Can the Met ever end the culture of racism?

Published in the London Evening Standard (April 10th, 2012)

The first time Victor Adebowale visited London was as a teenager on a school trip to the Geological Museum. Afterwards, he was sitting on a wall enjoying the sun when four officers jumped out of a police car and accused him of stealing a handbag. Only when they heard his Yorkshire accent did they back off, apologising but saying he fitted the description of “a black kid”.

A few years later, attending college in London, he was sauntering along the street with white friends near where other students were protesting. When he stepped off the pavement, a policeman yelled at him: “Get back in line, you nigger.” When he complained to a senior officer, he met more abuse.

Most recently, he was driving his open-top Saab listening to Eighties pop when he was stopped in the City of London, accused of stealing the car, and held for several hours at a police station. “I even showed them my House of Lords ID card but they didn’t believe me,” he said.

In spite of his prominence as a peer of the realm, government adviser and expert on public policy, Lord Abedowale has endured indignities at the hands of the police familiar to so many other black Britons. “My wife hadn’t seen this before,” he said of the City incident. “Like many white people seeing it for the first time, she was completely shocked, despite being aware of racism.”

Had things improved over his lifetime, I asked? There was a long pause before he answered yes. But the recent tide of racism cases engulfing the Metropolitan Police shows how far there is still to go, banishing any complacency following the conclusion of the Stephen Lawrence case earlier this year.

First came reports 11 days ago of the soundtrack of an officer abusing and assaulting a black man. Then it emerged that 18 officers are under investigation for racist behaviour, along with one civilian support worker; eight officers have been suspended. There are claims of “a catalogue of errors” in the investigation into the suspicious death of a black bus driver. All this follows last year’s riots, with their disputed racial dimension, which erupted following the shooting of a black man.

It adds up to an uncomfortable test for the new Met chief, Bernard Hogan-Howe. No doubt he would prefer to discuss the good news that London’s murder rate has fallen to its lowest level for more than four decades. Instead, like his predecessors, he must confront his force’s tense relationship with the capital’s black community.

It is no secret many in government would have preferred the American “supercop” Bill Bratton to shake up the Met, which seems to stagger like Inspector Clouseau from one self-inflicted crisis to the next. “I think David Cameron’s biggest mistake was not standing up to Theresa May on this,” one senior Coalition figure told me.

But the straight-talking Mr Hogan-Howe has made the right moves so far. He gave a clear condemnation of racism and referred the cases to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. He pointed out also that in six cases complaints came from fellow officers; given the strength of canteen culture, this takes courage and indicates growing intolerance for racism in the ranks.

More importantly, he plans to scale back use of hated stop and search powers, that blunderbuss response to drugs and knife-crime so misused by the police. It is simply disgusting — and utterly indefensible — that black people are 30 times more likely to be stopped than white people. This is three times the figure of three years ago, while the proportion arrested for possession of a dangerous weapon has fallen fivefold over the past decade.

But it is not just the stopping and searching: all too often, it is police attitudes. Black Londoners can tell endless stories of being treated with suspicion from the outset, often in contrast to white friends. This corrodes support from the very community suffering most from the violence of those carrying guns and knives — and whose help is needed to solve many of the worst crimes.

Some solutions are obvious. The racists need to be rooted out, prosecuted and lose those precious pensions. The Met has faced 2,720 racism complaints over the past five years and last year saw the highest number of internal complaints for a decade. Despite this, just two officers were “required to resign”.

There need to be more black officers. The numbers are rising, albeit slowly, but the proportion of community support officers is falling. As importantly, those hired must be encouraged to stay, since non-white officers are more likely to quit early or be forced out; perhaps this explains why the most senior serving black officers in London are only borough commanders.

This running sore highlights two fundamental problems with the police. First, the quality of recruits. No doubt the race relations industry is rubbing its hands at the thought of more lucrative training contracts at Hendon Police College. It should not take training, however, to teach those chosen to serve the public to treat human beings with sensitivity, whatever their creed, colour or class.

The second was highlighted in a thoughtful Bernie Grant memorial lecture given last month by David Gilbertson, a former deputy assistant commissioner. He argued that a series of events from the adoption of US-style militaristic uniforms to poor leadership and over-cautious health and safety edicts led to our police adopting an aggressive posture, with officers told to regard every situation as a threat. “Something has gone badly awry,” he said. “The police regard themselves almost as an army of occupation.”

Policing depends on public consent and the force needs to work with communities. Instead, there is growing alienation on both sides. Polls show public confidence has plummeted in recent years after a succession of scandals; the latest one, of course, is playing out in the Leveson Inquiry.

The inability of the Met to eradicate racism from its ranks, despite everything it has endured in recent years, is the most shocking symptom of deeper sickness. It is in all our interests that Mr Hogan-Howe finds a cure if he is to rebuild the relationship between the police and the people they are meant to serve.

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