A puzzling letter from a smart policeman

Blaming London's young blacks for muggings is hardly the act of a sensitive and astute Commissioner. Trevor Phillips examines the possible explanations for such a lapse in judgement
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Not long ago a rumour circulated Fleet Street that, in the course of interviewing Sir Paul Condon, I had so provoked him that he took me by the throat and held me against the wall until I promised to stop asking awkward questions. Sadly, though the story might have sealed my reputation as a hard-hitting interrogator, it was pure fantasy. True, there were some tense moments in our conversation; but no more than usual in the many previous occasions I had talked to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner for The London Programme, the LWT current affairs weekly which I present. The reason it seemed such a juicy story is that it is so unlikely.

Of the four Commissioners I have know, Condon is the smartest, the coolest and the most calculating. He is a politician to his fingertips, better at handling himself in public than most government ministers. And behind him stands the amiable but formidable figure of Sarah Cullum, his press chief. Since she arrived at Scotland Yard she has ruled with rod of iron, ensuring that little happens which does not enhance the Met's image. All of which makes Sir Paul's extraordinary letter, pinning the blame for muggings in London on young blacks, even more puzzling.

First, let's get something clear. No responsible figure in London's black community would contest the fact that we have a problem. Our young men are in trouble, and some of it is of our own making. Three out of five young black men are unemployed, but not all of it is down to discrimination. Our boys underachieve disastrously at school; they are four times as likely as white children to be excluded. Some of this can be attributed to low expectations by teachers, but given the poor role models offered by a minority of black men it is not surprising that their sons put little store by academic success.

The fact that our men are three times as likely to be imprisoned for crimes as their white counterparts owes much to prejudice on the part of judges and magistrates, but we would be stupid to suppose that our boys are paragons. The point is that London's black community is more aware than anyone else, including the police, of the scale of the crisis among black youth. These young men are our sons, brothers and nephews. We live with their failures. Even more important, insofar as young black men do commit crimes, we know about it because the evidence suggests that their victims, too, are disproportionately black.

So why write a letter that was so certain to inflame tensions in a city that is slowly beginning to learn again how to live comfortably, even to enjoy racial diversity? Nothing in the letter itself provides an answer. The suggestion that the majority of street violence is carried out by "a small number" of young black men is not backed by any reputable survey. Indeed the only piece of work that might cast light on this claim is a Home Office report yet to be published. However, details leaked to the Runnymede Trust earlier this year suggest quite the opposite to Sir Paul's letter. According to the Home Office figures, among young men in the 16- 24 age group, 15.8 per cent of black men had committed some street crime; but so had 14.1 per cent of white men.

Then, take the issue of the way the information was released. Given the "sensitivity" of the issue - Sir Paul's own words, not mine - was it wise to allow this to fall in to the hands of the press before it had arrived on the desks of any of the so-called "community leaders"? This left most of them awkwardly confronting questions based only on reports given by journalists. Any possible support that the Met might want to gather from the black community was immediately alienated.

Thirdly, why single out muggings at all? As the Labour MP Paul Boateng has said, the group who rob the community of the biggest sums are middle- aged white fraudsters. And Sir Paul himself says the scale of street crime is tiny by comparison with auto crime and burglary. And as for public fears, by the Met's own survey figures, the most feared crime is burglary.

There is a further possible explanation. In the aftermath of the Joy Gardner affair, Sir Paul found himself under fire from the Police Federation for, as they saw it, failing to support the three police officers accused of being implicated in her death. The Federation alleged that Condon had caved into pressure from radical black leaders. Was this his way of redressing the balance, reassuring the troops?

The result is that now every young black man feels more vulnerable; and every black parent is even more certain that policemen will feel they have licence to harass their sons. With figures showing that black people are still twice as likely to be stopped and searched as whites, it's hard to resist the conclusion that it will now be open season on black men. And we all know where that leads us in a long, hot summer.

What perhaps is most tragic is that with a little thought, Sir Paul could have had his cake and eaten it. I understand that this letter was not his idea at all, but the initiative of a senior black Met officer. Having learnt of plans for a summer crackdown on street crime, the officer approached his boss and advised him to warn black community leaders of what was about to happen, and to ask them to work with the Met to tackle a common problem. In this way, conflict would be minimised.

If that was the plan, they might have thought more carefully about who wrote to whom. A letter from the Commissioner has the smack of a warning rather than a chance for consultation. Had those community leaders received a letter from a fellow member of the community who also happened to be a senior police officer, it might have had the tone of an invitation to talk rather than the reading of the riot act.

The writer is Chairman of the Runnymede Trust.