The South Asian Crime Unit: policing by ethnicity?
What lies behind the recent creation by the Metropolitan Police of a South Asian Crime Unit?
By Jon Burnett, 7 July 2004
There was little media interest in the creation, last month, of a specialist policing unit, set up with the aim of tackling organised crime within Londons South Asian communities. The unit is a response to an apparent rise in crimes ranging from kidnapping and gun-use, to drug-running and passport scams with transnational links in human trafficking. Modelled on Operation Trident, a specialist unit focusing on gun crime in Black communities, it is hoped that the South Asian Crime Unit will achieve a similar level of success. Operation Trident, we are told, has reduced fatal shootings and recovered significant quantities of class A drugs.
The Head of the new unit, Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, tells us that the rise in crime, in and between South Asian communities, will result in a network of ghettoes, if left unchecked. In turn, these ghettoes will become breeding grounds for yet further increases in organised crime. And to back this up, he has released documents which show a 300% increase in the number of murders involving South Asians in the last decade and a 41% rise in drug crimes in the last five years. Almost 20% of kidnappings in London last year involved South Asians.
From that perspective, the South Asian Crime Unit is surely to be lauded. These statistics are undoubtedly shocking and are themselves reinforced by horrific stories of beatings and shootings. Yet, if we take a step back for a moment, it is important to ask what this unit will actually do. For, whilst the above statistics may be deplorable, so is the fact that stops under anti-terrorism legislation rose by roughly 1,450% between 1999 and 2003, a huge number of which were carried out on South Asians. Well over 90% of these led to no further action. Or the fact that particular South Asian groups are four times more likely to be victims of a racist attack than Whites. Or the fact that, in 2003, South Asians were two and a half times more likely to be stopped and searched under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 than Whites.
And, make no mistake, there are horror stories to back up these statistics as well. It would be interesting to ask the British Pakistani man, who had his London home raided last December by police who allegedly beat him, forced him into a prostrate position, and asked him where is your God now?, what he thinks of Assistant Commissioner Ghaffurs plans to dedicate proactive officers to deal with Asian-on-Asian crime.
Furthermore, it is important to understand the rapidly changing context of South Asian communities in Britain, within which the South Asian Specialist Unit has emerged. There has been a growing moral panic over lawless Asian youths. Elders and traditional community restraining practices have been blamed for not doing enough to curb their behaviour. There has been a perceived breakdown in what are commonly perceived as Asian traits strong family-ties that bind, a readiness to work hard at all hours and a strong sense of duty and obedience before the law.
In particular, a number of events in 2001 ensured that the already shifting stereotypical assumptions of Asian traits were undeniably altered. The summer was beset by riots in northern towns and cities which tore asunder these comfortable beliefs. Here was a generation of Asian youths not prepared to stand by and watch racists march through their neighbourhoods, not prepared to be told that they did not belong here. And if this did not put a different picture of being Asian on the map, the events of 11 September that year certainly did. England was suddenly confronted with Asian anger at home and Muslim terrorism abroad. And, predictably enough, adding the two together came up with a very muddled and misinformed five: a context in which the mistrust of Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslim, flourished under the guise of anti-terrorism and the rhetoric of law and order.
With South Asians cast as Britains new suspect community, we might expect that a policing unit focusing on this particular group would be at pains to ensure that the full protection and support of the law was available to it; that the unit would do its utmost to render itself democratically accountable to the very group it was trying to protect; and, at the very least, challenge the damning stereotypes that frame South Asians as the enemy within in their own county. But, instead, we see a highly politicised imposition of punitive policing practices that focus on the number-one agenda of the day: illegal immigration.
Detective Sergeant Lawrence Gibbons, of the National Crime Squad, explained that gangs are obtaining British passports and profiling these to match the age and height of would-be illegal immigrants. And this appears to be one of the key reasons for the creation of the South Asian Unit. Not, then, racist attacks against South Asians, but offences that South Asians themselves are said to be committing, provides the rationale for this Unit.
The Unit is costing £5 million to set up and no one could deny that this money would be justified if it was spent on policing that was designed to protect communities. But, the trend of establishing particular units appears, instead, to be aimed at the punitive policing of specific ethnic groups.