Sept 2002

  Sir Alistair Graham, Chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Authority speaks to Edges Magazine

A recent BBC opinion poll found that three quarters of Black people feel the police basically do a good job and four in ten questioned said that ethnic minorities are fairly treated by them. But the poll also found that four in ten said that ethnic minorities are unfairly treated by the police.

Personal experiences will affect the way you view the police service. There can be no denying that many Black (African and Afro-Caribbean) people have become alienated from the police service. A gulf has opened out between police and some of the communities they serve.

These issues were painfully brought into focus after the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The Kent police / PCA inquiry into the failings of the murder team shocked the public when we reported publicly in December 1997. We found that the original murder inquiry was flawed by "significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities."

The subsequent Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was based on the Kent /PCA report and findings. Sir William Macpherson made 70 recommendations for change within police and public organisations.

The recommendations have affected the way in which both the police service and any organisation within the criminal justice system should operate.

We receive one in 11 of our total complaints from the Black community. Since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry we saw a steep increase in the numbers of complaints of racist behaviour by police. Obviously figures can seesaw but complaints have risen three-fold from 1998-99 to last year. In 2000-01 we received 647 allegations of racist behaviour. We do not believe that suddenly police officers are behaving much-more badly. We do, however, believe that the public will not tolerate such acts and are willing to make a complaint. Furthermore this increase in complaints could mean greater confidence in the complaints system.

Such allegations are very challenging to investigate and we always give them particular attention. To prove such an allegation of a racist motive for a neglect of duty or abuse of authority remains problematic. It may be possible to uphold an allegation of neglect, for example, or the use of unnecessary violence but yet be unable to prove that this conduct was racially discriminatory. Racial abuse, for example, is difficult to prove unless there are witnesses or video recordings.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry said that officers should usually face dismissal for racist behaviour. We do not disagree with Sir William Macpherson’s sentiments and we will insist on bringing disciplinary charges when they are appropriate.

The police service is making genuine efforts to combat racism within the service. The Metropolitan Police Service, for example, had by February already given community relations training to 20,000 officers and will have trained all staff by the end of the year. We are using their excellent handbook on the communities and religions of London in our own diversity training.

One of the ways to get a culturally- aware police service is by persuading more members of the ethnic minorities to join up. We would welcome more Black members of the police service at all levels in the service.

It is important that such officers are retained by the police service and are treated as equals. But when officers are treated unfairly it is important that the police service asks what went wrong. For example, we are currently supervising the investigation into the way in which Metropolitan Police Sergeant Gurpal Virdi, who was accused of sending himself racist hate mail, was treated.

Deaths in custody
Relations with the Black community have been badly harmed by deaths occurring in police custody. We share the concern. Since 1998 we have issued four major reports and held three conferences to find ways of reducing the risks of deaths in custody. As a result the number of deaths in England and Wales fell from 65 in 1998/99 to 32 in the year ending 31 March 2001.

In April we held a conference attended by the police, prison and special hospital services to share experiences and seek ways of reducing the risk of death and serious injuries when restraining detainees. The conference heard from families who have been directly affected by these tragic deaths. We will now ensure that the recommendations are circulated as widely as possible.

The Lawrence Inquiry has also led to improvement in family liaison. The officers, who act as the vital link between victims and the police inquiry team, are now receiving better training. When we supervise the investigation into a death in custody or a fatal shooting by police, we have similarly improved our links with the families concerned. We now offer the families meetings during the inquiry and we seek to be as open with them as possible.

At our 1998 conference, the Home Office pledged to change the guidance on disclosure of information to families before the inquest into a death in custody. Up to that time they were not allowed to see any of the evidence in advance. For several years we had pointed out that families were at a considerable disadvantage to the police service. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry called for this right to be extended to all cases before a Coroner’s court.

The way in which we can best commemorate the life of Stephen Lawrence is by continuing to improve the quality of policing in this country. We must also learn the lessons for our own inquiries and ensure that the needs of families and victims are better met.

The PCA supervises the investigations into the most serious complaints against police in England and Wales. It also supervises inquiries into matters of public concern such as fatal shootings by police, road traffic incidents and deaths in custody.

The PCA also decides whether officers should face misconduct proceedings or other disciplinary action as a result of the investigations carried out. The PCA web site is at www.pca.gov.uk


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