Johann Hari: Are the police institutionally homophobic?

It has produced deadly results. You can find a line-up of gay Stephen Lawrences
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The Independent Online

Do the British police still have a problem with gay people? Do "The Filth" have a problem with "filth"? It's easy to imagine that in our shiny metrosexual world of civil partnerships and civil rights, outright bigotry from agents of the state has ebbed away. But every few months now, new slabs of evidence emerge showing homophobia is still infesting the police service like dry rot.

Over the past week, there has been a row over a new campaign of police harassment against gay men with the invention of the "willycam." In the early 1990s, the police dedicated tens of millions of pounds to catching men who were having consensual sex in the middle of the night, in the dark. They used army-style infrared cameras and binoculars, and built huge hidden dug-outs, to spy on shagging men who could never have been seen by any member of the public as the need for infra red equipment and dug-outs showed. They would send the hottest police officers into cruising areas to grab their crotches and see who was interested and then arrest them.

This year, in Merseyside, this approach is back. After a complaint, the local police launched "Operation Winchester". They installed hidden cameras in public toilets, at penis-height and face-height, to catch gay men who want to have consensual sex. I'm not a defender of cottaging meeting in toilets seems to me a pretty depressing left-over from the closet but at a time when the police often don't send out officers to investigate burglaries, is punishing consensual sex a sensible use of police time and money? And why the focus exclusively on gay meeting-points, and never the ubiquitous rise of straight "dogging" sites?

Yet police homophobia has produced much deadlier results than this. Look back over the 1990s and you find a line-up of gay Stephen Lawrences. For example, one April night, Michael Boothe a 48-year-old gay actor went looking for sex in a public toilet near his home in west London. A few people there might have recognised him from his TV and West End work, but the group of seven thugs who entered the toilets were not interested in any of that. They were there to beat a faggot to death.

They dragged Michael outside and began stamping on his head and chest, punching and smashing his body so hard that his left foot was severed from his leg. A local gang known for yelling homophobic abuse had been reported for kicking off in the area that night. The police arrested them but they took no forensic evidence and didn't bother to search their homes.

The police then publicly blamed the victim. They said his "lifestyle" meant he was "destined to come into contact with his murderers". Chief Superintendent Shoemake went further, declaring: "A person born with any sort of colour doesn't have a choice in the matter. I would suggest sexual preferences, however, are a matter of individual choice."

He attacked "the type of homosexual who often leads a double life, often using false identities, [and] has casual pickups for the purpose of sex". We don't know what the police said privately because all the documents surrounding the case have now been mysteriously "misplaced".

But the gay community's Macpherson report never came so the rot remains. A study this year by the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Advisory Group (LGBTAG), a group of independent advisers to the Metropolitan Police, looked in detail over the police's handling of homophobic murders in all the years since and found there is an entrenched culture of "institutionalised homophobia". This ignorance has led to the deaths of innocent people: for example, it prevented the police from catching the serial killer Colin Ireland, who was merrily hacking and burning his way through London's gay community. The first the police knew of his identity was when he appeared at a police station to hand himself in. Bemused that he hadn't been tracked down, he asked: "Doesn't the death of a homosexual mean anything to you?"

Every week, the Gay Police Association (GPA) collates startling examples of police homophobia. Its chairman, Paul Cahill, a distinguished police officer who has served as a detective and on armed response units , explains: "There are so many examples. We were just contacted by a gay officer who was stripped naked, handcuffed to a chair, and attacked with a truncheon while his fellow officers yelled that he was a 'faggot' and a 'queer.' We get lots of calls from officers who say that after they came out, their colleagues refused to eat with them in the canteen, sit in the police car with them on a shift, or go out on patrol with them. This hasn't been declining it's actually increased in the past year."

Why the increase? Last year, the Labour government introduced new equality legislation making it a crime to discriminate against gay people in the workplace. Gay police officers were hopeful this would lead to progress at last but they soon discovered there's a terrible loophole. The Government simultaneously introduced laws guaranteeing "religious rights". These have been pounced upon by religious homophobes, who insist that their "right to religious belief" includes their right to hate loudly gay people who happen to work alongside them.

Worse still, the GPA believe the police are frequently refusing to investigate homophobic crimes if the perpetrators claim their motives are religious. To give one example logged by the GPA: a gay man recently approached his police station to explain he was being harassed by religious fundamentalist neighbours. They were screaming the most barking verses from the Bible at him every day, and they had scratched a crucifix on to his front door. To his astonishment, he was told by the police that "homosexuality is a sin in the Bible, so it's a legitimate religious view and it's protected by the law". Whenever homophobia is exposed in a police station, the offending officers now plead that they are just following their religion, and that is the end of that.

Religion has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for homophobic officers. Since 85 per cent of police officers claim to be religious, this renders the equality legislation meaningless. While obviously individuals have to be free to be homophobic in their homes in their spare time, when they are working for us, they have to treat us all equally and right now, they are refusing to do so, with the full protection of the law. These "religious rights" need to be repealed in favour of human rights.

And more: the dysfunctional canteen culture of the police needs to be broken and remade. Right-wing pundits and Tory MPs use the "diversity training" that has begun this task as a punchline and a punchbag. They howl that any move towards equality is "political correctness". This is the kind of foul rhetoric that allowed the thugs who stomped to death Michael Boothe to walk free. Enough: it's time to read homophobic police officers their rights.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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