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Stephen Lawrence: his death changed British law forever but trust in police has yet to recover

Stephen Lawrence’s murder eventually led to major police reforms. EPA

The story of Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered in 1993 is distressing, infuriating and inspiring.

Distressing because of the horrific way he died, stabbed by a gang of attackers on a London street, and frustrating because of the ineptitude of the investigation that followed. Locals to the area started reporting names of a group of suspects to the police within hours but that information was not acted upon. There were indications of corruption, and the police treated the family with distrust and disrespect. Investigative failures weakened the case so that prosecutions failed, the suspects were able to treat the process with contempt and the family faced injustice at every turn. Only two of the five suspects have been convicted, and even that took decades.

But the family’s dignity and courage is inspiring. Their determination eventually brought about not only justice for Stephen, but also far-reaching change in the British criminal justice system and beyond.

I vividly recall reading reports of the Stephen Lawrence murder. I had just completed my research on violent racism and the news of yet another racist murder in southeast London made for depressing reading.

I was struck by the similarity with dozens of previous murders – a poor initial response from police, who denied a racist motive, incompetence in the investigation, a family ripped apart by grief, but also frustrated by their experiences of being patronised by the police. The pattern was so familiar, I have to admit, that I did not expect this to be the case that would attract the support of Nelson Mandela and the Daily Mail alike. I didn’t think it would lead to a public inquiry that would bring racism and policing to the centre of British politics.

A wake-up call

The murder of Lawrence opened the eyes of the British public to the reality of violent racism. Of course, most people of colour were aware of the danger. In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, the experience of casual racist epithets – “black bastard”, “go back to your own country” and much worse – was widespread. In my experience, it was often absorbed without retaliation out of fear that the words would be backed with violence. Certain parts of London were avoided, especially when the National Front or British National Party were on the march, or even just on match days when violent racists mingled with football crowds. But this was far from the experience of most British people, especially Daily Mail readers.

Three of the five suspects leave after giving evidence to the Macpherson inquiry in 1998. PA Archive

Aside from the murder itself, the most shocking was the surveillance evidence. The suspects had been secretly filmed acting out stabbing movements and talking in a way that revealed the depth of their hatred for black and Asian people. I think that the case educated the public on the meaning of racism and ended the tendency to deny that racism was a problem in British society. It helped to create an environment that made explicit racism socially unacceptable.

Police reform

The 1999 Lawrence inquiry, chaired by judge William Macpherson, established that racism was also a problem in the British police service. In evidence to the inquiry, numerous senior police officers admitted the problem. The Black Police Association in particular provided overwhelming evidence that racism was part of the police culture of the 1990s and that this contributed to shaping police practice on the street.

Macpherson also went well beyond the view, established by fellow judge Leslie Scarman in his report on the Brixton riots a generation earlier, that this was a problem of a few bad apples. This was “institutional racism”. Racial stereotyping and conscious and unconscious prejudices were shaping routine police practices. Police were failing to respond to racist attacks on one hand, and, on the other, were overusing their stop and search powers. They had left the black community feeling over-policed and under-protected.

Doreen and Neville Lawrence, pictured in 1995. PA Archive

The Lawrence inquiry made recommendations that changed the definition of a racist attack and led to fundamental improvements in homicide investigations. It led to new discipline procedures in the police and even brought about the abolition of the double jeopardy rule that prevented people from being tried for the same crime twice. That’s how two of Lawrence’s killers were finally brought to justice.

Crucially, the inquiry also resulted in the police and other public services being brought within the ambit of the Race Relations Act for the first time, ending decades of lawful impunity.

Through these recommendations, the inquiry paved the way to a fundamental restructuring of policing and the means by which it can be held to account.

But did the murder of Stephen Lawrence constitute the “watershed in attitudes towards racism, a catalyst for permanent and irrevocable change”, as anticipated by then home secretary Jack Straw when the inquiry was published?

It did establish beyond doubt that racism was a problem needing urgent action. And it did accelerate the move towards an acceptance of diversity at all levels of British society.

In other ways, however, the problems of racism, violence and inequality were already too deeply entrenched. These are serious and remain unsolved. I have worked on numerous cases where racist stereotyping has led to unnecessary and unlawful use of stop and search powers, and the individual cases are backed up by statistical evidence of disproportionality and discrimination – continuing institutionalised racism in policing.

And the catastrophic loss of confidence in the police that was well documented in the Lawrence inquiry after years of neglect of, and often overt hostility towards, the black community, lies behind the cycle of violence that is currently manifest in the persistence of knife crime in British cities.

The challenge facing the police service today is to show that it exists to serve all sections of society, not through the failed aggressive enforcement practices of the past, but through painstaking efforts to build trust and demonstrate fairness and respect in every encounter with the public.

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