A policewoman with a lovely voice offered to bring over a spare inhaler, which she kept handy for her asthmatic husband. I was truly shocked. This is not what I expect from the police. We black and Asian Britons expect irritation, racism and brutality from our policemen and women, not this decency and overwhelming concern. We do not trust police forces to do the right thing, and nothing that has happened in the last year has persuaded us otherwise. This lack of trust between vulnerable communities and those paid to protect them is not only unacceptable but dangerous, and I despair that those running our police service still don't seem to get it.
The Lawrence inquiry showed the Met first cocking up (if that is what happened) the initial investigation and then boldly defending everything that had not been done, until the evidence against them was so incontrovertible that they had to accept responsibility. I went to the inquiry and watched with disbelief as police chiefs made absurd excuses and implied that the Lawrence family's lawyers and Sir William Macpherson were harming community relations by daring to ask the police to be accountable. It was embarrassing to see Paul Condon going from absolute denial that racism had had anything to do with the shabby investigation, to studied contrition as he was compelled to accept that there was a culture of racism in his force.
Since then there has been evidence of similar "neglect" by the Met in the cases of Michael Menson, who the police assumed had committed suicide when in fact he had been murdered and three people are now charged with it; the talented Dr Joan Francisco, who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend and whose family had to sue the killer to get justice, and now Ricky Reel, the 20-year-old Asian student found dead in the Thames two years ago. Ricky's family believe he was murdered by a racist gang. The Met maintain that his death was a tragic accident, the result of his trying to urinate into the river when under the influence of drink.
On Monday an inquest jury rejected the police's arguments and returned an open verdict. The Police Complaints Authority had already produced a highly critical report on this investigation. The police have refused to make the information public and it took questions in the House of Commons to get some of the contents out into the public domain. One of the officers involved, Det Supt Moffat, retired before he had to face a hearing.
In all these cases the police could have acted differently, using the opportunity to prove that they do take crime against black and Asian people seriously, and that they deserve to be relied on. Instead they stuck with the same old excuses, and failed black and Asian people and themselves.
The point is that there will always be racist and/ or inept police officers; after all, they come from the larger community. Genuine mistakes will also be made. But it is inexcusable that, when these come to light, police chiefs do almost anything it takes to keep the truth hidden from public scrutiny and, when this becomes impossible, deny what happened and let the guilty off the hook. Can they not see the irony that this is what clever crooks try to do all the time? This cover-up culture means that few black and Asian people are now prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Let us imagine for a moment that the Met are right to have assumed that the death of Ricky Reel was an accident. Ricky may have fallen into the river while running away from racists, or for some other reason. But the most depressing thing is that after the way the Met have handled this latest case, the truth has become irrelevant. Like Ricky's stoical mother, Sukhdev Reel, I too would suspect and dismiss anything the Met now claim, because they have suppressed the PCA report and because exoneration is what they are most interested in.
So how can the Met change? Not by making noble speeches. I am heartily sick of the statements of intent and goodwill that are produced by Met chiefs every time this issue is raised. Not by training, either. You cannot train people out of their racism. And certainly not by recruiting more black and Asian officers. In April this year Jack Straw announced new employment targets for all the forces around the country. This is bold and important, but unless the culture of the forces changes, this is just asking black and Asian officers to offer themselves up to intolerable pressures. A recent letter in a newspaper from a white former officer described the crude racism that permeates the atmosphere in police stations. When he asked - for monitoring purposes - whether an alleged rapist was black, his boss replied: "Aren't they all?"
Transformation can be achieved, but only if there is tough action and better understanding of what is going on. What is the connection between racist attitudes among the police, and the way they respond to racist crime? Is it really possible to be "neutral" and fair when you harbour certain feelings about the presence of black and Asian people in this country? I remember interviewing an officer at Stoke Newington police station in north London a few years ago. He confessed that when he was apprehending a black man, he felt deeply threatened and was liable to use greater force than with a white man. What evidence do we possess that having more black and Asian police officers will result in better police behaviour? Those found guilty of racism and of treating black and Asian citizens unfairly must be made to pay for their actions, and named and shamed by those who control them. The public needs to see real action on the appallingly high number of black (as well as Irish) deaths in custody. The expected extension of the Race Relations Act (at long last) to the police may effect some change in their behaviour.
None of this is likely to be at all easy, especially with the vociferous instincts of the various self-protection organisations, such as the Police Federation. But perhaps they need to realise that the present impasse is making their jobs impossible. They are so mistrusted that in time it may become even more difficult for them to deal with black and Asian criminals without a presumption of racism. So, I say to you chaps in blue: take up the challenge and change. You have nothing to lose but your dishonour.Reuse content