Stephen Lawrence, Macpherson and the BBC: Are police being unfairly stereotyped and vilified?
It was a summer’s Sunday evening in West London when the driver of police vehicle, X-ray Sierra 43, was forced to stop by virtue of a crowd spilling out into the road from a travelling funfair situated just off the Ruislip Road in Northolt. The two officers entered the funfair and were met by angry fairground workers who told them that gangs of local skinheads had descended on the funfair and attacked Asian families who had travelled up from Southall.
Sikh men carrying their babies suffered the indignity of having their turbans knocked off and Sikh women were sobbing with fear having suffered dreadful racial abuse.
The next morning the same group of officers were back on duty having moved from a late to an early shift. The Chief Inspector in charge of operations was surprised to receive a deputation of young officers expressing their concern at this and other incidents involving gangs of skinhead youths attacking Asian and black individuals and families.
The Chief Inspector listened and it was agreed that the officers return in the evening to conduct patrols in the affected areas and to crack down on the youths responsible.
Was this the enlightened times of 2018, with racism the top of the agenda of senior police officers? No, this was 1979, well before the pre-Macpherson enquiry days. This was the generation of officers that were to be later branded as part of an organisation that was institutionally racist and by implication, were racist themselves.
I was in my probation and one of the two officers in that police panda. I was disgusted at what had occurred and was one of the deputation. We were only too well aware that the right wing British Movement were violently active in areas outside the town centre of Southall, in the then predominately white areas of the once infamous Golf Links estate and the estates of Northolt.
That night and in the months ahead those of us posted to this specific patrol were all over the skinheads like a rash. There were no constraints on stop and search in those days and we made full use of it in the weeks and months ahead. Our hours were from 6pm in the evening until the early hours and we would spend whatever time was necessary supporting Asian and black families who had suffered at the hands of these youths in terms of assaults, broken windows and damaged cars.
We would also discreetly follow individuals returning from work late at night, in order to ensure that they got home safely.
Corrupt, racist Neanderthals?
Last week’s BBC series that chronicled the events regarding the murder of Stephen Lawrence once again resurrected the image of police officers back in the 70s, 80s and 90s as being almost entirely composed of corrupt, racist, Neanderthals. Indeed, comments during the programme and in the aftermath appeared to suggest that for many little had changed.
Now, make no mistake there is no doubt that corruption and racism in the Met and other forces existed during this period and indeed it would be foolish and naïve to suggest that it doesn’t exist today.
Back then we all heard via the Met’s ‘rumour mill’ of squads that contained corrupt officers and after the Stephen Lawrence tragedy one whisper that flew around the Met was that several local detectives in Eltham knew the local criminals via the local masonic lodge!!!
Watching the programme piece together the events of that period made absorbing viewing. One fact that was missing, was the tremendous sympathy there was in police service for Neville and Stephen Lawrence and the total loathing of the thugs responsible once they had been identified.
A totally botched investigation
There can be no doubt that the initial scene management and investigation was botched almost beyond belief. Yet was this unique to Stephen’s murder? Less than two years later I was on the periphery of another murder investigation that left much to be desired.
Having said that, most murders around that time were solved and lessons learnt from Stephen’s death contributed to the fact that up until recently, Met police murder squads had a 90% success rate. This may fall due to the current spate of murders, cutbacks and pressures on the Met.
Yet to anyone unaware of the background of this case, it surely would have seemed that the Met desperately attempted to retrieve the situation after a disastrous beginning. Just over two weeks elapsed before the suspects were arrested but sadly the initial investigation meant that vital evidence had gone missing.
It was during this ‘catch-up’ period that the Met managed to covertly film the thugs in a flat indulging in racist behaviour which included demonstrating how they would stab victims. This footage was to prove crucial in the final trial of two of those responsible.
Police surveillance footage released to the media showing the thugs who killed Stephen ‘practising’ with knives
Bill Mellish, who essentially took over the investigation, clearly found favour with the family and the Met seemed to cooperate with the family’s brave but failed attempt to bring about a private prosecution. There is no question that, despite the failure, progress made was due to the determination of the Lawrence’s and despite the outcome, provided the impetus for further investigations.
Then along came the legendary Clive Driscoll, the archetypal, incorruptible, dogged detective who with the assistance of his team and forensic specialists managed to secure the convictions of two of the thugs, David Norris and Gary Dobson in 2012. His subsequent treatment by the Met’s hierarchy, who refused to let him stay on beyond retirement age and continue with the investigation, is baffling.
Despite the efforts of the above-mentioned officers, the emphasis of much of the programme revolved around Met police racism. In order to bolster this view, shocking extracts filmed in 2003 by an undercover reporter of racist trainee police officers, not from the Met, were inserted just to impress upon viewers that the police service is racist.
I can clearly recall that programme being aired and I can equally recall the anger and disgust shown by colleagues at the time towards those individuals plus bewilderment that they had somehow cleared vetting processes.
Just to emphasise the point still further, film was shown from the 1980s, of the Police Federation Chairman Les Curtis saying that the officers shouldn’t be disciplined for using the ‘N’ word. I suspect there was a collective ‘rolling of eyes’ in disbelief from those in the police community watching.
In addition to the actual murder of Stephen and the final trial, the publication of the Macpherson report and its aftermath was a major focal point of the series.
Both Jack Straw and Theresa May again took the opportunity in the programme to ‘express’ their views on policing and footage was shown of Jack Straw launching a blistering post-report, attack on police in the Commons. His definition of ‘institutional racism’ was as follows:
The ‘collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.’
Thus, although the term institutionally racist, refers to the organisation, there is little doubt that this was interpreted by many as police are racist full stop.
Institutionally racist? Justified or not?
Yet was the verdict of ‘institutionally racist’ justified? Does the evidence stack up?
In fact, there was much work going on in the Met and indeed still is, that mitigates against the label of being ‘institutionally racist.’
In 1984, the Golden temple in Amritsar was stormed by the Indian army in an attempt to crush the Sikh movement for independence. Many lives were lost and the campaign across the Punjab to crush Sikh resistance, led to allegations of state sponsored murder. This resulted to the assassination of Indira Gandh by her Sikh bodyguard which in turn resulted in attacks on Sikhs across India.
This set off a chain of events in the UK with assassinations taking place of Sikhs regarded as traitors and non-Sikhs who were deemed to be close to the Indian government. The response by the Met and other affected forces including West Midlands, involved local police, MI5, Special Branch and the anti-terrorist squad. Extensive links were established throughout the Sikh communities in order to keep the violence in check.
Darshan Dass, murdered by UK Sikh extremists in Southall in 1987
The links saw a close relationship develop between these communities and police and plots were frustrated as a result. One now retired Special Branch officer, who prefers to remain anonymous, received an MBE for his work and the gratitude of many from all sections of the Asian community.
Police and the arrival of the ‘Yardies’
As the eighties progressed, other parts of London were seeing increased street violence due the arrival, through lax border controls, of Jamaican criminals known in that country as ‘yardies.’ This violence primarily blighted and terrified the law abiding black community.
Rival gangs clashed on the streets and shootings became ever more common to the consternation of local police officers who in fact took action to protect shocked communities.
In South London, Operation Dalehouse under Detective Superintendent John Jones curbed the level of shootings and made a number of significant arrests.
In North-West London, Operation Druid was similarly effective and again a number of arrests were made that reduced the level of violence.
This was occurring when I was working at Heathrow and whilst there were no direct flights from Jamaica, criminal elements did arrive via the USA. I met officers from Dalehouse and their total commitment to reducing violence amongst the communities of south London remains with me.
Amazingly, the powers that be at Scotland Yard decided to close Operation Dalehouse to the fury of John Jones and his team. It was replaced with some form of crack unit and attempts to use ‘yardie’ informants proved disastrous. Druid also withered on the vine and if the finger of institutional racism is to be pointed, it is in the direction of those at the top of the Yard, who, rumour has it, felt Dalehouse was getting ‘too big for its boots.’
Sikh Muslim tensions test the Met
As the private prosecution of the thugs who murdered Stephen Lawrence was taking place, another policing challenge was presenting itself in West London. A small scuffle on a Friday between a Sikh and a Muslim youth at a west London college was to have ramifications that were to last for four years.
On the Monday, outside the college, around 200 Islamists staged a protest. This group were to become notorious in years to come due to their links with Islamic State. They swarmed across the grassed area and began to attack Sikh students.
Fortunately, my community links meant I was forewarned over the weekend and two carriers of TSG officers, parked in a side road, quickly intervened. That night however, there was significant disorder in Southall as Muslim premises were attacked.
Problems quickly spread to Hounslow and Slough thus causing great concern that historical enmities would create serious rifts within the Asian community across the country and potentially serious disorder with literally blood on the streets.
Of particular concern were major religious events such as Vaisakhi and Eid, funfairs, together with the very well attended ‘bhangra’ concerts. Fortunately, the three senior officers from the main affected areas, quickly met, listened to what officers had to say and evolved a strategy. This included forming a joint team of Met and Thames Valley police ‘spotters’ from each division who quickly became invaluable.
Frequent meetings held with community leaders prevented polarisation of communities and outstanding policing at religious festivals and other events kept hundreds of rival youths apart. The ‘spotters’ quickly got to know the main protagonists and despite some inevitable disorder, no-one was seriously injured and more importantly no-one was killed which would have been disastrous.
The efforts of the ‘institutionally racist’ police were recognised by all the communities as the troubles had eased by 1999; the year when the Macpherson report lambasted the Met for being… institutionally racist.
Twelve years later, shortly after retirement in 2011, even though I had moved on to pastures new, I was presented with a ceremonial sword at the UK’s biggest Sikh Temple. Other officers also received awards and commendations.
Operation Trident turns the tide
By the time the Macpherson report was published, matters were going from bad to worse on the streets of London and other major cities as rival gangs engaged in violent battles for control of the drugs trade.
The black community, including its activists, were demanding action and in 1998, Operation Trident was established with its remit being gun and drugs crime in the black community. Initially it was an intelligence gathering operation but in 2000 it was relaunched as a fully operational unit. Its brief was to arrest and disrupt the activities of the gunmen whose violent gangs were pouring cocaine on the streets.
A scoping operation at Heathrow involving Trident and customs officers saw 40 cocaine couriers arriving on one flight from Jamaica, most recruited from the poverty-stricken garrison areas of Kingston.
Cocaine ‘swallower’ packages
Gradually Operation Trident began to gain the confidence of the black community assisted by an Independent Advisory Group (IAG). Its officers displayed empathy and understanding while the unit were fortunate in having a succession of outstanding senior officers. Information poured in from the black community and officers acted. The wall of silence, once again, according to Cressida Dick, a problem for the Met, was broken down. The tactic was to use the Al Capone strategy of disruption. If criminals couldn’t be arrested for firearms offences then they would be arrested for other crimes.
The Trident murder squads and shooting teams were extremely successful while ‘yardie’ criminals were arrested, sentenced and on their release from prison, if not resident in the UK, returned to Jamaica or other country of origin.
In Jamaica, in partnership with the Jamaican government, Operation Airbridge was launched whereby UK customs officers and Met officers worked with Jamaican police to detect couriers before they boarded flights to the UK.
As one of the police officers involved, it became clear as the operation evolved, that Trident had become a ‘trusted brand’ throughout Jamaica. Everyone had heard of it and Trident lanyards were much in demand by Jamaican police officers. Even talking to UK criminals making their ‘business’ trips across the Atlantic, it became clear that Trident was hugely respected.
Of course, the trust Trident officers engendered with their empathy, fairness, and skills reflected well on the rest of the Met yet it seems the maxim of ‘if it’s not broken why mend it’ as with Dalehouse, surfaced again within the Met hierarchy.
Initially Trident took on shootings involving other communities under the banner of Operation Trafalgar. Not initially an issue but it proved the thin end of the wedge.
Changes in management and doubtless directed from above saw Trident became less concerned about the black community and more concerned about ‘guns off the streets’ statistics which of course is in itself a worthy aim. Trident and Trafalgar were combined and disrupting individuals and gangs by other means however took a back-seat as did its close relationship with the black community.
The shooting of Mark Duggan in what was a Trident operation put a dent in a relationship that wasn’t what it was in any event.
The Trident murder squads became victims of their own success in that they had fewer to investigate and were scrapped to howls of outrage from community activists. They could, of course, have been retained and deputed to also deal with knife murders. Homicide teams maintained the high level of success but it was ‘brand Trident’ that the black community wanted in their midst.
The Trident IAG had become increasingly critical following the death of Duggan but their termination; arriving at Scotland Yard for a meeting and finding themselves ‘locked out’ was crass beyond belief.
Trident had, by then been tasked with dealing with gang related stabbings; in itself a reasonable decision but Trident had lost its lustre and this again drew criticism from the black community. The Trident logo that was such a powerful symbol for both police and the black community still exists but does not resonate in the way it once did. The unit still does great work in terms of detection of offenders and prevention amongst young people.
With its hundreds of committed officers and staff, it was one of the Met’s great success stories and indeed could be again, especially as Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick, played such an important part in those achievements.
The Airbridge Charitable Foundation
UK customs and Met police officers deployed to Jamaica from 2002, were genuinely shocked by the plight of those who resided in the ‘garrison’ (ghetto) areas of Kingston. The result was a greater understanding as to why the impoverished cocaine ‘swallower’ couriers at that time were prepared to risk imprisonment and death in order to get the £1,000 or so pounds which would alleviate their desperate circumstances and those of their children.
The result was the Airbridge Charitable Foundation which, through a remarkable Jamaica based Irish lady Moira Morgan, ensured that some of the poorest Jamaican children, including those of imprisoned couriers, were able to remain in education.
The legendary Moira Morgan
Functions attended by hundreds of police, customs and immigration at airport hotels raised thousands while money recovered in Trident drugs operations was, at the direction of judges, passed to the foundation.
Operation Christmas Stocking saw Custom House at Heathrow creaking under the weight of festive shoeboxes donated by customs, police and immigration officers working at Heathrow. These were distributed to the delighted children of Kingston 11 by British High Commission staff under the direction of Moira Morgan and with the blessing of the local drug dons and Jamaican police.
Alas, it was a one-off as the bill for shipping out the shoe boxes along with the diplomatic baggage was prohibitive.
Here to help and pointing fingers
There will be those who will state that the above are carefully selected examples and shouldn’t mask the racist attitudes of Met officers. No-one can deny that many of the recommendations made by Macpherson are worthy of merit and have considerably improved policing, but it should be remembered that even back in the 80s at the time of the riots, stations such as Brixton still received, either directly or via the 999 system, dozens of call for help during the course of a single day; help which was willingly and ably given.
For serving police officers, the overwhelming majority of whom were not even serving at the time of Stephen’s death, it must be frustrating to have the finger of blame pointed at them for not just the issues surrounding that tragic event, but for other controversial, historic, policing incidents such as the riots mentioned above, Hillsborough or Orgreave. Cynics may say that at least the battle of Cable Street is not on the list …well not yet anyway.
For many of us who served during the 70s, 80s and 90s, it feels as if the ‘you must have been racist’ finger is being pointed every time Stephen is featured prominently in the news.
It could have been pure coincidence that Theresa May, in the midst of the Windrush debacle, decided to announce Stephen Lawrence Memorial Day which, regardless of its merits, will ensure that the ‘racist finger’ is pointed at retired and more importantly serving officers at least once a year. Police commentator, Peter Kirkham, summed up the announcement thus:
There seems to be considerable agreement that the huge reduction in stop and search following criticism by David Cameron, Theresa May together with leftist political activists, has largely been responsible for a dramatic increase in gun and knife crime.
As the shackles on police stop and search were eased, front line officers in London and elsewhere have done their best with depleted resources making numerous arrests and taking hundreds of knives off the streets by means of stop and search and ‘sweeps.’ They are, these days, often first on the scene of stabbings and shooting and using improved skills, will battle to keep the victim alive until the arrival of paramedics; as has been widely acknowledged that victim is all too frequently black. Take this quote featured in the Evening Standard from a witness to a recent murder:
Little wonder that there was dismay towards the end of the BBC trilogy when Duwayne Brooks, Stephen Lawrence’s friend who was present at his death, when commenting on the current knife crime explosion stated that the police did not ‘have the will to tackle it.’
The recent statement by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, clearly implies that police are still racist and totally ignores the ongoing carnage on the streets of London and Birmingham where most of the tragic victims and indeed perpetrators are from the BAME communities. In other parts of the country, such as Merseyside, which are also seeing an escalation in violent crime, the victims and suspects are predominately white. The common denominator in these gang ridden areas is the poor socio-economic conditions in which violent crime flourishes.
The cancer of violence is, however, spreading across the country like an unstoppable virus affecting all communities.
Police help a stabbing victim on the streets of London
Dr Sentamu and others accuse the police of stereotyping; it could be argued that perhaps he and others should not stereotype police officers.
Arguably most disappointing of all was the statement given by Doreen Lawrence during an interview by BBC London News. When asked by the presenter “Do you think the police take a crime less seriously if the victim is black?” She replied, “I would say yes. “
Those officers pumping on the chests of stabbed or shot black kids may disagree. The attitude of officers is perhaps best summed up thus in this tweeted response to Doreen Lawrence’s comment:
Also, when responding to calls, police don’t ask what race is the victim? Oh, hang on, it’s a black kid, let’s take our time. When someone is hurt, no matter the race, the officers rush there like their house is on fire, to save life and limb.
Doreen Lawrence perhaps was harking back to Stephen’s case or perhaps had forgotten the efforts of Trident officers over the years when effectively dealing with the explosion of violence and death that the black community had to contend with thus saving lives.
Whatever views are held in respect of the Macpherson report and the BBC’s Stephen Lawrence trilogy, one fact is crystal clear: the racist thugs responsible for Stephen’s brutal murder would never had been named and two imprisoned, without the sheer determination of Neville and Doreen Lawrence and for that no praise is too high.
The challenge now is to halt the murder of others thereby eliminating the sheer overwhelming and lasting grief, as experienced by the Lawrence family, which goes with each tragedy.
In the meantime, Britain’s fractured blue line will continue; with diminishing resources, to apply sticking plasters over gaping wounds caused by successive inept governments.