Grounds for suspicion

Last week, London's chief police officer blamed young black men for most street crime. But what do his 'facts' add up to? Peter Victor and Nick Cohen report
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SUPPOSE Sir Paul Condon were to write to, say, Sir John Harvey- Jones, Will Carling, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie George and Mick Jagger, asking them to come and visit him as leading members of the white middle- class male community. Suppose, too, he were to say their community was largely responsible for commercial fraud and sex offences against children and that he wanted to consult them before taking action; would they think he was mad?

The Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police is not normally thought to be insane. He is widely considered to be the brightest, most politically astute chief police officer to hold the office. He has handled a series of embarrassing and potentially damaging crises - a huge corruption investigation, the death of Joy Gardner, the theft of millions by a police accountant from under his bosses' noses - with aplomb.

Yet last week he appeared to take a police handgun and quite deliberately empty it into his foot. Writing to 40 "community leaders" (code for black people considered community leaders by the police, usually on the basis that they have served on an elected body or been quoted in the media) he invited them to a meeting to discuss an initiative against street robberies.

It is unlikely any of them would have objected had he not added: "It is a fact that very many of the perpetrators of muggings are very young black people, who have been excluded from school or are unemployed." He supported this claim with figures purporting to show that 80 per cent of street robberies in London were committed by black youths.

The response was immediate, sharp, and predictable. "Chief breaks taboo to reveal most muggers are black," read one headline. "People will think that every young black person is a mugger just because the Metropolitan Police Commissioner says so," Bernie Grant, the Labour MP for Tottenham, said before going on to accuse the commissioner of suggesting that black people were "somehow intrinsically violent".

Grant's condemnation was echoed in less excitable, more new-Labourish terms by Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, and Harriet Harman, the shadow Employment Secretary, followed by a queue of criminologists, who all dismissed Condon's approach as misconceived and at best irrelevant.

"In an open society," Straw said, "it is entirely right that there should be an informed debate about all aspects of crime. But the aim of that debate must be to reduce crime levels not to exacerbate racial tension. It is not the statistics themselves that are the problem but the wild conclusions that can be drawn from them."

Both the Commission for Racial Equality and the Society of Black Lawyers saw the remark as leaving the way open to the sort of stop-and-search policies which led to the Brixton riots in 1981.

John Wadham, legal officer for Liberty, said the 1994 Criminal Justice Act gave the police sweeping powers of stop and search which could now be invoked.

But the commissioner did find one influential supporter: his chief, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. Howard criticised those who let over-sensitivity stand in the way of tackling crime. "Political correctness is the great discriminator," he said. "It is the enemy of the victims of crime, and its supporters are the friends of the criminal."

CONDON is an astute player of the media game. He has been a leading figure in developing police relations with the ethnic communities, taking much of the credit for defusing the Notting Hill Carnival during his time as a deputy assistant commissioner. The statistics he quoted have been "known" to the police for at least 10 years. Indeed, Superintendent Bill Granley was branded racist, subjected to an internal police investigation and refused promotion for saying a similar thing only eight years ago about policing in Harlesden. So why has Condon taken this action now?

In a brief interview with the Daily Telegraph Condon spoke of "grasping the nettle", of his fear that "sensitivity can lead to inertia". He gave no other clue to his motives and has not spoken publicly since.

The CRE, in a statement this weekend, made clear its suspicions: "We are concerned that the commissioner's initiative may be a reaction to pressure from some police officers and others who have objected to the publicity surrounding concerns about the considerable overrepresentation of black young men in stop-and-search figures."

In Bernie Grant's office, the feeling was that the commissioner is under pressure to talk tough after a series of diplomatic moves apparently aimed at improving relations with the black community.

Condon is under some pressure from those within his own force and the Home Office who are uneasy with an approach markedly more liberal than that of his predecessors. In his first speech as commissioner he chose to highlight the need for the police force to treat its own minorities fairly and equally. PC, the force "joke" went, stood for Politically Correct as well as Paul Condon and Police Constable.

His endorsement of a separate association of black police officers produced further resentment from traditionalists. In his handling of the death of Joy Gardner during a police raid he showed more political skill than Home Office ministers. Grant's aid was enlisted; three members of the Immigration Squad were immediately suspended and conditions that might have led to a riot were defused.

But these were not methods that endeared themselves to advocates of the smack of firm policing; and such advocates found themselves much bolstered by the subsequent acquittal of the Immigration Squad officers. In these quarters there was much pleasure last week at the shift in tone and promise of a crackdown on black street crime.

The Police Federation viewed the move as a positive step. Fred Broughton, its chairman, said it was important to keep the matter in context. "The commissioner is trying to get a multi- agency approach to the problem of street robbery and it is only sensible that he attempt to speak to people to try to do this."

He added that in the US there was recognition that certain types of crime were linked to certain ethnic groups. Police efforts to recruit more black officers would defuse accusations of racism levelled at a similar recognition in the UK, he said.

"There has to be open debate and it should be based on recognition that the police are making strenuous efforts to recruit in the black and ethnic minorities, not 10- to 15-year-old attitudes from community leaders. But of course we understand the sensitivities, we lived through the Eighties, we've read the Scarman report very carefully. We have pride in this country in policing by consent."

Others were less pleased. Several senior Metropolitan Police officers were incensed by the timing and method of tackling such a sensitive issue. "Summer is here, the weather is hot, school holidays will shortly swell the number of youths on the street and the commissioner is putting young black men on notice that they face a hard time," one said.

Another senior Scotland Yard detective said the commissioner's aims were sound: "The point is that the last time I looked at the figures, street robbery was a young black crime, and we should say that. It is about time we tried to address this. And the way to go about it is by talking to people. But maybe I would have pointed out at the same time that paedophile attacks are a white, middle-class crime."

YOUNG black men we interviewed were resigned as much as angry. They said they were used to being stopped and searched. Compared with the irritation of being asked repeatedly whether they are carrying drugs, stealing cars or looking for mugging victims, the commissioner's letter was a pinprick.

"They shouldn't publish something like this in the papers," was a typical comment. "What they are saying is 80 per cent of blacks are thugs. They haven't got the right to do that. Would they say it about Jews? Why didn't they say 80 per cent of whites are football hooligans?"

"I thought he [Condon] was a decent bloke until this," said another. "I hate it when I pass white ladies and they grab their handbag tight and look at me sideways. Now he's just made it worse. Where do they get these figures from?"

The Metropolitan Police said they came from a survey of mugging victims. But this did little to stem the criticism. How big was the survey? How sure were victims of a mugger's colour? Wasn't it the case that white victims were more likely to report a black mugger than a white mugger?

A senior officer was reported as stressing that young blacks were "not over-represented" in other forms of crime; burglary, he said, was predominantly a white crime. But a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said that no comparative figures for crimes other than street robbery had been compiled. According to one source, the figures had been collected only from areas where black street robbery was reported to be a serious problem.

There were other figures. Harriet Harman released some showing that 61 per cent of black males in London aged between 16 and 24 are unemployed, compared with 22 per cent of white males of that age. Nationally, 81 per cent of those jailed for robbery are white. In many other areas, such as Newcastle and Glasgow, street crime is as high as in London and is overwhelmingly committed by young white men. According to the CRE, the majority of street crimes in London are committed by a tiny number of young men, some 30 to 40 who may come to dominate one area.

NOR COULD Condon have taken any pleasure in the views of the body he encouraged, the Black Police Association. "This will reaffirm the racist belief that all black people are criminals. It's a very sensitive issue which has not been handled sensitively at all. The police have handed racists ammunition."

Ellis Cashmore, Professor of Sociology at Staffordshire University and author of Out of Order - Policing Black People, said: "It is significant that Sir Paul has used the term 'mugging' which is a term imported from the US. The actual crime is street robbery. As soon as you mention muggers it signifies blackness. People have made that connection for the last 20 years.

"Historically, police forces in Britain have profited from the crisis that seems to surround young black people. The police have gained political leverage from identifying a social group and saying it is in crisis. What has happened is that it is assumed there is going to be trouble when young black people reach a certain age which is why they've been given a lot more attention. The rationale is that young black people are going to commit street crime."

Other academics were more concerned about the relevance of Condon's view than its taboo quality. "Let's not be PC about this," said Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics. "It's fair enough to ask victims to describe their assailants. There was a famous moment in 1981 when a criminologist accused a policeman of stereotyping muggers as black men and received the reply: 'Well, if the victim says he's been attacked by a black man, what am I meant to do - look for a white man?'

"What you cannot do is use figures with any certainty. The clear-up rate for robbery in the street is so low that no one knows who commits the crimes."

And, he thought, in the present circumstances, "it's like Thirties Berlin publishing a statistic that 60 per cent of bank managers are Jewish. It may be true, but it isn't a helpful way to discuss crime".

Dr Michael Keith, who has carried out extensive research on the police and race relations, said: "If you were to standardise for everything else - education, unemployment, housing estates, life chances - race on its own would have virtually no significance."

Professor Jock Young, of Middlesex University, said: "Street robbery is the most amateurish crime and therefore generally committed by the poorest people. While they are likely to be black in inner London, they will almost certainly be white in Newcastle, or in Glasgow. Sir Paul is confusing poverty, and inner-city dwelling, with race."

The clear-up rate in the Metropolitan area is, in fact, a tiny 10 per cent. Some idea of the sophistication of police methods up until now can be drawn from the issue of a Crimestoppers picture of a mugger in 1989.

According to a Scotland Yard source, the victim and a police artist sat down to produce an impression of the woolly-hatted mugger. The victim pointed to a picture of Nigel Benn, the champion boxer. A hat was drawn on the photograph and it was duly released to the press. Mr Benn was subsequently paid hefty compensation by the police, but not before he was tackled, surrounded and jumped on by would-be citizens' arrest-makers.

Condon is due to hold his meeting on 28 July. This in itself is another surprisingly inept piece of public relations which has also caused its measure of anger: 28 July is the second anniversary of the attempt to arrest and deport Joy Gardner. He is unlikely to be guaranteed a full attendance. Already, Peter Herbert of the Society of Black Lawyers has called for a boycott of the meeting, accusing Condon of pandering to racists and taking the debate back 15 years.

Despite the furore, there was no sign of any softening from Condon yesterday. "The victims of street crime are as likely to be black as anything else," said a spokesman. "The commissioner has got a job to do which is trying to stop people committing street robbery. If you are going to do something about that it is better to talk to people and say we are going to be gathering intelligence, target and pull in the right people. Why not talk to the community leaders and get them in to talk about it?"

But an officer in Stoke Newington, an area of London with a high black population, was less impressed: "What a prat! It didn't need to be said really. All the indices of poverty, housing, unemployment and the rest show that the blacks round here are at the bottom of the pile. Condon should be saying this is down to government policies. But he can't, can he?"