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The Bobby is in the dock

Britain prides itself on the professionalism and impartiality of its police. But now, says THOMAS ABRAHAM, the police are being seen as not sufficiently sensitive to crimes against blacks and Asians.

BRITAIN TENDS to pride itself on the professionalism and impartiality of its police, and it has successfully transmitted the image of an efficient, disciplined force all over the world. Scotland Yard still enjoys a worldwide reputation as a byword for excellence in policing. But those living in Britain, especially the ethnic minorities, tend to have a different image of British policing. For Britain's black and Asian population, the case of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was stabbed to death in a racial attack by white youth who have still to be brought to justice more than ten years after the crime, seems to symbolise the indifference with which the police treated crimes against the minorities. An official enquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case accused the police of being ``institutionally racist'': in other words not being sufficiently sensitive to crimes against blacks and Asians.

This lack of sensitivity came to public attention last week when the campaigners demonstrated outside the London police headquarters at Scotland Yard, and at police stations in other cities, demanding a public inquiry into the death of Lakhvinder ``Ricky'' Reel, a 20-year-old British Asian student whose body was found in the river Thames two and a half years ago.

The police, after an initial inquiry, said that Ricky had probably fallen accidentally into the river after a night of drinking too much with his friends. His mother, Mrs. Sukhdev Reel, is, however, convinced that her son was murdered in a racial attack. She is also convinced that if her son had been white, the police would have taken more notice of the crime, and done more to bring the killers to justice. ``The police think people from the ethnic minorities will accept second class service. They are wrong,'' she declared.

By any standards, the police response to her son's disappearance was woefully inadequate. Ricky had gone out on a night in October 1997 to celebrate a friend's birthday at a club in the town of Kingston-upon-Thames southwest of London. When Ricky did not return home by 1 a.m. that night Mrs. Reel became worried, and started phoning hospitals and police stations to check if there had been any accidents. When she went to the police the next morning, they refused to take the case seriously and suggested that he might have run off with a girlfriend. She was also shouted at and told she was wasting police time. They also said that since he was over 18, they could not do anything for 24 hours. With the police displaying no urgency, Mrs. Reel went to search for her son herself, going from shop to shop in Kingston, and asking whether anyone had found him. She discovered that Ricky and his friends had been taunted and punched by two white youth in Kingston town centre shortly after midnight. He had run off and was never seen again. She also found security camera film that showed Ricky walking off alone. The police still did not appear to treat the disappearance seriously, and it was only a week after he was last seen that they decided to search the river near Kingston, and found his body. Even after this, the police disregarded evidence that Ricky might have been the victim of a racial attack and said that he had fallen into the water after drinking too much.

Mrs. Reel, who was born in Kenya and came to Britain in 1967, and her husband Mr. Balvinder Reel, a carpenter, were, however, determined not to let the police dismiss the case, and succeeded in getting the Police Complaints Authority, a body which looks into public complaints against the police, to investigate the matter. The PCA produced a report sharply critical of the police investigation, and said that several important leads had not been followed up. The report itself has not been made public, but the Reel family's local MP, Mr. John McDonnel, got access to it, and revealed key details in Parliament. Among other shortcomings, it found that a security video tape which might have shown the attackers was destroyed by the police, and that no forensic evidence was gathered from either the scene of the incident, or Ricky's clothes and body. Also, the police seemed to have decided from the beginning that the death was accidental, and did not follow up evidence pointing to a racial attack. Three police officers were found guilty of neglecting their duty, and one of them, Detective Superintendant Moffat, took early retirement before a disciplinary hearing could be held.

The Reel family's quest for justice has progressed after the jury at the inquest into the death rejected the earlier police claim that the death had been accidental, and returned an open verdict. The police have now reopened the case and have appealed for fresh witnesses to come forward. But the fact that it took two years for the police to seriously investigate Ricky Reel's death appears to confirm fears that crimes against blacks and Asians are treated less seriously than crimes against whites. ``The police need to start treating black victims of crime as they would white victims of crime,'' commented the Reel family lawyer, Mr. Fadiq Khan. For Mrs. Reel, the re-opening of the investigation is only the first step towards finding out how her son died, and she is still bitter at the way the police acted. ``The problem is that the police don't deliver what they are supposed to deliver. I want a public apology,'' she said in a recent interview. She is also determined to continue her crusade until she finds the people guilty for her son's death. `` I just want to ask them: why did you kill my son?''

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