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The Great Cop Out

IN this special feature, CARF looks at the question of institutional racism in the police force.

The great cop out

Public accountability not public relations

For more than two decades, anti-racists have struggled to put the issue of institutional racism on the agenda. In the period from the Scarman inquiry of the early 1980s through to the last few months, the accepted wisdom was that police racism existed but it was a case of 'a few rotten apples'. To root out racism, all that was needed was a combination of better training and more black coppers. Those who argued that racism was endemic to the very institutions of the police, courts and prisons were branded as rabble rousers. In the wake of the Lawrence inquiry, the rabble rousers have been vindicated. Institutional racism is now flavour of the month. The signs are that the inquiry chair, Sir William Macpherson, is preparing to take a serious look at the 'collective racism' (sic) of the police force.

The response from the police has been a carefully managed exercise in public relations which aims at giving the impression of change while doing nothing new. Met chief Paul Condon tries his best to reassure the public that he is committed to ending police racism. He rejects the term 'institutional racism' because it stands to reason(he claims)that the whole police force to a man or woman cannot be racist. Institutional racism, however, is not the sum total of individual racisms but the practice and culture of institutions (see definition below).

Meanwhile, some chief constables have followed a strategy of admitting the existence of institutional racism, in the hope that by admitting it nobody would notice if they didn't do anything about it. Whilst the 'rotten apples' analysis of the Scarman inquiry may have been implicitly rejected, its proposed solutions are all the more popular. More racial awareness training. More black police officers. So desperate is the Met to boost its 'ethnic' quotas that it is even offering to pay black students to go through university if they agree to work for the police after graduating. But these measures do little to change the basic culture of the police force, a culture which, at the end of 20 years of 'law and order' politics, has lost all notion of public accountability. Changing the colour of the police does not change police culture; changing police culture, however, may help to change the colour of policing.

It is vital at this time that anti-racists do not lose sight of the real issues in the midst of this public relations maelstrom. There is no excuse for police racism. Condon continues to offer the hoary old chestnut that the police are drawn from society and society is racist, and therefore one would expect the police to be racist. So, therefore, you cannot blame the police. QED. But the police are at the sharp end of law and order they have a special role in society and special powers and with those powers goes a responsibility to serve and be accountable to all sections of the community. In that sense the police, like teachers and social workers, should be in advance of society, not its rearguard.

How to create an anti-racist police force
(in 5 easy steps)

By Paul Condon (Met police chief), David Wilmot (Manchester police) and John Newing (Derbyshire police)

  1. 'I have sinned' Organise a press conference and confess your sins. Admit that 'like society, Greater Manchester Police has institutionalised racism'. Admit that your police stop and search a disproportionate number of black people. Refuse to comment on any specific cases of police racism. Say you're doing your best to end police racism.
  2. 'Listen to the people' Organise meetings around the country to listen to the views of the people. Make sure that the meetings are stage-managed so that they are dominated by local authority groups and the police themselves rather than providing a forum for local people to relate their experiences.
  3. 'Turn the tables' Whenever possible turn the tables on the critics. Instead of responding to accusations of racism, present evidence of conflict between different ethnic groups, eg Muslims and Sikhs in west London. Use this to reject critics of the police as having a 'narrow and simplistic' view of racial conflict.
  4. 'Bring in management consultants' Bring in a private management consultant firm to provide specialist police 'race relations training'. Get '6 million over three years from the Home Office to 'integrate community and race relations awareness' throughout the national police training curriculum. Meanwhile continue to make cutbacks to community-based racism monitoring groups.
  5. 'Organise a conference' Then organise a conference called 'Working Together Towards An Anti-Racist Police Service'. Invite VIP guests from outside the police to discuss how the police can be made into an anti-racist force. Invite delegates to take part in 'facilitated group discussions' on such subjects as 'anti-racist stop and search operations'. Pretend that the conference will make a difference.

Yes, all of this is happening. We haven't made it up. In October 1998 twelve police forces (including Derbyshire and Manchester) admitted to institutional racism in a series of frank admissions by chief constables, Paul Condon notably refusing the term. Through October and November the police have also been organising public meetings around the UK. The meetings have been branded a whitewash for refusing to allow victims of police racism to give evidence. At a similar meeting in West London, the police said that the major problem was not police racism but inter-ethnic conflict. In November the Home Office announced that a private consultancy firm had won a £6 million contract to provide race relations training for the police. The police have also invited a number of external organisations to attend a conference in December on anti-racist policing.

Institutional racism - a few questions

What is institutional racism?
Institutional racism is that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions - reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.

Why do we need to distinguish institutional racism from individual racism?
The problem is that individual racial attitudes and stereotyping have often been over-emphasised to the point where the institutional level of racism is ignored. This view was encapsulated in the 1981 Scarman Report on Brixton's riots which took the view that a few 'rotten apples' in the police had racist attitudes, but the majority did not. Racial awareness training has been seen as the answer, backed up with attempts to recruit more black officers. Condon has now decided that to accept institutional racism in the Met is to accuse all his officers of being racists. That is not what is meant by the term.

How is racism institutionalised in today's police forces?
Institutional racism is shown in the clear patterns of differential policing meted out on a systematic basis against black people. The whole criminal justice system then compounds those racist patterns. Black events, black areas, black meeting places are targeted for special policing. Black people are four to five times more likely to be stopped and searched. In the last ten years, 35 black people have died in police custody in suspicious circumstances. And, when black people complain of abrogation of their rights, the whole criminal justice system - from the Police Complaints Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service to the judiciary - compounds the racism by closing ranks. No one gets found guilty of racism, no one gets suspended or punished and charges are never brought following a violent death in custody. All of these practices point to an institutional culture of racism - nurtured in the top ranks, spread through the canteen culture and reinforced in the unhealthily close relationship between police press officers and the yellow press. As a result, black people are rarely seen as victims of crime, which in turn means that racial violence is never taken seriously enough.

Condon - available in 3 flavours


"I acknowledge that for blacks and Asians in London racism is an everyday occurrence and the police are a part of that."

October 1998


"We are targeting young black men as they are disproportionately involved in street robberies."

March 1993


"If you are not paying your police officers a wage they can live on, you are almost inviting them to indulge in malpractice."

October 1998