Kenan Malik talks to victims on the sharp end of a police assumption that black equals criminal
ONE AFTERNOON last September, Colin Tomlinson was sitting in his Morgan sports car in a quiet residential street in Brixton. Mr Tomlinson is 29 and an estate agent who runs his own thriving business. Mild-mannered and quiet-spoken, he is married with a two-year-old son. He is also black.

On that particular day he was waiting to show a client round a house. "Suddenly," he says, "the car door flew open and I was hauled out by three white men. They kicked and punched me. There was blood everywhere, and the people around us on the pavement were screaming. I was so shocked I simply did not have any time to do anything."

The three men turned out to be plainclothes policemen. They were later to claim in court that they thought Mr Tomlinson had taken part in a robbery earlier that day. He was handcuffed, bundled into a car, and taken to Streatham police station. He was first accused of stealing his own car. After five hours in custody, when it became clear that the car was not stolen, Mr Tomlinson was charged with assaulting a police officer.

"The duty sergeant asked the plainclothes officers, 'Which one of you did he assault?' The three looked at each other and went into a room for a conference. Ten minutes later they came out and said which one I had assaulted. Then the duty sergeant asked what I had actually done. The one I was supposed to have assaulted said it would all be sorted out when he wrote his report."

Mr Tomlinson had received such severe injuries that he was taken to Moorfields Eye Hospital, where he needed two operations to save his right eye. He still cannot see clearly, he has no feeling on the right side of his face, his eyes remain very painful. He may need a third operation.

When his case finally came to court last month, the magistrate dismissed all charges. Mr Tomlinson is now suing the police for assault, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.

The incident has left him with more than physical scars. His wife Angela says: "He has really changed. He used to be very calm and together. Now he is very edgy all the time. He is constantly in pain, always having headaches."

For months after the attack Mr Tomlinson could not bring himself to return to Brixton. Even now, he says, he is terrified whenever he sees a police officer -"I assume they are going to attack me" - and has been forced to see a psychiatrist. "I have lost any faith in the justice system," he says.

Colin Tomlinson's treatment might seem shocking, but he himself does not see it as unusual. He says: "I was the victim of one of the deepest prejudices in our society. The police saw a black man in a flash car in Brixton and decided the car must be stolen and that I must be a criminal."

Indeed, it was not the first time that he had been treated in this fashion. Three months before the Brixton incident he was driving along the Victoria Embankment by the River Thames. Suddenly he was surrounded by four or five police cars. "It was like something from The Sweeney." He was manhandled and handcuffed and charged with failing to stop for a police officer. Again the case was thrown out of court, again Mr Tomlinson is suing the police for false arrest.

Few people are treated by the police quite so brutally as Colin Tomlinson has been . But it is a common experience for a young black man to be accused of stealing his own car, or to be arrested because he happens to be in the vicinity when a robbery takes place.

In his autobiography, Linford Christie describes being arrested on suspicion of stealing his own car. When fellow athlete John Regis bought a Mercedes, he was stopped four times in as many days. The writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe recently revealed how his daughter was arrested because she happened to be the only black person near the scene of a street robbery. Chief Inspector Dalton McConney, one of the the most senior black officers in the Met, notes in Police Review this month that whereas in the Sixties "black people in cars were seen as ponces", now "they are seen as drug dealers and robbers."

The recent comments about black muggers by Paul Condon, Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, have ignited a fierce controversy about the causes of inner-city crime. Talks on street crime which he held on Friday were boycotted by black lobby groups. Contrary to popular myth, the Home Office's British Crime Survey reveals that the majority of victims of such crimes tend to be black. Yet what concerns most black people is less the threat of crime than the distress of being treated as a criminal. Wes, a student at Goldsmiths' College, London, says: "You have to get used to being treated with suspicion. If a couple of young black men enter a Tube train you can see everyone tense up and nobody makes any eye contact. If you are walking down the street in the West End, women often clutch on to their handbags. You can even see it in the eyes of people when you tell them you come from Brixton."

There is, he says, a paradox in the police picture of black criminality. "On one hand they say that a small number of black criminals are responsible for most of the muggings. Not so long ago there were posters all over Brixton and Tottenham saying that '40 people are responsible for 90 per cent of the muggings in this area'. On the other hand they want to step up stop-and-search patrols in the inner cities, as if every black person is a potential mugger." According to Home Office figures 228,306 people were stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police in 1993 - compared to 19,000 muggings that year. No fewer than 95,751 (or 42 per cent) of those stopped were black or members of ethnic minority communities. These figures suggest that if you are black you are five times more likely to be stopped than if you are white. In such areas as Peckham or Tottenham, the figures were even higher. Fewer than 10 per cent of those stopped and searched were charged with anything. As Grace Higgins of the Society of Black Lawyers puts it, "One in ten of London's black community were stopped and searched for little more than possessing the wrong-coloured skin."

The society receives at least one letter a week pleading for help after a confrontation with the police. Ms Higgins showed me a typical letter last week from a young woman in south London. "Please help me," the letter began. "I am writing to tell you about the racist and horrendous way me and members of my family were treated by the police recently." The letter goes on to describe how the family were awakened by a police raid at 1.30 in the morning. There were at least 10 policemen, two police vans and four police cars outside the house. The sergeant in charge claimed they were looking for the young women's brother, but refused to say why they wished to talk to him or to reveal whether they had search or arrest warrants.

During the raid, the young woman wrote, her mother was pushed down the stairs. When she went to help her mother, she herself was handcuffed and dragged down the stairs.

"I was in a state of shock and could not believe what I had just seen happen," she writes. "Policemen that I have always looked up to and respected were acting like vicious thugs." The letter concludes: "Let me state that we are an educated family. My father is an area bank manager, [my brother] has two degrees and a professional qualification to his name, [my other brother] is about to complete an accounting and technology degree. I will finish my part-time business degree next year, my mother works in theatre as an anaesthetic nurse, etc." She adds: "I fear after what happened I may never trust or respect the police again."

"This is fairly typical," says Ms Higgins. "Many of the letters we receive are from respectable, hardworking, law-abiding families who are confused and disoriented when something like this happens to them."

Why is it that black people are automatically treated as if they are criminals? Many believe it is the inevitable result of a society that still treats black citizens as "immigrants". "From almost the first day black people set foot in this country we have been treated as aliens," says journalist Dyannah Atkinson. "And it is an idea that persists today. Just last week we had Nicholas Tate trying to foist upon us a notion of Britishness that is exclusively white and Christian, and we had Michael Howard announcing new legislation which will force doctors, nurses, and social workers to treat every black person as a potential illegal immigrant. Little wonder the police - and often the public - treat black people as muggers or robbers."

Colin Tomlinson believes that "there is no future for black people like us in Britain". Growing numbers of black professionals seem to agree with him, and are simply packing their bags. Many travel agencies now exclusively deal with black people wanting to emigrate. Some are going where their parents came from. Others are emigrating to such countries as the US or Canada. Mr Tomlinson and his family will be joining this exodus when they leave for a new life in Florida in two months' time.

Do they feel that they will be better treated on the other side of the Atlantic? Angela Tomlinson worries that they may face similar problems there too. "But I worry more about what might happen if we stayed in Britain. I don't want in two, three or five years' time for Colin to be driving a lovely car around Brixton and to be stopped and beaten up again. He could have died last time. Next time he might. We will always be worried about that if we stay in Britain."

Dyannah Atkinson sympathises with the Tomlinsons' plight. But, she points out, emigration is simply not an option open to most black people in this country. "We have to find a solution to our problems here in Britain."

She worries, too, that certain attitudes within the black community might make matters worse. "Many middle-class blacks are concerned about police harassment, but they are equally concerned about what they see as the criminal activities of black youth in the inner cities. They go along with the idea that there is a big problem of black crime in the inner cities, and they worry that such crime is making it harder for black professionals to get accepted in society. So they are quite happy to see police action continuing against black youth on the streets or the estates, so long as they themselves are left alone.

"I am sure that if Condon had worded his letter more tactfully, all those community leaders who are now up in arms would have backed the new stop- and- search operations he wants to introduce into inner-city areas. But the only result of such operations will be even more harassment and false arrests. So long as you accept the myth of black criminality, everybody in the black community will continue to suffer."