefer not to say and 2.2% unknown may actually be indicative of a healthier position in the police that first appearances may suggest. In any event not saying and not declaring is a personal choice and not one organisations can guess at. Beyond that the same report estimates Scotland’s whites to be approximately 97.99% of total population. Would we therefore argue that to be truly representative, the white percentage of officers in Scotland’s police service needs to increase? The same logic would suggest so.

Allegations of racism are treated as crimes and will not feature in the PCCS report as his remit does not extend to criminal matters. Now the police could  take the time to categorise all criminal allegations against the police simply as complaints against the police. I have no doubt this would not satisfy naysayers and allegations of attempting to hide criminal behaviour would abound. That would also raise the question of fairness by police officers who find themselves being investigated twice for the one allegation.

As you will no doubt have guessed by now, I know a polis or two and a standard approach to being on the wrong side of the law is to complain about those who enforce it. This is not indicative of a problem police service but more of muddying the waters or ‘get your retaliation in first’. One of the police officers  I know is of Irish extraction and that officer accounts for dozens of the recored instances of racist crimes in their area alone. “You Irish (add own expletive)” regularly preceded an arrest or assault and by definition that officer is a victim of either a racially motivated crime or a crime with a racial aggravation. I would be amazed if this behaviour was not replicated across the country, adding significantly to the recorded crimes.

Now we could micro analyse statistics to death and still not agree on what they say. What I say once again is that numbers don’t come close to telling the whole story. For instance, is it right that racist behaviour against police officers is recorded and if it is why should that be taken as a slight or indication of failure on policing? If it is not, why not and what signal does that send to minority groups in the police service?

I also know of an officer from a minority group whose force ensures their station is no barrier to access to the specific food allied to their religion, not available within their immediate geographic location. There are many other examples of good but as we know by now ‘Dog bites Man’ does not make the news. Bad news on the other hand…

The Burd concludes by suggesting we should ensure that Scotland is doing all that it can to prevent families like the Lawrences – and the Singhs and the Sans – suffering as a result of racist and discriminatory policing. I agree and I believe we are!