Trust comes from accountability
January 16, 2014 — Comment
Written by Jon Burnett
There can be no trust in the police if they are not genuinely accountable to the communities they serve.
After the Mark Duggan inquest verdict, Metropolitan police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe publicly appealed for help in rebuilding trust in the police amongst black Londoners. He insisted he was open to ideas and advice, travelling to meet community leaders across the capital. But reducing anger against the police to a lack of trust, akin to a broken down relationship, is a sleight of hand which blames the victim and exonerates the police. It has echoes of the 1981 Scarman Report into the Brixton anti-police riots, which, instead of accepting as many of those who gave evidence asserted, that the police were racist, put much of the problem down to black perception and rumour-mongering.
A lack of trust comes from a lack of accountability. And as the IRR had already explained to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure (1979), this is not just a matter of policing against the black community (for example trigger-happy policemen working to stereotypes) but also a matter of not policing for the black community (in terms of the specific problems, such as racial harassment, that they face).
The fact is the police by and large do not hold themselves accountable to Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities. The proof is in the procession of grieving families of black and minority ethnic people, who, year on year, have emerged from criminal and coroners’ courts across the UK, shocked, confused and angry at the action and inaction of the criminal justice system.
This continued lack of accountability is borne out by forthcoming research by the Institute of Race Relations, analysing the criminal justice system’s response to racist murders, or murders with a known or suspected racial element, since the publication of the Macpherson Report in 1999. To date, at least ninety-three people, of whom the vast majority were from BME communities, have lost their lives in this way.
The Macpherson report’s headline finding, that the workings of the police force and the criminal justice system was underpinned by a pervasive institutional racism, led to a multitude of reforms. And it was largely as a result of the campaign around Stephen Lawrence that racially aggravated offences and sentencing enhancements for offences motivated by racism were introduced. Yet only a minority of the deaths we examined were prosecuted in a way which recognised the racial element. And in a few of them, no one has been prosecuted at all. Even in those cases where there are prosecutions, a common outcome seems to be that as a case progresses, the criminal justice system works to deny the existence of racism not on the odd occasion, but as a norm.
Take, for example, the case of 14-year-old Johnny Delaney, beaten to death in Merseyside in 2003 by two 16-year-olds who were given short custodial sentences. One of these attackers was reportedly heard to say that the boy deserved the beating as he was ‘only a f*****g Gypsy’. But whilst the attack was initially treated as racially motivated, this was later rejected by a judge in court.
This matters. It matters because, as the boy’s devastated father later argued, ‘There is no justice here. They were kicking my son like a football. Are they going to let this happen to another Gypsy?’ It matters because when a state institution rules that racism does not exist, it is virtually condoning racism. And it matters because such cases are indicative of the ways in which the police and other institutions of the criminal justice system frequently fail to comprehend the context within which racial violence is shaped, which in turn impacts on the way the police work to support those from BME communities. Look at the events surrounding the death of Iranian refugee Bijan Ebrahimi in Bristol last year. Mr Ebrahimi was hounded prior to his murder, largely because he was disabled; but he was also abused as a ‘P**i’ and a ‘foreign cockroach’. Prior to his death he was falsely accused of being a paedophile by local residents and led away by the police as his neighbours cheered. A few days later, he was beaten to death and his body set on fire. As the judge at the trial of the main perpetrator remarked, the killing was an act of ‘murderous injustice’. Yet this was an injustice compounded, according to some, by the actions of the police, who did little to protect him from his torment. In the final analysis, a denial of racism leads to a denial of justice.
If Bernard Hogan-Howe really wants to heal the supposed ‘wound’ between the BME community and the police, it means not treating this community as a community apart in need of specially-manufactured liaison schemes. It means going beyond vapid PR exercises to acknowledge that people do not trust the police because of their experiences of policing. It is a matter of the police being self-critical, admitting and learning from their mistakes, and actually heeding the uncomfortable indignant voices of those communities who bear the brunt of their power. That is accountability.
References:  Harmit Athwal and Jon Burnett, Investigated or ignored? An analysis of race-related deaths since the Macpherson report (London, Institute of Race Relations, January 2014).
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.