Leading Article: A fumbled chance to bring negligent police to book

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The Independent Culture
THE REVELATION that only one police officer will be charged with neglect of duty for his actions during the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry shows how difficult it remains to hold the police to account. This Police Complaints Authority announcement shows that internal investigations are not tough enough to control a force that can mishandle witnesses, lose or destroy evidence and ignore promising leads.

At least the report of the main inquiry into the Lawrence murder, the proceedings of which have shone such light into some dark places, is still pending. It will have to do better than this if it is to be credible. Failings that the Complaints Authority has played down - specifically the failures to give proper first aid at the scene of the crime, and to keep a log book at the scene - ought to have resulted in more than the verbal warnings that will now ensue.

Other officers will escape action entirely. Three have already avoided disciplinary action by the simple but all too common expedient of retiring before they could be punished, which is a pity. The PCA notes that more senior police personnel failed to build bridges with the family; it should have powers to call them to account, too, rather than meekly recommend that training be overhauled.

There is more at stake here than simply one miscarriage of justice - although the details of the Lawrence affair alone are shocking enough. Black Britons feel that they are discriminated against by the police, with "stop and search" policies falling disproportionately on them. Stephen Lawrence, a bright, articulate young man who was snuffed out by the racism of a few white thugs, has become an icon to them; he paid with his life for that same discrimination which plagues so many others in the black community.

A wider public are just as anxious to see this case resolved. They have watched with admiration the courage of Stephen's parents, which has become the strongest weapon in their campaign. That public will feel aggrieved today, and await with concern the report of the main inquiry. In the meantime, they will have to make do with the somewhat grudging public apologies of the Commissioner. That apology will do little to heal the Lawrence family's pain; only justice will do that.

The inquiry into Stephen's death was a mess, as the investigations carried out for the PCA by the Kent Constabulary revealed. The PCA should have the powers and courage to reflect this. It has fumbled an opportunity to demonstrate them; now others must. Dismissal should follow serious censure of officers in the Macpherson inquiry, for anything less would subvert the public's trust in the law itself.