The recent spying incident, coming 20 years after Stephen Lawrence’s death, points to serious weaknesses in policing.
When two men were convicted of the appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence — nearly 19 years after the 1993 murder — I wrote about it in my Cambridge Letter of January 15, 2012. I drew attention to the fact that the long delay was a reflection of the incompetence of the Metropolitan Police, accused by the Macpherson inquiry, which reported in 1999, of institutional racism. There were signs that things were improving, although racist failings were still apparent.
Against this background, the revelation in recent days by a police officer that he took part in an operation to spy on the Lawrence family reopened the matter in a way that is most depressing for those of us who had found the Macpherson inquiry’s conclusions profoundly disturbing — and in a way that was most distressing for the Macpherson family.
This spying, it seems, affected not just London but also the Greater Manchester police force. Tony Lloyd, the Police and Crime Commissioner (a newly established post), has urged the force to get to the bottom of claims of a Stephen Lawrence smear campaign in Manchester.
The reminder that there is a tradition of racism in the police has coincided with an announcement by Theresa May, the Home Secretary (Minister for Home Affairs), that she has launched a six-week consultation on the future of police stop-and-search powers. The background is the fact that black people are seven times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched on the street. May commented that if anybody thought this was sustainable, with all the consequences for public confidence in the police, they should think again. She added that everybody in policing has a duty to ensure that nobody is ever stopped on the basis of their skin colour. She told the House of Commons that stop and search was an important weapon in the fight against crime, adding, however, that the fact that only nine per cent of the 1.2 million stop-and-search incidents that took place every year led to an arrest prompted her to question whether the procedure is always used appropriately.
Criticism of the use of stop and search is not new. In my January 2012 article I referred to criticism by Dr. Richard Stone, who served on the Macpherson inquiry, of the dearth of black senior police officers, and also of the fact that the police still used stop and search far more against black people than others.
In picking up this issue, and resolving to do something about it, May has shown willingness, at last, to recognise a serious weakness in the conduct of policing. It is certainly necessary to recognise this weakness, and to do something drastic to put it right.
The Lawrence revelation is not the only cause of concern. As I write, we are on the eve of a meeting of the House of Commons home affairs select committee at which the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will be urged to hold senior Metropolitan Police officers to account on issues of corruption. (The Mayor of London holds, for the Metropolitan Police, similar responsibilities to those held elsewhere by Police and Crime Commissioners.) There have been many examples of corruption in the Metropolitan Police in recent years, which have led to some high profile resignations.
The importance of an ethical approach by the police to its work, and to the way in which it conducts its relations with the citizens whom it is serving, would be difficult to deny. Certainly, for me it is a matter of great importance, not least because for just over 10 years I served on panels selecting very senior police officers for the course which moved them to the most senior ranks — chief, deputy and assistant chief constable. I have to say that during that period I was greatly impressed not only by the quality of the candidates (who all came up through the ranks) but also of my fellow selectors. (Each panel consisted of two senior police officers and one non-service member.)
The quality of that process, and of the people who were selected by it, was — and still is — in my view a reason to be encouraged. It is all the more important that when something goes badly wrong, as it clearly has in the aftermath of the Lawrence affair, and with other matters, the steps taken to correct it, and to ensure that it does not happen again, are effective and widely recognised to be effective.