Race crime is the new terrorism, says Met's expert

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The Independent Online

John Grieve's intention is simply stated: to make the perpetrators of race crimes as repugnant in British society as are the bombers and gunmen responsible for international terrorism.

But the former head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad realises that the task he faces in bringing many of his police colleagues to the same mindset will not be easily accomplished.

Three years ago this spring, Mr Grieve was scouring the Midlands motorway network for the Irish bombers who were threatening to bring the British transport system to its knees by setting off explosives at stations and busy road junctions. Yesterday, he returned to the same area with a very different mission. As the special adviser to the investigation into the suspicious hangings of two black men in Telford, the Metropolitan Deputy Assistant Commissioner and head of Scotland Yard's racial and violent crime task force aimed to reassure Britain's ethnic minority communities that their deaths were taken seriously by the police.

Sitting in a Telford hotel yesterday he told The Independent of his concerns over the case. He admitted he was "uneasy, worried and frightened" by the unanswered questions over the deaths and said the police's treatment of the family of Harold "Errol" and Jason McGowan would reflect the service's progress in the wake of Sir William Macpherson's report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

"It's a very important inquiry," he said "I think their tragedy and particularly the very nature of the unanswered questions illustrates where we are in terms of national learning."

It is now nine months since Errol McGowan, a builder and part-time doorman, was found hanging from a door handle in a house in Telford. His family immediately suspected foul play. For months he had been subjected to racial taunting including death threats.

The McGowans told the police of their concerns and gave them the names of a gang of men who they believed had targeted them. But they claim they were not taken seriously.

The house where Errol, a father of three, was found hanged was not treated as a crime scene, they say, and no fingerprinting or other forensic examination took place. The suspects were not interviewed for more than two weeks. No effort was made, they allege, to trace two men seen acting suspiciously outside the house on the morning of Errol's death.

Then on New Year's Day, Errol's nephew, Jason, who had been carrying out his own investigation into the circumstances of his uncle's death, was found hanging from roadside railings, several hours after celebrating with his wife and friends. The McGowans say that again West Mercia police made an assumption of suicide.

Only after the cases were highlighted in The Independent and the black newspaper The Voice, did the police approach start to change.

On 1 February, the Chief Constable, Peter Hampson, ordered investigations to be completely reopened and Errol's inquest postponed. But the McGowans believed the new investigation could be an attempt to cover up the flaws of the earlier inquiries.

It was only yesterday that the family finally agreed to co-operate with detectives. The catalyst for the changed attitude was John Grieve, who has brought the same dynamism to the tackling of hate crime that he once brought to the investigation of organised crime and international terrorism.

After meeting the McGowans at Scotland Yard just over a month ago, Mr Grieve was immediately keen to be part of the investigation. In turn, the McGowan family warmed to Mr Grieve. As the man who headed the reinvigorated Lawrence investigation, he also had the respect of two of the McGowans' legal advisers, Imran Khan and Michael Mansfield QC, who had both acted for the Lawrence family.

Following negotiations with Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, Mr Hampson appointed Mr Grieve as his special adviser on the McGowan investigation. After several days in Telford, Mr Grieve advised Mr Hampson to make an apology to the family for the way it had been treated.

Yesterday, in a room at the Moat House Hotel in Telford, Mr Hampson said he was sorry. "I apologise personally and on behalf of my force," he said. The McGowan's said they believed the words were "sincere" and said they now hoped "we can move forward" with the investigation.

Mr Grieve knows the family's co-operation is vital to the successful investigation of suspected race crimes. It was he who won the trust of the family of the black musician Michael Menson and believed them that he had been murdered in north London in 1997, even when others, including local officers, were spreading information that the death was "definitely suicide". Mr Grieve's task force later successfully hunted down and prosecuted the racist gang who had set Mr Menson alight.

He now hopes to use a similar strategy to solve the McGowan mystery. "If it's hate crime, people boast about it," he said yesterday. "The longer it goes on the more likely people are to boast about it."

Mr Grieve is anxious to talk to other people in the Shropshire town who have indicated that they have suffered racial harassment, although he has not ruled out other possible motives for killing the two men other than racism. Today in Telford, he, Mr Hampson, and the McGowan family will make the first joint public appeal for information on the two deaths.

Mr Grieve is confident that the new police team, which is working on a "presumption of foul play", is fully devoted to uncovering the truth. After visiting the incident room with the family yesterday, he said: "This is a very good inquiry team with no previous contacts with [the earlier inquiries]. They are totally committed."

Detective Superintendent Mel Shore, the senior investigating officer in charge of a 47-strong team, told the family they would "leave no stone unturned" in getting to the truth.

Mr Grieve said the families of suspected race-crime victims deserved no less. "One of the most important things that came out of Sir William's inquiry was that people said to us: 'Show us you care'," he said.