Crunch week for Condon over race

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The Independent Online

The Metropolitan Police is preparing for a week that could fatally undermine its new race relations strategy.

The Metropolitan Police is preparing for a week that could fatally undermine its new race relations strategy.

Deep-rooted racism and prejudice, said to be rife among the lower ranks, have already threatened to derail the London police force's much-publicised drive to improve relations with ethnic minorities.

But the next seven days will be the toughest for the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, since the damning Macpherson report on the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The inquest into the death of Ricky Reel - which was previously dismissed by the Met as a drowning rather than a racist murder - begins tomorrow. The 20-year-old Asian was found in the river Thames in October 1997, seven days after he disappeared. Minutes before he was last seen alive, he and three friends had been assaulted and racially abused by two white men in Kingston upon Thames. His family is convinced he was the victim of a further attack.

And on 8 November the trial of two men accused of murdering the musician Michael Menson begins. Menson's killing was also reinvestigated following criticism of the Met's handling of the case.

In London yesterday more than 200 relatives of people who have died in police custody marched to Downing Street to call for a review of the procedures for investigating deaths in custody and in psychiatric hospitals. There have been 1,350 people - black and white - who have died in police cells or prison since 1990. This year 17 black people have already died in police custody. The names of many of the most notorious cases - Joy Gardner, Rocky Bennett, Roger Sylvester and Kenneth Severin - were included on a placard listing all those who had died. The march was organised by the United Families and Friends Campaign which considers the prison, police and coroner's court procedures, in the event of such deaths, to be inadequate.

The police handling of all race issues is also expected to be heavily criticised in a report from Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, due to be published at around the same time.

But perhaps the most damaging blow of all will be dealt by a frank television documentary focusing on the fight against racism within the Met. It will reveal how officers at the grass roots are struggling to come to terms with the high expectations of their superiors.

The findings are bound to cause unease among senior officers who are determined to stamp out racism in the ranks, and will reopen the wounds of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

Race Against Crime was made by the award-winning film-maker Roger Graef, who was given exclusive access to film the police. Graef, who is also a member of the Met's lay advisory group, which has been suspended, believes racism is not just confined to the police.

He said: "I want people to see this documentary as the beginning of a long journey and not a conclusion. It must not be viewed as a stick to beat the police. There is a huge commitment at the top to deal with racism but it is not just a police problem. This film could have been made in any major bank or institution and the findings would have been the same."

Graef was invited by Sir Paul and Commander John Grieve to film the Met's efforts to turn itself into an anti-racist force last year. The police had already begun to make changes months before the Macpherson report, which found the police guilty of institutionalised racism.

In the first part of the film, officers were encouraged to discuss their fears and prejudices at a compulsory two-day community race relations workshop. "I have no problem talking to white people, but I get confused and don't understand most other nationalities," said one. Another, with more than 20 years' experience, said all black people "look the same to me". The Lawrence report has encouraged black people to complain if they feel they have been harassed, but as a result officers said they were more reluctant to take part in "stop and searches" because they feared that contact with black men could lead to trouble.

One policewoman said she felt that it was the police who were being discriminated against because of the uniform. "We are not robots just because we put on the uniform."

The number of reports of, and arrests linked to, racist crimes have increased by 300 per cent since the Lawrence report. "We will change the culture by locking people up for racism," said one senior officer.

'Race Against Crime' is on Channel 4 on 7 November at 8pm.

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