Institutional racism and policing: the Macpherson Report and its consequences

© John Lea (2000)

a revised version of this article appeared as 'The Macpherson Report and Question of Institutional Racism.' in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 39(3): 219-233

The Macpherson Report (Macpherson 1999) began as a specific inquiry into the failure of the (London) Metropolitan Police to successfully apprehend the killers of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man murdered by a gang of white racists in South London in 1993. The Report concluded that the police investigation was sabotaged by ``a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers.'' (46.1)[1] In order to gain a fuller understanding of the dynamics of police racism Macpherson, in the second part of his inquiry, held a series of general meetings with representatives of black and other minority communities in several cities in the UK on the general problems of police-community relations. One of Macpherson's central aims was to show how the conduct of the police, both in the flawed Lawrence murder investigation and more generally, was influenced by what has come to be called institutional racism; that is, racial prejudice and discrimination which are generated by the way institutions function, intentionally or otherwise, rather than by the individual personalities of their members (Lea 1986). Macpherson attempts to deploy the concept in a more sophisticated way than did the Scarman Report of 1981, an earlier major inquiry into the state of relations between the police and ethnic minority communities in the UK. The argument of this article will be that Macpherson's discussion of institutional racism fails to locate with sufficient precision its roots within the structure of operational policing and the relationship between police and minority communities. The result is that a major opportunity to spell out a policy agenda adequate to the task of eliminating racist policing has been missed.

   

Beyond Scarman

As regards the understanding of racism Scarman left an ambiguous legacy. He drew attention to the problem of police racism but in doing so he defined institutional racism only as overt racist policy consciously pursued by an institution. He thereby rendered it of marginal relevance to an understanding of the British situation. He confirmed the focus of policy, in the police as in other public bodies, as that of the elimination of the racism of prejudiced individuals. Yet, as Macpherson notes (6.7) Scarman's view of the types of racism was not exhausted by the prejudiced individual on the one hand and the overt policy of institutions on the other. Lord Scarman responded to the suggestion that ``Britain is an institutionally racist society,'' in this way:-

``If, by [institutionally racist] it is meant that it [Britain] is a society which knowingly, as a matter of policy, discriminates against black people, I reject the allegation. If, however, the suggestion being made is that practices may be adopted by public bodies as well as private individuals which are unwittingly discriminatory against black people, then this is an allegation which deserves serious consideration, and, where proved, swift remedy''. (Scarman 1981 para 2.22 ).

It was this latter category of practices which are unwittingly discriminatory which remained untheorised and lacking emphasis in Scarman. Macpherson continues (6.15)

(I)f the phrase ``institutional racism'' had been used to describe not only explicit manifestations of racism at direction and policy level, but also unwitting discrimination at the organisational level, then the reality of indirect racism in its more subtle, hidden and potentially more pervasive nature would have been addressed.

So there are now, for Macpherson, three categories of racism of equal importance. Firstly, the racism of overtly prejudiced individuals, secondly, racism as a conscious and deliberate policy of public institutions which is not to be found in Britain, and, thirdly, racism as unintentional or unwitting discriminatory practice in the mode of operation of organisations which are formally non-discriminatory. This type of institutional racism, rather than that for which Scarman reserved the term, is widespread in British public institutions. A new definition of institutional racism is thereby elaborated (6.34) as

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

It was this re-elaboration of the concept of institutional racism which made it possible for Sir Paul Condon, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to agree that it existed in his force. He had previously challenged any characterisation of the police as institutionally racist but from the standpoint of Scarman's original definition[2].

An approach to institutional racism which goes beyond the level of overt policy, such as for example characterised policing in South Africa under the apartheid regime, is to be welcomed. The unintended consequences of the working of institutions is the appropriate framework for analysis in a liberal democracy formally committed to the principles of equal citizenship. Nevertheless, it will be argued, Macpherson's discussion of institutional racism suffers from crucial ambiguity concerning the precise location of the processes which sustain racial discrimination both in distinguishing individually from institutionally generated behaviour, and in specifying which institutional dynamics are conducive to racism.

The first problem concerns the fact that the working of institutions is of course encountered as the actions of the individuals and it is not possible to immediately infer from the characteristics of the latter, the nature and dynamics of the institution within which they work. Unwitting and unthinking prejudice can be simply milder forms of the individual racism of `bad apples'. What has to be shown is precisely how such attitudes and actions derive from the working of the institution itself. Macpherson is not always able to demonstrate that the racism he identifies is institutional as opposed to individual.

This problem is illustrated in the discussion of the Lawrence murder investigation. An inquiry into the conduct of a single murder investigation by its very nature involves a focus on the actions of individual police officers, how they treated suspects, witnesses, relatives of the victim etc. In such a context, even it can be concluded that ``there was a `collective failure' of a group of officers to provide an appropriate and professional service... '' (44.11), they remain a particular group engaging in actions not shared by all officers. It is difficult in such a context, particularly where other factors such as professional incompetence and failure of leadership are also seen (46.1) to be important ingredients, to distinguish institutionalised from individual racism, or racism from incompetence. For example one of the indications of institutional racism used by Macpherson was the failure to characterise the Lawrence murder as a racist crime. Yet 50 percent of officers involved (19.35) including the Senior Investigating Officers (19.38) characterised the incident precisely in such terms. At the level of the actions of some individuals rather than others the institutional dimension is necessarily backgrounded. To establish the latter it would be necessary to survey a series of such inquiries and look for patterns of behaviour which could then be located in the patterns of institutional operation. Macpherson was obviously not in a position to conduct this type of research. However, as will hopefully emerge in the discussion which follows, the most important problem is that even where Macpherson focuses more clearly on the police institution rather than the actions of individual officers he locates the source of racism in the social and cultural life of police officers rather than in the dyamics of operational policing itself.

   

Occupational culture

There is indeed a sustained attempt to see unwitting prejudice, thoughtlessness and deployment of racist stereotypes as located in the norms and values through which police officers define their roles and the legitimacy of their activities. Macpherson quotes approvingly (at 6.32) the following passage from the submission of sociologist Robin Oakley:

``The term institutional racism should be understood to refer to the way institutions may systematically treat or tend to treat people differently in respect of race. The addition of the word `institutional' therefore identifies the source of the differential treatment; this lies in some sense within the organisation rather than simply with the individuals who represent it. The production of differential treatment is 'institutionalised' in the way the organisation operates''.

Prejudice is something into which individuals are socialised rather than which they bring to the organisation from outside. The issue then is to identify precisely what it is about the day to day work of the police institution which generates and sustains an occupational culture supportive of racism. The key factor identified by Macpherson is the particular forms of contact between police and various sections of the public. This theme was stressed in testimony by an officer speaking on behalf of the Black Police Association (quoted at 6.28)

``Given the fact that... predominantly white officers only meet members of the black community in confrontational situations, they tend to stereotype black people in general. This can lead to all sorts of negative views and assumptions about black people, so we should not underestimate the occupational culture within the police service as being a primary source of institutional racism in the way that we differentially treat black people.''

The officer continued:

``Interestingly I say we because there is no marked difference between black and white in the force essentially. We are all consumed by this occupational culture. Some of us may think we rise above it on some occasions, but, generally speaking, we tend to conform to the norms of this occupational culture, which we say is all powerful in shaping our views and perceptions of a particular community''.

There is a clear understanding here that it is not the character of the contact between predominantly white police and black people in law enforcement situations as such which is the root of the problem but rather the lack of other contact outside that relationship. The reason that the white police officer knows that not all whites are suspects is that he or she meets a diversity of non-criminal whites both within and outside the police organisation but, above all, outside the policing relationship as such. The problem for the latter, in this analysis, is that officers impose upon it attitudes derived from their restricted interactions with ethnic minorities. By deflecting attention away from the policing relationship as such, Macpherson arrives at policy agenda which is largely a reiteration of strategies that have been in existence for over a decade and which have manifestly failed. It is an agenda whose focus lies on issues of cultural communication and understanding rather than structural locations and inequalities of power and resources. From this standpoint there are two main strategies both of which are articulated by Macpherson. Firstly, attempts can be made to change the occupational culture of policing through a widening of ethnic recruitment combined with measures to increase police officers contacts with and awareness of the cultural diversity of contemporary Britain. Secondly, there can be attempts to minimise the impact of officers cultural assumptions on the application of legal and procedural rules in law enforcement encounters with citizens.

 

Cultural change versus power and community

Attempts to change police culture, if they start from the assumption that contact between police and ethnic minorities outside law enforcement situations is the key problem, generally involve measures aimed at an increased recruitment of ethnic minority officers, race awareness training for white officers, and various `meet the community' initiatives. Macpherson calls for a significant reorganisation and expansion of race awareness training in the police service (recommendations 48-54) as well as measures to increase the recruitment and retention of officers drawn from ethnic minority communities (recommendations 64-66).

But such strategies have a considerable history. Scarman called for an increased recruitment of ethnic minority officers having noted that in 1981 black officers constituted 0.5 percent of the Metropolitan Police (Scarman 1981 para 5.6) The proportion of minority officers is currently 3.3 percent, a figure still dwarfed in comparison to the 20 percent of London residents who are members of ethnic minority communities. Similarly, various forms of race awareness training have been on the agenda of police forces throughout the United Kingdom for many years. Scarman called for training aimed at ``an understanding of the cultural background of ethnic minority groups... '' and indeed was ``satisfied that improvements in police training are in hand.'' (Scarman 1981 5.16, 5.17) Macpherson found, however, eighteen years later (6.45)

that not a single officer questioned before us in 1998 had received any training of significance in racism awareness and race relations throughout the course of his or her career.

He noted the `identified failure of police training' yet provided little in the way of analysis as to why it had failed, simply an injunction for more such training, more vigorously implemented (See Recommendations 48-54). Similarly, if the issue was simply that of increasing the contact between police and ethnic minorities outside a law enforcement situation then developments during the period should have been considerable. The fact that they were not suggests perhaps that some important factors have been overlooked, not only by Scarman in 1981 but, equally, by Macpherson in 1998.

 

Power and community relations

The thesis that racism, institutionalised and reproduced in police occupational culture, can be signficantly reduced by increased contact between (white) police and ethnic minorities in non law-enforcement situations tends to be couched in terms of very generalised concepts of `black' and `white' and to see these groups as monolithic. In fact, the majority of white police officers interact with a very restricted segment of the white population; overwhelmingly other police officers. They also tend to live in outlying white upper working class or middle class suburbs. There is no obvious reason why they should see all other whites as akin to themselves. The fact that white police officers meet other whites in a non law enforcement situation does not stop them stereotyping those sections of the white population from whom they are separated by geography, socio-economic status, gender and age. The key issue is power rather than ethnicity per se. In traditional police culture the surrounding population is

``differentiated according to the power of particular groups to cause problems for the police... [thus the]... power structure of a community, and the views of its elites, are important sources of variation in policing styles.'' (Reiner 1992: 137. See also Holdaway 1983)

In other words the crucial aspect of the relation between police and white communities is less the existence of contacts outside the law-enforcement relation than police perception of significant power groups in the white population both nationally and locally. Middle class black people are not seen as significantly powerful to cause trouble for the police or to be seen as worthwhile allies to further police goals. The recruitment of more black police officers, while desirable in itself, would not necessarily change this relationship. The half-hearted pursuit of race awareness training is perhaps explicable-though not condonable-if police do not perceive a necessity to accommodate to the demands of minority communities. Police-community liaison schemes have suffered a similar fate. The strategy of liaison with `respectable' members of minority communities stretches back to the Community Relations Councils of the 1960s. The aim of these was rather to depoliticise race relations by linking immigrant communities to the state ``through buffer institutions, replicating key features of traditional colonial relationships.'' (Katznelson 1973: 178) In the wake of Scarman a new effort was made to establish police-community liaison committees more specifically oriented to discussion of local policing needs and to get the police to see the advantages of discussing crime control with community groups. Liaison was made statutory under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act. While there were some successes most such groups were largely `talking shops' with little impact on relations between police and minority communities. (Kinsey et al. 1986, Morgan 1987) What had been ignored was the issue of power. Police were willing to listen to those who agreed with them and would act as their supporters. But otherwise there was little incentive to listen to the demands or grievances of those not perceived to be politically powerful at either a local or national level.

However, there is currently an increasing prominence of locally based crime prevention initiatives and community safety partnerships in which police and local authorities work together to reduce crime. These arrangements have been given a statutory basis under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Some commentators have detected a seismic shift in relations between police and community in which police monopoly of expertise is no longer taken for granted but rather ``(t)he community and its leaders are to be involved in determining what are the policing needs of the locale, and what styles of police work are seen to be effective in these terms, and forms of intervention are regarded as desirable or undesirable.'' (O'Malley and Palmer 1996: 145). Such an enhanced role for the local community might be seen as the occasion not simply for increased interaction between police and ethnic minorities but for a police reorientation to the latter as valuable sources of expertise about crime and policing needs. Home Office testimony to Macpherson underlined commitment to the implementation of the recent HM Inspectorate of Constabulary Thematic Inspection Report on Police Community and Race Relations which noted

a greater awareness that the police cannot win the battle against crime without the support of the communities they serve. As communities become more plural, gaining their trust will require both improvements in the quality of service they receive and the adoption - as a core element of all policing activity - of a community focused strategy which recognises diversity... In effect this means that all the various components... of the police organisation should reflect a community and race relations element in their individual plans and strategies.(Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary 1998: para 4)

The question is which communities? Are the most deprived communities likely to be partners in this process? Macpherson saw the willingness of the police to respond effectively to racial violence against ethnic minorities as key to winning their confidence to such partnerhsips. He was optimistic (45.19) that the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which strengthens the ability of police and local authorities to deploy civil powers to exclude disorderly individuals from neighbourhoods, will be used to tackle racist violence. If police and local authority, acting through partnership structures, are seen to be acting in this area then minority communities can be expected to show greater confidence in these bodies, to participate more, and so enhance their power.

While developments in a particular locality depend on a number of factors, including the personalities and calibre of leadership involved, there are some general obstacles to the effectiveness of such multi-agency partnerships as routes to black political empowerment and a counter to police as institutional racism. Firstly, the strategy of multi-agency partnership assumes a smooth unity of interest between police, local authority and local communities, and among the latter, given at the outset rather than the outcome of a period of adjustment and interaction which may at times be robust and confrontational. Police may be initially resistant to challenges to their monopoly of expertise, and may feel able to deploy a hectoring tone to those groups they perceive as lacking significant political power.

Secondly, if those organs in which sections of the community hitherto socially and politically excluded can begin to formulate needs and demands are cut back by lack of funds then, again, the process of accommodation is undermined. Macpherson expressed concern at the reduction and withdrawal of funding and support for community organisations with a `monitoring' orientation which as he perceived it (45.20) may ``... represent a tendency of funding agencies to withdraw support from groups perceived to be confrontational.'' On a more general level, if the aim of the new community safety partnerships includes the attraction of private sector funding and participation then their aims may be deflected towards that of securing property values in areas attractive to business and in effect ``... confining criminogenic communities to their usually depressed neighbourhoods, rather than liberating them from these.'' (Gilling 1997: 196) If ethnic minority communities are disproportionately confined to these latter areas, and initially reluctant to get involved with police-led initiatives due to a legacy of racism, with their representative organs starved of funding, then increased interaction and empowerment in relation to police is hindered considerably. There is then little pressure on police to respond to their demands. Power relations remain unchanged and a legacy of racism remains unchallenged.

 

Blaming the victims: the summer of 2001 and beyond

Changing these power relations would involve a combination of a massive redistribution of resources to poor communities in general combined with a real democratic accountability of police to communities (Lea and Young 1993). In the absence of such changes following the Macpherson Report other, older, tendencies have re-asserted themselves such that, in the words of black journalist Gary Younge,

on the third anniversary of the Macpherson's report into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, the government's understanding of race and racism is regressing towards the pitiful level it was before Stephen's birth in the 1970s. (Younge 2002)

Younge is refering to the response to the riots in northern towns during the summer of 2001 involving clashes between poor white youth and Asians. Violence between poor communities enabled a rearticulation of the problem of racism as the product of the very presence of ethnic minority communities. The issue became the lack of community cohesion and of understanding between poor communities of different ethnicities and the responsibility for this was laid at the door of the ethnic minorities and their culture. The Home Office report (Cantle 2001) into the disturbances sidelined the issues of econonomic deprivation in favour of cultural conflict which stressed issues of communication and cultural `understanding'. It called on all communities, including whites, to ``improve their knowledge and understanding of other sections and thereby reduce their ignorance and fear... '' But it immediately followed this with a call specifically for the ``minority, largely non-white community, to develop a greater acceptance of, and engagement with, the principal national institutions.'' (Cantle 2001: 19) This sermon, it should be remembered, was being addressed to young Asians, born in the UK, whose alienation from `principle national institutions' including presumably, the police, was the product of decades of racism and economic deprivation. As regards crime, the report makes the usual call for a strategy which should ``address all aspects of crime, especially that which is racially motivated'' but then immediately follows it with a barbed comment to the effect that ``minority communities must also face the fact that over time they have adopted a toleration of certain types of criminalty.'' (Cantle 2001: 40) As if generations of poor white communities have not tolerated `certain types' of criminality! The whole tenor of the report is to blame the minority communities for racial conflict and, more specifically, for harbouring criminality.

Such themes had been articulated in police circles for some time. For example the above mentioned HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report, in the midst of a eulogy to police-community collaboration, suddenly broke into a sermon to the black community to the effect that ``the over-representation of black youths in street robbery, particularly in the inner city... (combined with)... the perceived lack of tangible support from some black community representatives is an ongoing frustration.'' (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary 1998 para 2.40)

In a sense the whole methodology of the Macpherson report, in particular the tendency to define the problem in terms of the cultural values of the participants, undermined its ability to pre-empt such a deflection. The focus on the failure of police to breakdown their cultural isolation through ethnic balance and and race awareness training is now switched to a focus on the alleged failure of ethnic minorities to integrate themselves into British society. In both cases the effect is to hide the real structural determinants of the situation: in the case of the police the basis of institutional racism in the control of the socially excluded, and in the case of ethnic minority communities the economic determinants of marginality and social exclusion.

It is at this point that the issue of statutory police accountability becomes important. Democratic control remains the only available alternative form of empowerment to those who lack political influence based on the control of economic resources. The establishment of

``... a much more organised and rigorous system of local democratic accountability of the police is vital for... creating a political structure in which the most deprived sections of the working-class community can articulate their interests and grievances (which, in large measure, concern policing matters). (Lea and Young 1984: 231)

Macpherson endorsed (46.33) government proposals to introduce a Metropolitan Police Authority, that is, a local government body with full powers to appoint all chief police officers and with measures to ensure that membership of the body reflects the ethnic mix of the local communities. (Recommendations 3, 4, 6 and 7) He sees this as an important contribution to making the Metropolitan Police `open and accountable'. But there is no discussion as to what this accountability might mean in practice. Matters such as whether a police authority should be able to determine general policing policy and methods are not discussed. If they were, then a central assumption of the whole Macpherson Report might well be brought into question. It might rapidly come to be understood that institutional racism is generated by a central aspect of operational policing relationship itself.

The assimilation of the Metropolitan Police to forms of local governance which have existed outside London for many years does little to change the character of the relationship between police and poor communities alienated from the formal political process. More is probably achieved in this respect by individual innovative local police commanders or local councillors than constitutional arrangements which allow, at the most, a voice for middle class professionals from the minority communities who are increasingly distanced from the grievances of the poor.

 

Reforming stop and search

The second strategy recommended by Macpherson, sometimes known as rule-tightening (Chan 1997) attempts to ensure that the effects of racial stereotypes reproduced in police occupational culture are neutralised by ensuring that relations with the public are tightly governed by rules and procedures which ensure equal treatment. The aim is to prevent attitudes seen as generated essentially outside the law enforcement relationship from interfering with it. These attitudes and values are understood as generated elsewhere, in recreation and social bonding between officers (hence the often used term `canteen culture'). They can be seen as functional for the overall cohesion and morale of the police organisation but dysfunctional from the standpoint of that most important of police tasks, law enforcement.

This type of analysis can be found in the 1983 Report conducted by the Policy Studies Institute for the Metropolitan Police which concluded rather optimistically that the predominance of rule governed interaction already largely characterised relations between police and the black community.

Racialist talk... helps to reinforce the identity, security and solidarity of the group against a clearly perceived external threat... when police officers actually come into contact with members of minority groups a different set of needs comes into play; very often the officer is forced to look on the person as a person-as someone whose support is required or who must be manipulated-rather than as a member of a particular ethnic group (Smith and Gray 1983: 127-8)

At first sight this situation does resemble certain aspects of police work. In a murder inquiry, for example, there is an incentive to `get a result'. If detectives refused to talk to witnesses on racial grounds they would deprive themselves of vital sources of information. For Macpherson this view of the essentially dysfunctional nature of police racism is assumed to apply to all varieties of policing. But the existence of rules and procedures in no way guarantees their application in the face of incompetence, racial prejudice or both. In practice police officers have considerable autonomy in the way they construct cases for prosecution. (McConville et al. 1991) It is well established in other areas of policing, for example domestic violence and sexual assault, that the existence of a set of rules in no way ensures equal treatment nor that the police will take a particular incident seriously as a criminal offence and deal with it competently. (Gregory and Lees 1999) The argument is ultimately circular. Rule-tightening will only eliminate the effect of racism or sexism where police culture is already committed to the rigorous application of rules as a matter of substantive policy. Macpherson, however, can only recommend more rule-tightening. He calls for performance indicators in the investigation of racist crimes, and issues the usual demands for better co-ordination and a review of procedures without specifying what changes should be made. (see Recommendations 2, 18-22). Far more productive would have been a demand for organisational changes to counter the independence and autonomy of the police in the investigation of serious crimes. Suggestions such as the establishment of an independent investigating magistrate, on the model of many continental European jurisdictions, or a District Attorney as in the United States, with powers to monitor and supervise police investigation, are made from time to time. (see for example, Mansfield 1993) Such debate is however generally marginalised in the English context. Macpherson was timid and conventional in his recommendations in this as in other areas.

The main object of rule-tightening was with regard to the specific issue of stop and search which was was established by Macpherson (6.45) as the key issue in bad relations between police and ethnic minorities and the second area of concern in relation to institutional racism after the Lawrence murder investigation itself. Police practices in this area are clearly an obstacle to the development of good police community relations of the type discussed above. Witnesses interviewed by Macpherson from the local community confirmed this perception (29.57, 36.12, 37.18) In the hearings conducted outside London Macpherson recorded (45.8) that complaints about ethnic bias in stop and search were universal. Macpherson refers (45.9) to 1997/8 figures that black people were five times more likely to be stopped than whites.

Any ethnic bias in the level of stops was automatically to be read as a result of racial stereotyping derived from police occupational culture in the manner described above. Macpherson was entirely uncritical concerning the role of stop and search as such, assuming like Scarman before him that it is a key crime control techique. Just as Scarman saw stop and search as ``necessary to combat street crime'' (Scarman para 7.2) Macpherson is adamant (46.31) as to the necessity of stop and search even for non-racist policing

... we have... specifically considered whether police powers to ``stop and search'' should be removed or further limited. We specifically reject this option. We fully accept the need for such powers to continue, and their genuine usefulness in the prevention and detection of crime.

The issue for Macpherson, as for Scarman, is to regulate stop and search it in such a way as to minimise the deployment of racist stereotypes by officers when deciding whom to stop. Macpherson calls simply for a tightening up of the procedures introduced by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) whereby stops are recorded and a written record is made available to the person stopped. His innovation is to recommend closing the loophole whereby police can circumvent PACE recording requirements by `voluntary' stops or stops under drugs or traffic legislation, by the extension of recording to include all stops.

Macpherson's call for rule-tightening has recently been endorsed by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett who intends to impose two major changes. Firstly, there will be a requirement that police officers give a written record for around 4 million stops a year which fall outside the PACE definitions of stop and search for which written records are already statutory. Secondly, police forces will come under pressure to ensure that stop and search is targetted and `intelligence-led' so that stops arise more as a result of hard information about offending rather than as a-largely unproductive-trawl for information. (Ahmed and Hinscliff 2002) As a further confidence building measure in police-community relations police authorities will be enabled to set up panels of community representatives to monitor stop and search records against disproportionate stops for ethnic minorities.

Such developments on the face of it constitute an admission that stops have hitherto been used in a discriminatory fashion and have not been targetted in respect of actual criminality. This is indeed the conclusion of substantial research. Since the early 1980s there has been, until very recently, a dramatic increase in stop and search. Between 1986 and 1996 stop and search (under the PACE regulations) rose over 9 times in England and Wales as a whole while the proportion of such stops which led to an arrest fell over the same period from 17 to 10 percent (Wilkins and Addicott 1999 table A). The unproductive nature of stop and search has been confirmed in further Home Office research. (see Miller et al. 2000) If regulated stops under the PACE regulations lead to such low yield in terms of criminal offending then the hitherto unregulated stops are even less likely to lead to productive arrests of criminal offenders.

However at this point a crucial issue arises. Stop and search may, contra Macpherson, have other purposes than crime control. It is a mistake to think of the police as an organisation dedicated predominantly to crime control. Their historical origin lies in the necessity-from the standpoint of the propertied middle class-to control the `dangerous classes' that is, the poor, unemployed and homeless (Bittner 1975). This involved less a concern with the detection of crime than the generalised surveillance of entire social groups and communities. This function of the police is again becoming prominent with the growth of social exclusion and a substantial underclass of people with high rates of poverty, homelessness, school expulsions etc. Such people are disproportionately on the streets and attract the attention of the police. The increasing use of stop and search at the same time as declining proportion of stops leading to actual arrests for crime suggests a growing importance of the role of general surveillance. As a result of racial discrimination, young black people are disproportionately concentrated among that population attracting police attention due, not to a concrete suspicion of criminality, but to a more diffuse notion of dangerousness and disorderliness.

This theme emerges as a by-product of police attempts to deny that a disproportionate stop rate for black people is evidence of racism. It can be argued that while such disparities may exist, they have little to do with racial discrimination by police officers but rather reflect other factors such as the concentration of the black community-due to economic discrimination-in particular social class or geographical areas where the rate of stop and search is likely to be higher in any case (Jefferson 1991, 1993, Jefferson and Walker 1993). The Metropolitan police, in their evidence to Macpherson, argued along these lines. Assistant Commissioner Ian Johnston claimed that

If we look to people who are likely to be out on the streets, youngsters who are truanting and excluded from schools, who are over-represented in the truanting statistics, enormously over-represented in the exclusion statistics, it is young black children. If you look at who else is out on the streets, it is the unemployed. If you look at the differential rates of unemployed, black people, for a range of reasons, some of which are understandable, some of which are abhorrent are unemployed... so I wouldn't simply jump to the conclusion that because they are over represented, that that necessarily leads to support for an allegation of racism. What I do agree with is that it is something that needs significant exploration and significant looking in to... (Metropolitan Police 1998)

This type of argument was reproduced in later Home Office research (MVA and Miller, 2000) which attempted to measure the disproportionality of stops not for the population as a whole in an area but the `available population for stop/search' and found no evidence of disproportionality. However there is an important confusion in this line of reasoning. Black people may well face a high level of stops for the demographic reasons alluded to. Large numbers of white youth of a similar socio-economic background may also be subject to stops. The key question is why they are stopped in the first place. If individuals were stopped purely on the basis of reasonable suspicion of involvement in crime by reference to criteria other than membership of an ethnic group as such then racial disparities in stop and search would simply reflect differential crime rates. But, as research has shown, the actual yield of arrested offenders is very low.

The indicators required, by police as a basis for stops, are therefore less those of explicit criminality than membership of the underclass. Race is used by the police in precisely this way as a trigger for general surveillance and control. It is not, of course, the only such sign. Being a skinhead or dressing in a certain way, and being in the `wrong place at the wrong time' will also function. Large numbers of whites are stopped on the basis of such signs. These signs are reproduced as stereotypes of dangerousness and they are reinforced in the practical street wisdom and occupational culture of police officers. So when Ian Johnston, in the passage quoted above, implies that the police are not racist in stopping a disproportionate number of young blacks he is both right and wrong. He is right that demographic factors and racial discrimination in education and employment have placed disproportionately large numbers of blacks in the general social category that attracts police attention. He is wrong in the sense that it is precisely because of this fact that race acts as a useful trigger for stop and search. This is precisely why such racism is institutional. It arises out of the practical operational working of the police, not as an inefficient interference by prejudiced officers. Of course, police focus on black people is overdetermined. Middle class blacks get caught in the net to a much greater extent than middle class whites. The boundaries between underclass and respectable are more sharply drawn for that latter than the former. This is a result of the differential political and economic power of these communities. Racial prejudice among police officers, the association of black with underclass and disorder, is then reproduced in an occupational culture which legitimises stop and search as the policing of dangerous populations. But it is not the occupational culture which distorts stop and search; rather the latter provides the material basis for the occupational culture. It is Macpherson's failure to grasp this dynamic which undermines his whole project. By maintaining that stop and search is important for the control of crime despite its minimal yield of arrests and information, he misses the fact that stop and search, as a form of generalised policing of whole communities and groups, however much it is formally regulated by rules, is a major factor in generating police racism.

There was nevertheless considerable resistance in police circles to carrying through the implications of the Macpherson report. Police critics appeared to resent any suggestion that stop and search was carried out in a discriminatory way and furthermore appeared to attribute to Macpherson a position he did not espouse: namely that stop and search was unproductive from the crime control standpoint. Police use of stop and search had fallen considerable in the period prior to the publication of Macpherson, partly in anticipation of some of its recommendations and certain forms of street crime had risen. The two were then portrayed as causally related. In fact a study commissioned by the Metropolitan Police found ``that the link between the fall in searches and the rise in street crime was weak.'' (Fitzgerald 1999: 22) This was associated with the fact that the types of street crime most likely to be uncovered by stop and search operations, were possession of small amounts of cannibis, while the types that had risen during the period of the fall in stops were street robbery, an offence rarely uncovered by such policing operations.

 

Policing the powerless

The likely trends of future development present are difficult to ascertain because stop and search can, as we have seen, fulfill a number of functions. Reductions in stop and search levels appear to be underway and the general theme of recent reforms seems to be a genuine attempt to reduce the effect of stop and search as a form of generalised surveillance of the socially excluded and to increase its role as a crime control mechanism which is based on information already gathered; a shift from stops based on ethnic and class stereotypes to stops based on ``actual hard evidence as to the likelihood that the person stopped was an offender.'' (Young and Mooney 1999: 38 See also Young 1995). The successful implimentation of such a reform would mean that disproportionate stops for any particular group would indicate solely the disproportionate involvement of that group in criminality. One consequence might well be an increase in the proportion of stops of young males from poor communities, many of which have high concentrations of black or Asian people. The issue is not the proportion of different ethnic groups stopped but the reason why they are stopped.

However there are reasons for scepticism. Firstly, it is one thing to legislate for the recording of stops, it is another entirely to enforce it. The police as an organisation are very `bottom heavy'. There is a high level of autonomy and discretion available to officers on the street. This is underlined by another piece of recent Home Office research which noted that

``... decisions taken by police officers when dealing with members of the public are marked by `low visibility', and are thus invisible to supervisors and effectively `unreviewable'. This... remains an enduring problem at the heart of any attempt to regulate how officers behave on the street, and specifically in their use and conduct of stops and searches.''(Bland et al. 2000: 9)

The research went on to reveal the fact that in its survey areas up to 70 percent of stops and searches were not properly recorded by officers. (Bland et al. 2000: 31). These were stops and searches under the PACE regulations at least fourteen years after these regulations came into effect, by which time they might be supposed to have become second nature to police constables. One can only imagine the fate awaiting regulations requiring officers to record all stops.

The question of targetting also opens a hornets nest of problems. The overriding sense in one of déjà vu. We have been here before. Just as Macpherson repeated many of Scarman's recommendations seemingly oblivious of their almost impact-free nature, so solutions to the problems of stop and search by an emphasis on targetting are by no means new. Thus on a tour of London police stations in October 1982, following the Brixton riots of the previous year the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Kenneth Newman claimed that street robbers would henceforth be pursued in `a much more professional way' than the large scale stop and search operations which provoked the Brixton riots of 1981. Targetting was precisely what he had in mind. (Kinsey et al. 1986) Yet twenty years later exactly the same innovations are wheeled out as a solution. The effect may be, moreover, to reproduce existing forms of institutional racism as police develop targetting strategies within exactly the same ethnic minority populations to which more generalised stop and search strategies were directed. While actual offenders may be a higher proportion of those stopped, it may still be ethnic minority offenders who are disproportionately stopped. Certain areas of cities, predominantly socially excluded and deprived areas will be designated as disproportionately in need of police attention. In the same vein, targetting may involve a greater perception of the need to recruit the support of the middle classes within the ethnic minority communities, some representatives of whom have recently spoken in favour of stop and search as a crime control mechanism. (Burrell 2002) Targetting may be aimed at reducing the extent to which middle class blacks are drawn into the population available to be stopped. Other good reasons for reducing stop and search levels include pressure to increase clear-up rates for reported crime and therefore to spend less time and resources on practices which are minimally productive in this respect.

On the other hand the pressure to engage in generalised surveillance of the socially excluded as a group, rather than as targetted offenders, is considerable. This is part of a trend toward `actuarial' social control (Feeley and Simon 1994, Johnston 1997, 2000, Lea 2002) emphasising the management of risk groups rather than the focus on criminal offenders. Stop and search is, as noted above, well suited to such tasks. The reduction of stop and search under such conditions may presage a withdrawal from proactive policing to forms of `border patrol' of deprived areas while police operations targetted against offenders such as organised criminal gangs dictate episodic forays into areas of the city which are otherwise to all intents and purposes no-go. Time will tell.

 

The framework for a solution

Analyses which locate institutional racism primarily in lack of inter-ethnic contact outside law enforcement situations inevitably lead to a focus on race awareness training for white police officers and attempts to change the ethnic composition of police forces, strategies which have made little impact over the decades since Scarman. Macpherson is aware of this but fails to adopt a more radical policy agenda directed at the structure and organisation of policing and the relationship between police and ethnic minorities in the law-enforcement situation itself. The analysis presented here, while not negating the goals of race-awareness or the need to change ethnic composition of police forces, suggests their successful achievement might be linked to more far reaching structural changes in operational policing and in the constitutional relationship of police forces with the various ethnic communities.

The first conclusion is the necessity for a developed system of police accountability in which elected representatives have the power to determine the general strategies and priorities of policing. This would enable ethnic minorities, despite their lack of economic power and status, to contribute to the setting of police goals and thereby to be taken seriously as a political constituency by police. Such an argument is not new. It was made forcibly during the mid 1980s in the context of the campaign by the then Greater London Council (GLC) for an elected Police Authority for London. (see Lea and Young 1984, Spencer 1985, Greater London Council 1985) After the abolition of the GLC in 1986 the debate was sidelined. However, recent political developments may provide an environment in which it is likely to resurface. The intention of the present government to establish a Metropolitan Police Authority, welcomed by Macpherson, may create an opportunity to rethink the nature of police accountability and, importantly, to link the issue of accountability with that of the elimination of institutional racism.

Here is not the place to develop these arguments further. They will no doubt receive a substantial airing in the coming debate about new constitutional arrangements for the Metropolitan Police. I have sought simply to illustrate that the type of analysis of institutional racism I have given above leads directly to these agendas of institutional change rather than to the more cultural and attitudinal focus which has been a dominant approach to combating police racism and which despite attempts to move in other directions, remained the central focus of the Macpherson Report.

 

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References

[1]

References to the main body of the Macpherson report are by paragraph number.

[2]

The question as to whether institutional racism as a matter of overt policy exists in the United Kingdom is beyond our discussion here. Suffice it to say that as regards policing such racism would exist if, for example, the character of laws which the police are obliged to enforce-such as, for example, legislation governing immigration and the granting of asylum status to refugees-were judged to be discriminatory. For a fuller discussion of this variant of institutional racism see Lea 1986.