Last week, the home secretary, Theresa May, announced that a public inquiry will be held into undercover policing. May’s move followed the publication of a report, conducted by leading barrister Mark Ellison, on the investigation into the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in south-east London in 1993. At the time, two men were charged with Lawrence’s killing, but the charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence. Outraged by this decision, the Lawrence family brought a private prosecution in 1994 against five defendants, who were all acquitted. Eventually, thanks to the abolition of the ‘double jeopardy’ rule and ‘substantial new evidence’, two men – Gary Dobson and David Norris – were convicted of the murder in 2011.
A public inquiry, led by Sir William Macpherson, reported in 1999 on the investigation into the murder. Ellison’s new report sought to establish whether the Metropolitan Police had held back evidence of police corruption from the Macpherson Inquiry. It also considered evidence that the police had ‘infiltrated’ the Lawrence family during the inquiry in order to obtain evidence to ‘smear’ them.
The report has been widely seen as confirmation of the rotten heart of the UK’s police force. Theresa May said that ‘policing stands damaged’ following the report. Bernard Hogan-Howe, the current commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the report marked the lowest day of his career. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that ‘no one can underestimate the gravity of the institutional failing’ following Lawrence’s death. The new report is seen as yet another insult to add to the injury of the ‘Plebgate’ affair, where police officers are alleged to have fabricated evidence to embarrass government minister Andrew Mitchell. While polls suggest public trust in the police remains at an all-time high, official self-loathing seems to have gone through the roof.
In fact, 20 years on, the Lawrence case remains stubbornly at the centre of officialdom’s debate about race and policing. The commander of Scotland Yard’s anti-racism unit, Cressida Dick, used the tenth anniversary of the murder in 2003 to admit publicly that the Met remained ‘institutionally racist’. BBC News said in its resources on the case that it showed that ‘justice worked differently depending on the colour of your skin’. The fallout from the Lawrence case is often described as a turning point for policing, the wake-up call which propelled it from its racist past into its tolerant future.
Yet what these announcements show is that the Lawrence case has become a means of avoiding difficult questions. The endless handwringing over the Lawrence case has become a substitute for any genuine engagement with contemporary questions about race and the police. The Met and its political masters are happy to talk all day about the ‘racism’ which infected the police in the 1990s, yet they think little of announcing the ‘targeting’ of predominantly black areas like Brixton in the Met’s recent ‘Brixton Unite’ operation. A focus on the Met’s contemporary attitudes towards race and policing would be more worthwhile than endlessly repeating its confessions of past sins.