By Oliver Roberts
Subedited by Lee Wyton
When it comes to accountability in matters of discrimination and race, we can consistently see that for those in positions and roles of power, the buck stops nowhere.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry into racism in policing and the work since done by those demanding change, gives a clear display of the do’s and don’ts of countering and combating structural deep rooted division. Hidden Stories of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry1 by panel member Dr Richard Stone OBE gives a thoughtful, profound and rare insight into what such an inquiry was up against and what stands in the way of change.
Stone’s book provide the documents and exchanges showing in broad daylight, an institution willing to admit and accept discrimination, yet loose its tongue when accepting any responsibility for them. In a book full of disheartening information, the date of the book is one of the most startling aspects. Despite giving regular promises of files being released from the Home Office “in a matter of months”, material from the Lawrence Inquiry took six years to be released with some still unavailable as of the book’s 2013 publication. In such delay and withdrawal from responsibility, one is left guessing the Home Office feel the fading of public memory will counteract eroding of public faith. This should be truly alarming, even more so in a digital age of increasing transparency and sadly, disinformation, feeding the worst of conspiracy theorists.
The stench of failure is overwhelmingly riddled throughout the Stephen Lawrence investigation on every level. From the first 48 hours after the murder, to the painful reading of the family liaison’s treatment of Stephen’s family, to the lack of arrests and prosecution from Crown to Private over a 5 year spell. In any effort to turn the tide in establishment treatment of ethnic minority communities, it’s vital to observe the actions of those in power, in this case the Metropolitan Police and its representatives, when confronted with their own shameful mistreatment. One would hope the guidance and vision to implement change would come from the top. The Inquiry did in fact get to interview the then commissioner of the Met, Sir Paul Condon. In retrospect, the Commissioner’s appearance is a glaring red flag of what was not and still is not right with the British establishment.
The tone is marred when the Commissioner himself sets a poor standard for the police engagement on the inquiry. Sir Condon appeared only for the second part of the inquiry, when the interviewing, investigative ‘quasi-judicial’ format was over. Not bound to answer questions at that juncture, unlike the inquiries first part. His appearance on the stand was an opportunity for the Metropolitan police to show their leadership as active not reactive to addressing their failure. The rhetoric of Sir Condon comes across as structured and aimed yet jarringly ignorant. The commissioner’s words across the enquiry and after tick some truly low boxes; the figurative use of a ‘black friend’ figure for an example, the term ‘colour-blind’ was also used, followed by a bewildering pivot to a defensive position. Pure reaction, a very familiar one for many, a three pronged disaster of white discomfort when confronted with serious matters of race. The commissioner listed all his intentions and visions for combating discrimination while on that stand but his actions spoke otherwise. His accusation after the inquiry that it had ‘ruined careers and lives’ on the Police force is frankly depressing, its stupidity only matched by its insensitivity. It’s fair to assess that if the leader of an organisation is displaying archetypal white bluster and indignation when addressing racism, looking to the top for support in pursuing justice is not a valid path.
Despite his failings, the Condon exchange provides vital information. At the time, 1998, there was a valiant stride for ‘institutional racism’ to be recognised by the Met, this appeared the most opportune of moments. The panel pushed but the Commissioner did not budge,
“I am not denying the challenge or the need for reform, but if… this Inquiry labels my service as “institutionally racist” (pause) then the average police officer, the average member of the public will assume the normal meaning of those words. They will assume a finding of conscious, wilful, or deliberate action or an action to the detriment of ethnic minority Londoners.”
This chapter of the book displays that agreeing on terms can become a form of contest or sideshow, distracting from the realities of what is being discussed. Making another drama to avoid the real issue, an establishment psychodrama if you will. The serious danger of this is that the measures of change and their implementation can be lost sight of. The quote above feels fearful and dispiriting. For a man wielding the power of one of the most recognised police forces on earth, he does not seem to think much of his ‘average police officer’ or ‘average member of the public’. His argument is that the public or the police cannot handle the concept that racism goes beyond the visible, vocal or violent. It appears without accountability, not only does the public loose it’s faith in institutions, our institutions show little faith in the public. It is chilling to witness an institute willing to cover its own back in the face of public aggrievance and demand, yet lessons are there to be learnt.
When launched at the House of Commons alongside, then MP Sadiq Khan in 2013, Dr Stone took his book and toured it across the country. He states clearly, the book was written and published as far too little has changed in the face of the inquiries recommendations. As evidenced on his tour, Stone along with many others acknowledge a top down singular approach on race has been far too ineffective. However, addressing race as a matter for all round professionalism has proven a leading light forward in combating discrimination, in the face of a perceived potential to weaken importance of the matter2. A collective, inclusive approach applicable to all is prescribed, not a syphoned, dependent on those above lens that shows a historical liability for scapegoating.
In close, to a closing note in the book, is the inquiry’s interviewing of those hired and hiring to foster ‘race awareness’ in the police. The insight here is valuable but not easy reading. It is hard to pin down what is more disturbing, that those responsible for such commented across the board how inept it had been, or that it took the calamitous handling of a racist murder of a teenager to make clear – when such practice is not taken seriously, the consequences get toxic. The argument can be made that this is one of the oldest political tools of covert discrimination, abandonment. Its mantra runs through recent austerity policy across Europe and the United States healthcare debacle; if something I do not want to deal with presents need, ignore it. Once more, is the fact that this work had been funded through the police budget for millions of pounds, over a prolonged. It is blatant deferential treatment, knowingly spending millions on the grounds of supporting those ‘other-ed’, seeing it is not making a difference, then doing nothing about it. Yet equally startling is the simplicity and availability of Dr Stone’s recommendation of community engagement.
This article started with the term ‘the accountability crisis’ on the grounds that leadership has been so weak it has damaged public engagement and in particular, public faith. How curious that the most basic of ways forward is entirely dependent on institutional faith in the public. Stone’s suggestion was a one week annual paid leave programme, in which any and every officer is a full time volunteer at a community centre for backgrounds other than their own, was a straightforward win-win of exposure and engagement directly countering ignorance and isolation. It would save the police force money whilst strengthening community organisations given volunteers more capable than your average. For sure, the Met and police as a whole have urgent work needed on their relationship with ethnic minorities and it is a list: transparency, statistics left unspun, stop and search disparity ended, greater recruitment and promotion of ethnic minorities and black employees, stronger leadership and accountability. Yet an act of faith in the public, implementing an iron clad all-inclusive community engagement programme, would be a welcome step in the right direction with the potential to inform addressing further discrimination.
This has underlined an overwhelmingly white institute’s ability to display an extremely corrosive lack of understanding and care in the interests of their ethnic minority counterparts. This theme runs throughout many, with the David Bennet Inquiry showing the same in NHS3. Its seed is global and shows no more prevalence than in the rising problem of school segregation in America. If we are not exposed to realities we know nothing of, we cannot expect to gain understanding, we’ll never find the best in one another and inevitably exacerbate suspicious, fearful taught behaviours; the way forward is engagement. Explicit in the case of American school studies, showing the results of diversity in education being overwhelmingly positive for ethnic minorities with no recession or threat on white social security whatsoever4. The MacPherson Report5 shows the HMIC declaring it is ‘no longer enough’ to treat one another equally as we must treat one another according to need.
We are approaching 20 years since this inquiry and 25 since Stephen’s passing, with enough collective effort, we can honour this.