Action, not warm words, is needed to stamp racism out of policing for once and for all
Nearly four decades on from Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder, the police and government need to deliver urgent change so that community confidence and the long-standing principle of fairness in policing are not permanently undermined.
This month, Stephen Lawrence would have turned 47 years old. The racist murder of a talented teenager with his whole life ahead of him, and the major failings in the police investigation, prompted urgent questions about racism and fairness in policing. Stephen’s family fought for justice and the ground-breaking inquiry led by Sir William Macpherson in 1999 led to major changes in the law, policing and society’s response to institutional racism. But two decades on, our Home Affairs Committee inquiry this year found that progress on race equality in policing has stalled and deep-rooted problems remain. That must urgently change.
Policing of course is very different from two decades ago. Driven by the Macpherson report, there have been major, welcome improvements in the policing of racist crimes, strong public commitments from senior officers to promoting equality and diversity, and great examples of community policing. But we also found persistent, unjustified racial disparities in key areas including a growing confidence gap between Black and white adults in the fairness of policing.
Just seven per cent of police officers are Black or ethnic minority, compared to more than 14 per cent of the UK population. Our analysis suggests that, on the current rate of progress, police forces won’t be properly representative of the communities they serve for another 20 years. That would be nearly half a century after Stephen Lawrence’s murder.
Progress on race equality in policing has stalled and deep-rooted problems remain
The Peel principles that have underpinned British policing for nearly 200 years depend on fairness, confidence and consent, and the understanding that the police are the public and the public are the police. These fundamental principles apply to everyone – not just to some communities and not others based on the colour of people’s skin.
We found persistent problems too in the use of key police powers. For example, the police’s use of stop and search is more disproportionate now than it was 20 years ago. Stop and search is an important police power, but we did not hear any evidence to justify the nature or scale of this disproportionality – especially in the most common drug possession searches. Sensible reforms recommended repeatedly by the chief inspector of policing to ensure stop and search is used fairly had not been implemented.
Neither police forces nor governments have taken race equality seriously enough for too long. Serious, persistent shortcomings on recruitment, misconduct, the use of key powers and community confidence point to structural problems which go beyond individual bias. The Macpherson report set a clear aim “to eliminate racist prejudice and disadvantage and demonstrate fairness in all aspects of policing”. Now, 20 years on, our committee found that this aim has not been met.
That is why we recommended substantial reform including urgent minimum recruitment targets, so all forces become fully representative of their local communities. Nottinghamshire Police have made rapid progress after the previous police and crime commissioner Paddy Tipping made it a force priority, showing what can be done.
We also recommended new community oversight, use of body worn cameras in stop and search, a proper focus on race equality including anti-racism training, and challenging racism within policies, structures and organisational culture, and a new race equality commissioner for policing to scrutinise progress.
But fundamentally this needs leadership and not just warm words from the police and Home Office. It isn’t good enough that their long-promised action plan on race equality in policing still hasn’t been published. Nearly four decades on from Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder, the police and government need to deliver urgent change so that community confidence and the long-standing principle of fairness in policing are not permanently undermined.
Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and chair of the Home Affairs Committee.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.