Police 'in denial' over rise in racism complaints

Allegations have doubled in 10 years – but most are baseless, officials claim

Racism complaints against British police officers have more than doubled in the past decade, despite efforts to improve relations with ethnic minorities in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence scandal.

Police forces have received hundreds of allegations of racist behaviour, from violence and false arrest to rudeness and unfair treatment, records obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveal.

But the vast majority of the complaints submitted by alleged victims of racial abuse have been rejected, because the police themselves have ruled either that they are untrue, or that they cannot be substantiated. Only a handful of officers have faced reprimands, including official warnings, for their behaviour – and fewer still have been dismissed.

Critics last night claimed the figures prove that recent high-profile allegations of racist behaviour were "the tip of an iceberg", and that police were "in denial" about the extent of racism within their ranks. However, police officials countered that the majority of complaints were baseless, and reflected the hostility ordinary officers had to face on the streets every day.

The Metropolitan Police was plunged into a fresh race storm last month, when the police watchdog launched an investigation into allegations that racist comments were made by a group of its officers between January and March. Critics accused the police of learning nothing during the 13 years since the Macpherson report into the botched investigation of the murder of the London teenager Stephen Lawrence branded the force "institutionally racist". About 120 Met officers were found guilty of racist behaviour between 1999, when the report was published, and 2011.

But an IoS investigation has established that complaints of racism against police across the country have soared at a time when all forces have been under pressure to build bridges with ethnic minority communities. An analysis of complaints received by 20 forces, including Kent, Bedfordshire, Derbyshire and Central Scotland, has revealed that more than 1,500 officers and civilian staff have been accused of racist behaviour. The annual total has risen from 74 in 2001-02, to 167 in 2010-11, the last year for which figures are available.

However, the vast majority of complaints were recorded as "unsubstantiated", and fewer than one in every 40 accused employees faced official punishment as a result of their alleged actions.

A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: "Allegations of racist behaviour by the police is cause for concern. We had hoped that this culture had been tackled by all the changes that followed the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence."

Among individual cases highlighted was that of an officer in Nottinghamshire who was disciplined after posting obscene racist abuse on a Facebook page about the quality of staff at a call centre in India.

Another officer, in Thames Valley, was fired after telling a colleague who was considering transferring elsewhere: "They don't want clever Pakis." A police constable in Staffordshire was sacked after calling another officer's partner a "Paki" and then making comments about food in a fake foreign accent.

Detective Superintendent Phil Bladen, the head of Staffordshire Police's professional standards department, said: "We thoroughly investigate all such cases and take proportionate criminal or disciplinary action when necessary."

A Bedfordshire Police spokesman said: "The force has 2,000 staff and while we must never be complacent about upholding our aim to treat all our communities with respect, it is worth noting that the number of complaints upheld remains small."

However, Ken Hinds, chairman of the north London-based Haringey Stop and Search Monitoring Group, said: "I have now come to the conclusion that the police are in denial about the extent that racism exists within the police force.

"Very few people from the black and ethic communities ever complain about the treatment they have received in a police street encounter."

Rob Berkeley, director of the race-equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust, said: "These figures represent the people who, after being on the receiving end of ill-treatment by the police, feel able and motivated to complain. I suspect that many others merely seek to avoid interacting with the police ever again."

But Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said that the figures "highlight [that] the vast majority of complaints made are found to have no substance to them and reflect the often hostile and confrontational situations police officers find themselves involved in".

Equality and the law

22 April 1993 Black teenager Stephen Lawrence is stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in south-east London. Police assume it is a black-on-black killing.

1999 The Macpherson report into the handling of the case accuses the Metropolitan Police of institutional racism.

1999 Mark Ellison accepts £30,000 from Greater Manchester Police over his claim for assault, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. He claims one officer said: "You are going to die, you black bastard."

2005 Northumbria Police apologise and pay £10,000 to Dr Ranjit Johri after officers subjected him to a humiliating ordeal of arrest and wrongful imprisonment.

2006 The police watchdog accuses four Humberside officers of "unwitting racism", after they chatted while former paratrooper Christopher Alder choked to death on his vomit as he lay handcuffed on a police station floor in front of them.

2011 Cleveland Police pay a five-figure sum to Karim Allison after he sued for malicious arrest and malfeasance in public office. He also claimed an officer refused to shake his hand because he "didn't like the colour".

April 2012 PC Alex MacFarlane of the Metropolitan Police is accused of racially abusing Mauro Demetrio during last summer's riots. A recording reportedly captures him saying: "The problem with you is you will always be a nigger, yeah?"

April 2012 Fireman Edric Kennedy-Macfoy complains he was racially abused, assaulted and shot with a stun gun after trying to assist police officers while off duty.

April 2012 Sultan Alam, a former police officer, accepts more than £800,000 compensation from Cleveland Police over claims he was racially abused by colleagues, then set up and jailed for a crime he did not commit.