Lawrence Inquiry: Damning evidence of racism in uniform

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THE PUBLIC inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence ended yesterday with a plea from his father, Neville, for the healing process to begin. "We have to put the past behind us and go forward together," he told the final hearing of the eight-month inquiry.

Mr Lawrence was addressing an audience in Birmingham, the last stop on the inquiry team's regional tour, and his words drew a standing ovation. Later, outside the public meeting, he said he felt the inquiry had been a force for good, but expressed anguish at the failure to convict his son's racist killers.

Speaking at the end of a day that had begun with a minute's silence for his son Stephen, Mr Lawrence said: "The justice that we needed and wanted, we won't get," he said. "There's a burning inside me; I feel I've been robbed of the justice that we so richly deserve."

With the evidence completed, the inquiry chairman, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, and his three advisers will now retreat into purdah to write their report, which they plan to give to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, by next February.

The report, expected to herald a watershed in the policing of Britain's ethnic minority communities, will deliver a verdict on the abortive police investigation of Stephen's murder as well as recommendations for the handling of racially motivated crime.

Stephen, an 18-year-old A-level student, was stabbed to death by a white gang near a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, in April 1993. The public inquiry was ordered by Mr Straw after the collapse of criminal proceedings against five suspects: Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight.

The first part of the inquiry, which ended in July, uncovered a litany of incompetence by murder-squad officers and heard allegations that the investigation was stymied by racism and allegations of corruption. It exposed the unravelling of the Lawrence murder investigation, and a crisis of confidence in the Metropolitan Police.

The second part, concluded yesterday, was a quest for lessons to be learnt from the case. It furnished compelling evidence that the grievances of London's minority communities are replicated around Britain.

These regional meetings were a magnet for black and Asian people who grasped this opportunity to bear witness, to describe the indifference, harassment and brutality that they say represent their routine experience of the police.

They spoke on the periphery of the hearings, during lunchtimes and coffee breaks, in secluded corners of the hotel conference suites where the inquiry convened.

Some of their faces were already familiar, thanks to dogged campaigns waged in the public eye. The Manchester meeting was attended by Mal Hussain, an Asian shopkeeper on a Lancaster housing estate who has endured seven years of racial harassment, including stonings and fire bombings.

In Greenford, west London, there was Kwesi Menson, brother of Michael Menson, the musician who died after being set alight in north London, and Sukhdev Reel, mother of Ricky Reel, the Asian student found drowned in the Thames. They, as Mr Hussain does, accuse the police of racism and apathy.

Janet Alder travelled to the Bradford meeting in the hope of highlighting the case of her brother, Christopher, who died in unexplained circumstances in Hull police station last April.

Bradford, as with other cities visited by the public inquiry team over the past few weeks, was the backdrop for countless such tales. For instance, when one Pakistani woman rang the police to report that a bottle of urine had been tossed through her door, she was told: "At least it wasn't petrol. You won't burn in your beds."

Two clear themes emerged. As Lee Jasper, chairman of the 1990 Trust, a leading black organisation, put it recently, ethnic minority citizens in Britain are "under-policed as victims of crime, over-policed when going about their law-abiding business".

That is the nub of the whole sorry matter. On the one hand, blacks and Asians say, police fail to investigate, properly, racially motivated crime, whether it be the daily harassment that makes many families' lives a misery, or the brutal murders that shape the headlines. On the other hand, they say they suffer heavy-handed policing based on racist stereotypes.

Recent Home Office research found that black people are eight times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched, and five times more likely to be arrested.

The inquiry also heard a wealth of anecdotal evidence about the chilling regularity with which members of ethnic minorities are treated as perpetrators when they summon police to protect them.

In Greenford, the Southall Monitoring Group, which collates such cases, spoke for a dozen men and women sitting in the audience. Optan, for instance, a Somali woman who needed five days of hospital treatment after she was kicked and punched by a white neighbour while seven months pregnant. Police have yet to interview her alleged assailant.

And Miguel, a young Asian who was racially abused and assaulted by some white men at Gatwick airport, where he was seeing off a friend. His friend called the police, who arrested, detained and charged Miguel. No one else was ever questioned.

The inquiry team, which held the regional meetings with the aim of taking the temperature of race relations outside London, has been left in no doubt as to the depth of cynicism and hostility with which police are viewed by the black and Asian population.

As Sir William Macpherson retires to consider his recommendations, he is aware that nothing less than radical reform will begin to restore public confidence.

He knows that it will take more than a bit of tinkering at the edges to deliver a police force that serves all communities equally.

Inquiry Flashpoints

The eight months of the Lawrence inquiry has heard unprecedented criticism of Britain's police:

24 March 1998

Edmund Lawson QC, counsel to the inquiry, opens the hearings. He describes the police inquiry as "seriously flawed". Michael Mansfield QC, representing the Lawrence family, says: "The magnitude of the failure in this case cannot be explained by mere incompetence ... So much was missed by so many that deeper causes and forces must be considered."

30 March

Neville Lawrence (father) says in statement that he was told that the suspects were seen washing blood off themselves on the night of the murder.

8 May

Michael Mansfield QC alleges there was a corrupt link between a police officer and Clifford Norris, a criminal, and father of one of the five suspects.

14 May

Suspects announce plan to seek leave to apply for judicial review of decision to call them to give evidence.

12 June

High Court grants suspects leave to apply for review.

15 June

Videotape at inquiry shows suspects brandishing knives and expressing violent racist views.

17 June

Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Met, apologises to the family for the incompetent investigation.

18 June

Lord Justice dismisses review application, but says suspects may not be asked whether they killed Stephen.

29 June

Suspects' appearance is marked by violent scenes as Nation of Islam activists attempt to enter building.

30 June

Suspects are pelted with bottles after evasive and implausible evidence and end up fighting in streets.

1 October

Sir Paul Condon repeatedly denies that there is institutional racism in his force. But he says: "I deeply regret that we have not brought Stephen's racist murderers to justice and I would like to personally apologise again today to Mr and Mrs Lawrence for our failure."

13 November

The inquiry final hearings

in Birmingham.

February 1999

Sir William Macpherson's report to be published.