Gay rights: A matter of pride for the Metropolitan Police?

The force's attitude towards homosexuality may have changed, but did past prejudice compromise investigations?

When more than 100 uniformed gay officers took to the streets of London in the annual Gay Pride march, they were doing more than celebrating their sexuality. They were signalling the huge steps said to have been made in recent years by the Metropolitan Police in its attitude towards homosexuals and homophobic crime.

Now, in a move designed to signify its new approach, the Metropolitan Police has established an inquiry to examine whether past prejudice among officers influenced its investigation of anti-gay murders.

By studying the murders of six gay people dating back to 1990, the inquiry is intended to establish whether those investigations were compromised by prejudice and what lessons can be learnt for future murder hunts involving gay, bisexual and transsexual victims. It also aims to boost confidence among gays employed by the police.

The inquiry has been established because concerns remain that many gay people believe the police are still prejudiced against them, although it is widely accepted that the force has made progress in its handling of the issues.

Indeed, the presence of police officers - led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick, the force's most prominent gay officer - as participants in Saturday's march would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Leaders of the gay community have praised the force for its changed attitudes.

A team of homicide detectives, analysts and representatives of the gay community will study the six murder inquiries, dating back to 1990: three before the Macpherson report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, and three which took place afterwards.

Sir William Macpherson of Cluny's report, published in February 1999, made a series of recommendations aimed at improving the way the police investigate racist and other types of hate crime. The Met wants to make sure it has learnt the lessons from the debacle surrounding that murder.

One of the cases being examined is the unsolved murder of the actor Michael Boothe in west London in 1990, which brought to a head resentment over the treatment of anti-gay violence. Mr Boothe was beaten to death by a gang close to a public lavatory where police had arrested large numbers of gay men for soliciting. Another case being reviewed is that of Colin Ireland, the serial killer who was jailed for life in 1993 for murdering five gay men he met at pubs in London. After Ireland's conviction, some gay activists claimed that the fifth murder could have been averted if police had realised and made public earlier the links between the first four.

The investigation did, however, mark a new degree of co-operation between police and the gay community. Police were forced to seek the assistance of Galop, the group that monitors police and gays in London. Gay officers were also drafted in to the investigation as advisers.

Bob Hodgson, co-chairman of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) advisory group to the Met, said: "There was a feeling in the past among some members of the LGBT community that the police viewed a homophobic murder as "another one less on the street" and that the investigation would not be applied with the same rigour as a Jill Dando type of murder.

"That is not the reality now, although there remains suspicion among some members of the gay community. I believe that the police are no longer bothered who the victim is. It is just treated as a murder."

One of the turning points, he said, was the case of Jaap Bornkamp, who was knifed in a homophobic attack in south-east London in June 2000.

The police took the unusual step of displaying 20ft by 10ft images of CCTV footage taken near the murder scene, in an effort to identify the killers.

Despite the murder being unsolved, the police's efforts to catch the culprit impressed many within the gay community, Mr Hodgson said.

Detective Chief Superintendent Adrian Maybanks, the head of the racial and violent crime task force and the officer heading the review into the six homophobic murders, said: "We are trying to breach the confidence gap among some members of the LGBT community."

Among the steps taken to improve relations with the gay community are the establishment of LBGT liaison officers in every police borough and a close working relationship with officers from the Met's gay police association.

"There has been a true shift within the organisation since the Macpherson inquiry," he said.

VICTIMS AND PERPETRATORS OF HOMOPHOBIC CRIMES

COLIN IRELAND (left)

Ireland, 43, was given five life sentences in 1993 for the murder of five gay men he picked up at London pubs. He targeted men involved in sado-masochism and killed them in their homes. Ireland, from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, said he wanted to be recognised as a serial killer.

MICHAEL BOOTHE

The actor was beaten to death by up to six men at midnight in April 1990, close to a public lavatory near Elthorne Park, west London, used by gay men for sex. Mr Boothe died from massive internal bleeding. He was stamped on with such violence that a foot was almost severed. The case remains unsolved.

GEMMA BROWNE

In 1997, 23-year-old Gemma Browne, a transsexual prostitute, was found dead of stab wounds at her flat near BBC Broadcasting House in central London. The murder of Ms Browne, formerly James Darwin Browne, has not been solved.

JAAP BORNKAMP (right)

The 52-year-old gay Dutch florist was knifed in a homophobic attack in south-east London, as he walked in New Cross Road with a friend, minutes after leaving a club in Deptford in June 2000. Police say there was no apparent confrontation or argument and the attack was purely homophobic and unprovoked.

GEOFFREY WINDSOR (right)

Died from head injuries in a south London park in June 2002, a murder police say was homophobically motivated. Mr Windsor, 57, had been beaten and robbed in Beaulieu Heights park, a popular place for gay men.

DAVID RIDHALGH

The former Merchant Navy seaman was battered to death in an east London churchyard in a suspected homophobic attack. Fergus Noel Tracey, 19, confessed. The victim, an alcoholic but not known as a gay, often joined drinkers in the churchyard after dark.