Racist police face faster discipline

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A TOUGH new disciplinary code, designed to weed out racist police officers, is to be announced by the Home Secretary, as part of a clampdown on "canteen culture".

Jack Straw will introduce the measures to coincide with the report of the judicial inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. The inquiry, headed by Sir William McPherson, is the most significant examination of police racism the force has ever seen. It will publish its findings in the New Year.

The Home Office's tough stance on racism in the ranks is a victory for the Association of Black and Asian Officers, which has lobbied for bigoted police to be purged.

Central to the reforms is the lowering of the standard of proof needed to make a disciplinary charge stick. Until now, "prosecuting" complaints meant proving malpractice to the criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" - a difficult level to reach in disputes involving an officer's word against that of a civilian complainant.

But Mr Straw will amend the regulations to reduce the burden of proof to the civil standard of "the balance of probabilities", as advocated by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

Mr Straw is also expected to introduce new powers for police chiefs to order "fast track" discipline, reducing delays - which can run into years - in bringing an officer before a tribunal.

The reforms follow a study by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, which found that racist and homophobic attitudes were still prevalent within the police force. HMIC also said that officers of sergeant and inspector rank were often "reluctant" to intervene to stop racist language or behaviour.

"It's a milestone and symbolically important," said Simon Holdaway, a former Metropolitan Police sergeant, and now professor of sociology at Sheffield University, who conducted several detailed studies of racism within the police force and has acted as an adviser to the Home Office.

"But it depends on whether senior officers take on board the need for change in the occupational culture," he said. Previous initiatives to confront police racism have run aground.

Black and Asian officers interviewed by Prof Holdaway complained of a torrent of racist remarks from white colleagues. A black constable told him: "I find more racism in the actual force and among colleagues than I've ever had in my whole life. But I accept it because if I don't then I can't do the job."

However, Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, said: "The criminal elements in ethnic communities use police racism as a stock response to their own criminal behaviour. The sad truth is that to point these things out is to run the risk of being accused of being racist."

The number of black and Asian officers in England and Wales has increased from 339 in 1981 to 2,319 in 1996, but this is only 1.82 per cent of the total force, while non-whites make up 6 per cent of the population. There is continuing concern about the high drop-out rate among young black and Asian recruits. Still, the effort has had an effect, say serving black officers. "In recent months there has been a perceptible change of atmosphere for the better," said one senior black officer.