The apology was made through the assistant commissioner, Ian Johnston, the force's third highest-ranking officer. At the public inquiry into Stephen's death, he told the Lawrence family: "We have let you down. We could have and should have done better.
"On behalf of myself and the commissioner, who specifically asked me to associate himself with these words, and the whole of the Metropolitan Police, I offer my sincere and deep apologies to you," he said.
Despite Mr Johnston's statement, pressure was mounting last night for the commissioner himself to appear before the inquiry.
Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, believe that since ultimate responsibility for the conduct of individual officers rests with Sir Paul, he should be called to answer questions about why the murder investigation went so badly wrong. Sir Paul yesterday made it clear that he was willing to attend. But Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, chairman of the inquiry, and his three advisers are understood to be divided about whether he should be called.
Yesterday's apology was a belated attempt by the Metropolitan Police to counter the disastrous effect of the public inquiry on the force's image, with almost daily revelations of negligence and incompetence over the past three months. Last week, Mr Lawrence told the inquiry that he was bitter about the police's failure to apologise to his family.
Mr Johnston's statement was unexpected. Yesterday, he waited for Mr Lawrence to arrive before addressing him from the witness box. Standing up, he said: "Mr Lawrence, I wanted to say to you that I am truly sorry that we have let you down. It has been a tragedy for you. You have lost a son and not seen his killers brought to justice."
He went on: "It has been a tragedy for the Metropolitan Police, who have lost the confidence of a significant section of the community for the way we have handled the case. I can understand and explain some of what went wrong. I cannot and do not seek to justify it.
"We are determined to learn lessons from this. A great deal has changed and yet will change. We have tried over the last four years, since the first investigation, to show imagination and determination to prosecute Stephen's killers. I deeply regret that we have not put his killers away."
Mr Johnston also apologised for his own obstinacy over the years in refusing to acknowledge mistakes in the way that the original murder inquiry was conducted. As recently as February last year, he claimed that "right from the start, we did all we could".
Five youths were charged with the racially motivated attack on Stephen, who was stabbed to death in Eltham, south-east London, in April 1993. None was ever convicted.
Outside the inquiry, the Lawrences said that the apology followed "five years of trauma, heartache and suffering".
"The commissioner now accepts that the first investigation was flawed and incompetent," they said in a statement. "What will happen to those officers? Will they be disciplined? Will those now retired lose their pensions?"
Mr Lawrence added: "We would like now to have the commissioner here himself to answer questions and him himself to apologise."
The inquiry was adjourned until Monday.
Today, the High Court will decide whether the five suspects can be forced to attend the inquiry.Reuse content