The Metropolitan police is no longer “institutionally racist”. Or so said its leaders this week, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the landmark Macpherson report, which found that it was racial prejudice in the force itself which helped allow the murderers of Stephen Lawrence to evade justice.
Lawrence, an 18-year-old student, was fatally attacked in south London in 1993. The 350-page report, often credited for changing the course of race relations in the UK, was published in 1999, and made a number of clear recommendations for how to repair relations with the black community.
In particular, it made targets for recruitment, focused on training and retaining black and Asian officers. It also led to the creation of the Police Complaints Commission.
Reflecting on the impact of the report, Cressida Dick, the Met commissioner, said this week it had “defined my generation of policing”. Controversially, she also claimed racism was no longer an institutional problem in the Met, but at the same time admitted that it could take another 100 years for the force to reflect the ethnic diversity of London, the city it serves.
Duwayne Brooks, Stephen Lawrence’s best friend, who was present on the night that he was murdered, said the commissioner had “no right to say the force is no longer institutionally racist”.
He told HuffPost UK changes have clearly been made, “in family liaison, reporting and recording of racist incidents, support for victims and witnesses of crime – we now have a victim’s charter; the training has improved – first aid, racism awareness and cultural diversity, community engagement, effective communication. It’s all there – the changes that have been made between then and now.”
But Brooks said what is needed now is “another listening exercise”, similar to a public inquiry, as an “effective way of measuring progress and understanding how people feel today.”
Lost trust is very, very hard to recoverPaul Lawrence
So how much has really changed? In speaking to two generations of black men in London, the answer seems to be: everything and nothing.
The majority said they felt the police were still, on the whole, prejudiced, in some cases, bluntly racist. But many of them also accepted that things had changed for the better since the 1990s.
Paul Lawrence, 54, a motivational speaker and founding member of 100 Black Men of London, told HuffPost UK he felt that until there is a “massive change in society in general”, the force would remain “institutionally racist”.
“Has it improved? Yes, I think it has. Officers are better trained and a lot has been done to improve community relations. However, lost trust is very, very hard to recover and it will take a long time of incident-free working together for things to be great.”
Samuel Brown, 37, a youth worker, was 12-years-old when news of the Eltham murder made headlines. The way it was handled by the Met left a lasting impression on him – but he feels more positively about relations with the force.
“I suppose there are more black and minority ethnic staff these days,” he said. “I believe the police do attempt to meet with black leaders in the community.”
But he said that for young people, there remains a fundamental distrust. “There are examples of injustices against black people across the board – from school exclusions, to the home office’s handling of deportations and the Windrush scandal. So, across the system of that which governs this society, has much changed?
The anniversary of the report comes at a challenging time for policing in the capital. Figures reveal London’s homicide rate surged to the highest in a decade last year, with 132 deaths recorded.
As the police battle to tackle the issue, measures such as increasing stop-and-search measures have reanimated conversations around racial profiling and prejudice.
A recent report by the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Stopwatch coalition and drug law experts revealed that black Britons are stopped 8.4 times the rate of whites.
The Met established the Gang Matrix database after the 2011 London riots, using intelligence including history of violent crime, entries on social media and information from authorities including local councils to identify gang members.
However, a review of the database for the mayor of London Sadiq Khan found that it featured a disproportionate amount of black people, amid concerns that it may be discriminatory.
Amnesty International also called the matrix a “racialised war on gangs” that has stigmatised black youngsters and left Britain in breach of its human rights obligations.
Paul Bruce, 52, from Peckham, said he has never had a negative experience with the Metropolitan Police because he was “taught” how to deal with them, and he thinks there is a problem with how “our young black men carry themselves”.
“So, for instance, if they stop you in your car – get out and go to them; talk to them normally without attitude and, generally, they’ll let you’ll unless they have real reason,” he said.
“I haven’t had a bad experience with the police. I’m not saying racism is not there – of course it’s there; MacPherson said there is, it’s institutionalised, it’s there. I can see how they treat a lot of the black guys they stop on the street but we have to try and weigh things up.
“If we’re having loads of reports about black-on-black killings, then they have an issue that they have to deal with. That’s one thing. What is it that the black community can do to stop ourselves being victimised in such a way?”
But for younger Londoners, who were just about born around the time of Lawrence’s murder, the view is different.
Shani Robinson, 28, believes firmly that the force is “racist”. Though he was just a child when Lawrence was murdered, he believes prejudice has ”gotten worse, but more covert”. He told HuffPost UK: “I’ve seen how racist officers operate and I’ve had encounters with the police before. They look at my attire and the colour of my skin and I know that I can expect them to approach me with aggro.”
I’ve never gotten into any form of trouble, but am automatically assumed to be the bad guyDarrell Irish
Aaron Cumberbatch, 25, said that he feels as if he “grew up hearing about the Stephen Lawrence case – every high and low in the pursuit of justice” – though very little has changed, in his opinion. “Now with the rising youth violence in particular among young black men, in London, it seems there is now a legacy of young black people being over policed and under protected.
“The Metropolitan Police is failing to combat and contain the everyday fears and of black Londoners.”
For Darrell Irish, 36, his concern is being racially profiled. He says this practice has “existed for years and will carry on doing so.” He said: “Their view or understanding of the law or acts that they enforce is lacking. I will always be seen and treated as the “angry black man” and depicted as so within society.
“I’ve never gotten into any form of trouble, but am automatically assumed to be the bad guy.”
In the end, it is perhaps the words of Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the slain teenager, which best capture the ambivalence and reticence still felt by many in the black community when it comes to treatment by the police.
Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee to mark the anniversary, she said, simply: “If, after 20 years, we’re still talking about this – it shows that things have not moved on that much.”
Neil Basu, the Met’s most senior BAME police officer, reflected on the significance of the MacPherson report and how it has changed policing. While he acknowledged that huge improvements have been made, Basu added that he “must also agree with the Lawrence family that more – much more - still needs to be done.”
“20 years on I would like all of society to spend a little time reflecting on its own diversity and equality journey, and ask themselves how well they think they have done and what more they might need to do,” he said.
“I have been asking that question pretty much every day since MacPherson published his extraordinary report on the 24th February 1999. No matter what we sometimes think, being a person of BAME heritage today is better than when my dad emigrated here from India in 1961.
“It’s better than when I was at school, university or first in employment through the ’70s and ’80s. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report is a significant reason why society today is better for people who look like me.”