Why racist officers flourish in an anti-racist force

The Met's commissioner insisted on supporting his officers in a succession of appalling cases
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IN RECENT months when speaking at meetings concerning the murder of Stephen Lawrence I've found that my audiences have usually been shocked to hear in my opening statement that I think that Sir Paul Condon is the most clearly anti-racist commissioner of police in the history of the Met. This usually brings the rejoinder that this isn't saying very much, but it is important to see the present scandal in its historical context.

Back in 1981, Labour won control of the GLC on a manifesto that included the pledge that we would make the police democratically accountable by bringing them under the control of the GLC. Needless to say, this proposal was greeted as a threat to civilisation as we know it with Tory backbenchers warning that if I got control of the police I would use them to arrest businessmen for making a profit.

Against this background of elevated debate there was little chance of progress during the Thatcher tyranny, so we set up a shadow police authority chaired by my old friend Paul Boateng (now a Government minister) which set about monitoring police racism and homophobia while preparing a detailed blueprint for how control of the police could be transferred to the GLC from the Home Office, whose supervision consisted of one civil servant devoting half a working week to the topic.

The response of Thatcher's government was to look for a real hardliner to take over as commissioner of police, in the form of Sir Kenneth Newman. In his time at the RUC he had presided over an increasing militarisation of the force. I protested strongly to the Home Secretary that he was just about the last person on earth that London's explosive policing situation needed.

True to form, Sir Kenneth instructed his entire staff that they were to have no contact with the GLC in any form whatsoever. His hardline paramilitary tactics increased the pressure on London's black communities and led to the explosion at Broadwater Farm and the horrific murder of PC Blakelock. Even Thatcher recognised the need for a change in policing, and brought in Sir Peter Imbert as Newman's replacement. The difference was marked, with Imbert prepared not just to meet Labour councillors but to appear in televised debates with Labour critics. By the time Imbert retired the Met had established real links with black Londoners and was itself asking to be brought under democratic control.

Tragically, one of Sir Paul's first decisions was to overturn the plans he had inherited from Imbert to reorganise the police districts to coincide with individual London boroughs. This aside, Sir Paul made a good start by broadening and strengthening the Met's links with the public. Both publicly and in private meetings with Labour MPs he strongly committed the Met to tackling racism in London and within itself, and for several years managed to persuade critics that he was moving in the right direction. His high-profile attacks on corrupt officers increased his standing.

However, a sign that all was not well was his constant insistence on supporting his officers in a succession of appalling cases in which members of the public sued the Met for racist, sexist and violent behaviour. Time after time Sir Paul would defend his officers, right up to the last minute before juries awarded massive damages.

However, despite occasional insensitive comments, Sir Paul continued to say all the right things, creating the impression that, while on the side of the angels, he was held back by the sheer scale of the resistance to his reforms among rank-and-file officers. Until last year, most Labour MPs would have had no hesitation in recommending Jack Straw to appoint Sir Paul to a second term. I myself believed that it was important to make an early statement that Sir Paul would have a second term to prevent the corrupt and racist minority of police officers thinking that, if they just dug in until the end of his term, they might find his successor a softer touch.

The Lawrence inquiry has shattered all these illusions. Rather than appearing as the champion of reform, Sir Paul now reminds me of the many well-meaning Labour councillors I have known who, when given their first post of responsibility, naively assume that making fine speeches in committee will somehow filter down through the machine, humanising the council bureaucracy on the way. We all learn quickly that fine speeches are not enough; you have to get stuck into the detailed and brutal work of changing attitudes and individuals.

During Sir Paul's testimony to the Lawrence inquiry, the single most revealing moments were when he was repeatedly pressed by the chairman and others to accept that his force was institutionally racist - a point he steadfastly refused to concede. Those present felt that while he privately accepted this to be true, he seemed to be saying that if he admitted the fact he would lose the confidence of his officers.

This is Sir Paul's fatal flaw.

Anyone who leads a large organisation eventually comes to the point where the public interest and the bureaucratic self-interest of the organisation that they lead are in conflict. At that point leadership requires that you put the public interest first and push through reform, even if you have to take on your own organisation.

The tragedy of Sir Paul is that he inherited an organisation in which institutional racism was present but denied. This denial did not come just from a minority of racist officers, but had been legitimised by Lord Scarman's inquiry into the Brixton riots of 1981 and loudly endorsed by Thatcher's government.

Anyone such as Paul Boateng or myself daring to question this right-wing political correctness was vilified by those same newspapers that have belatedly switched sides and will now denounce Sir Paul, to the extent that it would be inconceivable that Jack Straw could appoint him to a second term.

All that remains for Sir Paul Condon in his last year of office is to start with real vigour to root out the culture and the individuals who have disgraced the name of the Met. If he no longer has the energy for that task, he should go immediately.