Leading Article: The police must change their culture

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The Independent Culture
IS THERE institutional racism in the police? It is a question which the Lawrence Enquiry spent some time yesterday trying to get Sir Paul Condon, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to answer. Sir Paul resisted the pressure. He may have been right to do so; institutional racism is a rather ill-defined term which almost suggests that there are racist codes of conduct and the like circulating around police stations.

But the point is an extremely narrow one. There is no need to concentrate on the semantics. That there is racism in the police force, that it is sometimes consciously applied, and that it is more prevalent than previously thought, is perfectly apparent from the Stephen Lawrence case. It is also the common experience of many people who are born with the wrong colour of skin, who are stopped too hastily if they are driving too flash a car or whose demeanour offends an officer. Such anecdotal evidence abounds. So the problem is clear and acknowledged. Why has it proved to be so hard to deal with?

It takes some effort of memory to recall that, when Sir Paul took up his post, he was, to borrow a political expression, a "moderniser". He was thought to be symbolic of a new style and culture in policing. It was Sir Paul's mission to transform a police force which had made so many false starts at reforming its own affairs, into a modern and popular police service that enjoyed the confidence of all Londoners. It was Sir Paul's misfortune that he was dealing with a body of men and women with a canteen culture which had not quite caught up with the cutting edge of liberal attitudes to race. Or, as Sir Paul put it: "London is becoming increasingly diverse and we accept that our officers are not fully equipped to deal with the increasingly rich diversity of the public we serve." Despite his hard work and undoubted dedication, Sir Paul thus concedes that he has, largely, failed.

The problems of racism in police work are not confined to the Met or the urban forces. We have to ask whether all the training courses, all the efforts to recruit officers from the ethnic minorities and all the exhortations - and we have had many years of these type of effort - have really been to the point. Rooting out the racist officers, disciplining them, or expelling them (and not letting them off with a bad back and a pension) is a tough approach that may, in the short term, hurt morale. But it is the only way for the police to regain credibility. A look at the position of those who botched the Lawrence enquiry would mark a start.