Black and Asian Britons still can't trust the police

When police dogs are treated cruelly, officers are sent to prison. We obviously matter less
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The Independent Culture
AN OBVIOUS point. In a democratic society, the police can function only by consent. Trust must underpin that consent, but for a good long time we, black and Asian Britons, have not had that basic faith in the British police force.

I lost mine when I went on an anti-National Front demonstration in Southall. It was St George's Day in April 1979, exactly 20 years ago. I was then a young, fiery woman who could run in platform-heel sandals, thank God. I went full of hate for the National Front and I left full of fear and loathing of the Metropolitan Police. Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-six officers, several dogs and a helicopter invaded the tiny suburban locality. Young people were coshed and kicked in front of my eyes and Blair Peach, a young white teacher, was beaten to death by one officer from the frenzied Special Patrol Group. The officer was never identified or tried but 342 Southall Asians were, some of them charged with deliberately putting their heads in the way of police boots.

This would all be history were it not for the fact that the ugly tradition of protecting racist policemen is still very much with us. And in spite of the well-tuned contrition and statements of good intent which have been gushing out of the Met and other forces since the Lawrence Inquiry, I see little reason as yet to be optimistic.

I will change my mind when I see one, just one, high-profile sacking of a racially violent police officer or when I see real evidence that when police officers have failed properly to protect black and Asian citizens - such as Paul Condon, whose repeated failures have been whitewashed in a daunting PR exercise with the collusion of those who should know better - they are held to account.

Take this week. Angry black and Asian peers of the realm have complained that the police have failed to take seriously the death threats that they have received from racist groups. The Met has also had to apologise for fabricating information about Roger Sylvester, a black man who died in police custody after being restrained. What good is the massive recruitment drive for more black and Asian officers and expensive anti-racist training if there is no attempt to root out racism - witting, violent and at times murderous - within the forces?

A disproportionate number of black, Asian and Irish people die in custody following the use of force. A Home Office report on deaths in custody shows clear disparities between different racial and ethnic groups. According to Inquest, a campaign and support group working with the families of those who die in custody, between 1969 and 1996 there were 102 deaths of blacks in custody, of which 51 were in police cells. The Met record is not good. In 1996, for example, 35 per cent of those who died in their custody were black or Asian. These were not all deaths caused by the police, of course. But many died as a result of neckholds, CS sprays and other forms of restraint.

Sir Paul has been running the ship since Joy Gardner was killed in front of her five-year-old son. Since then we have had the deaths of Shiji Lapite, Brian Douglas, Wayne Douglas, Ibrahima Sey and Roger Sylvester. Not one officer has ever been punished for any of these deaths. And if you want to see what this does to family members, go and listen to Joy Gardner's mother Myrna, as she addresses one public meeting after another. She is going mad with grief - as I would if I felt that the death of my child, caused by the custodians of law and order, meant nothing to this country.

At least we hear about the deaths. What we know barely anything about is what goes on in the back of police vans, on our streets and in police cells where black, Asian and Irish people are physically assaulted, threatened and terrorised by officers for no good reason.

The list of the known victims is long enough. Claudette Thompson was assaulted by a policeman who then bit his own finger and claimed that he had acted in self-defence. The teeth marks did not fit, so pounds 50,000 was paid out to keep things quiet. And pounds 300,000 went to Danny Goswell, who was handcuffed and beaten by officers. Sir Paul Condon defended these policemen in court.

A significant number of black and Asian people use the civil claims complaints system against brutal policemen. The Met and others simply settle out of court with public funds. When police dogs are treated cruelly, officers are tried and sent to prison. We obviously matter less.

What should worry us even more is the fact that the Police Complaints Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service have also failed to respond properly to this problem, even when inquest juries return a verdict of unlawful killing. In the case of Shiji Lapite, who was killed in 1994, the verdict of unlawful killing was unanimous. Yet for five years neither the police nor the prosecution has chosen to take action against the perpetrators, despite a successful judicial review which challenged their inaction.

What is heartening, though, is that committed lawyers and others such as Deborah Cole, the director of Inquest, carry on fighting for justice in the face of this cross-institutional protection racket. Raju Bhatt and Fiona Murphy - both bright and passionate lawyers - and others, too, who represent many of the bereaved families, do what they do at great personal cost. Not only are they unlikely to become fat-cat lawyers, but they are also seen as a threat by many in the criminal justice system. The Police Federation and others brand them as "political agitators" and "subversives", just as Rosemary Nelson was by the RUC in Northern Ireland. As Murphy says, the system is utterly bankrupt. We need to create a police force in which integrity is non-negotiable and where instead of falling over themselves to prevent action against racist police officers, there is a new morality that insists upon it.

We can trust the police only if this is seen to be done. And the police can do their job dealing with the real problems of crime within our communities only if they have this trust from the rest of us. Last Monday, Jack Straw had a meeting with bereaved families, Inquest and others. He is reflecting on whether we need a public inquiry. We do, but we need more than that, Jack. We need heads to roll before we black and Asian Britons can feel safe in the hands of the British police. This is a crucial issue for the whole of society. If this racism is allowed to go unpunished, other evils too will grow and the culture of an arrogant and unaccountable police force will affect all citizens in the end.