The Stephen Lawrence inquiry has exposed shocking levels of police negligence and incompetence
AT ABOUT 7pm on 23 April, 1993, a young skinhead walked into Eltham police station in south-east London and told the desk sergeant that he had some information for the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry. It was a Friday evening, less than 24 hours after Stephen's fatal encounter with a gang of white racist thugs.

Detective Constable Christopher Budgen, one of two dozen officers assigned to the murder squad, was sent down from the incident room to talk to the visitor. The young man was clearly nervous. He gave his name, but told Budgen that he wanted his identity to be kept a secret.

The information he provided was detailed and specific. Stephen had been killed by five youths, he said: Jamie Acourt, his twin brother Neil, David Norris, and two others. He gave a description of the Acourts and their address, adding that they called themselves the Krays. He said that they regularly carried knives and had been involved in three previous violent attacks, including the killing of a Bangladeshi teenager in 1992. New recruits to their gang, he said, had to stab someone to prove themselves.

Budgen returned to the incident room and spoke to Detective Inspector Ben Bullock, second-in-command of the inquiry team, while the skinhead - later given the pseudonym James Grant - waited downstairs. Budgen says Bullock "showed little or no interest" in his news; Bullock says he was "up to my eyeballs in other things". One thing is undisputed, though: Grant went away and police did not speak to him again for another four days.

Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, believe that the way that detectives dealt with Grant helps to explain why, five years on, their son's killers remain free to walk the streets. It was not only his information that should have made Bullock sit up and listen. Grant was already known to police as a reliable informant. And this time police had a source at the heart of the action.

ON the fourth floor of a government office block in south London, overlooking the fumes and traffic snarl of the Elephant and Castle roundabout, the investigation into Stephen's murder is being dissected with forensic precision.

A judicial inquiry, chaired by Sir William Macpherson, a retired High Court judge, has interrogated 46 police officers about their role in the events of 1993. Their abortive attempts to solve the murder have been reconstructed, minute by minute, day by day, in unprecedented detail. The picture, after eight weeks, is now virtually complete.

Last January, a Police Complaints Authority report identified "significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities" in the conduct of the case. The conclusions of the four-man inquiry team are likely to be far more scathing. For the story that has unfolded before them is one of incompetence at every level and every stage, compounded, as far as the treatment of the Lawrence family is concerned, by insensitivity on a shocking scale.

STEPHEN, a bright, outgoing 18-year-old who wanted to become an architect, was stabbed to death by five, possibly six white youths as he waited for a bus home in Eltham with his friend, another young black man, Duwayne Brooks.

One of the few certainties to emerge from the public inquiry is that the five prime suspects - the three identified by Grant, plus Gary Dobson and Luke Knight - could all have been arrested within 48 hours. Instead, police chose to wait two weeks, with disastrous consequences for the success of the prosecution.

The first mistakes, though, were made on the night of the murder. Duwayne, who survived the attack, was able to point out to police the direction in which the gang had run off. There was a strong probability that the killers lived locally, on the Brook Estate; in fact, the evidence suggests that they were moving around between each other's homes in the hours after Stephen was killed. Yet searches of local streets were sketchy at best, and house-to-house enquiries were random and limited.

The only people seen behaving suspiciously were five white youths who drove past the scene twice, laughing and jeering. But although a call was put out over the police radio, the car, a red Astra, was not stopped for a week. It was later established that its occupants had included two violent racists convicted in connection with the murder of a black boy, Rolan Adams. Perhaps it was coincidence that drew them to the spot where Stephen was knifed. And then again, perhaps it was not.

So that first night yielded little, as far as police were concerned. But over the next two days, detectives - who were later to complain that they came up against a "wall of silence" in the local community - received 39 pieces of information from 26 anonymous and named sources, most of them identifying the same five suspects.

Some of these tips came from potential key witnesses. And Grant, the skinhead informant, led police to a further two: one, known only as B, who said he saw the suspects running from the scene, and another, K, who said he visited the Acourts' house at midnight and saw the five youths stripped to the waist, with wet hair, and a bloody knife.

The witnesses were teenagers, young, vulnerable and anxious, and police say they could not persuade them to cooperate. The Lawrences say they might have succeeded if they had moved more quickly - there was a delay of nine days before detectives saw B, for instance - and handled them with greater sensitivity. An offer of assistance by a Greenwich council worker who had experience of dealing with reluctant witnesses was not taken up.

Detective Superintendent Ian Crampton, who was in charge of the murder inquiry early on, says he now regrets not making arrests in the first two days. Early arrests, he acknowledges, would have enabled the suspects' homes to be searched and, possibly, forensic evidence to be seized. Identification parades could have been held while memories were still fresh.

Instead, evidence may have been removed under the noses of a police surveillance team watching the Acourts' home. Members of the team twice saw bin-liners being taken away that appeared to contain clothing, but they were unable to alert the incident room because they had no radios or mobile telephones. It was lack of evidence that obliged the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the case after two months. A private prosecution taken out by the Lawrence family in 1996 also failed to secure convictions. The five suspects have begun a legal challenge to a summons for them to testify at the public inquiry.

LAWYERS for the Lawrences, led by Michael Mansfield QC, believe that the conduct of the police investigation was so deeply flawed that it cannot be explained by mere incompetence. Darker forces - racism, or corruption - must have been at play, they argue.

Thus the public inquiry has heard much about Clifford Norris, father of David Norris, one of the five youths. Clifford, it has emerged, was a violent and dangerous south London criminal who was known to intimidate witnesses and reputed to be in the pay of police officers. Currently serving eight years for drug-smuggling, he had two loaded firearms and an Uzi submachine-gun at his side when he was arrested in 1994.

At the time of Stephen's murder, though, he was still living in his mansion in Kent, complete with security gates and Rottweilers. The theory of the Lawrence legal team is that Norris, whose criminal associates included three uncles of the Acourts, knew officers on the murder team - and that as soon as his son was named as a suspect, a conspiracy was hatched to "go easy" on the five.

All this has been roundly denied by detectives. But a report on a police investigation into a Flying Squad officer linked to Norris is to be disclosed to the inquiry tomorrow, and may enable Mr Mansfield to steer further into these murky waters.

Establishing the impact of racism on the case is equally difficult. There is some evidence that half a dozen detectives, perhaps more, were ambivalent about classing the murder as racially motivated. Duwayne Brooks, meanwhile, believes that, because of his colour, police treated him as a suspect rather than a victim and were sceptical about his version of events.

The role of racism is a crucial issue for the public inquiry team, which includes the Right Rev John Sentamu, the Bishop of Stepney. For as well as unpicking the Lawrence case stitch by stitch, the team must identify the lessons to be learnt for the investigation of racially motivated crimes. In this respect, its report will have long-term implications for the future of British policing and is expected to be as influential as the Scarman Report of the Eighties.

For the Lawrences, the inquiry represents their last chance to secure justice for Stephen. It is, though, a gruelling experience. Neville Lawrence, who attends every day, dignified, unfailingly courteous, relives his son's death countless times as a succession of unrepentant police officers passes through the witness box.

Sitting in a pizza restaurant in Elephant and Castle at the end of a long day, he says that some of the questions that have haunted him for the past five years are finally being answered. "Until I get all the answers, I can't grieve properly for Stephen," he says. "It is becoming clear to me how much the police let us down. Instead of locking up Stephen's killers, they added to our nightmares."