Inquiry Raises Question: Are British Bobbies Racist?

After probe into murder of black teen, completed this week, police concede they made errors of judgment.

When a group of white youths stabbed black teenager Stephen Lawrence to death at a bus stop in a London street on April 22, 1993, it seemed like an isolated instance of racist murder.

But five years later the Lawrence case has become a cause clbre.

It has jolted the confidence of the British public in their police, who traditionally have commanded widespread respect. And it has triggered profound soul-searching by British law-enforcement officers, who stand accused of incompetence and prejudice in handling relations with the country's 2 million nonwhites - more than 3 percent of the country's total population of 58 million.

In the wake of a 55-day inquiry into the circumstances of Mr. Lawrence's death, wrapped up this week, a team of government-appointed lawyers and crime experts is poised to travel to major British cities. It will interview both police and members of ethnic groups.

The tour, described by its leader, senior judge Sir William Macpherson, as "a much-needed response to serious ethnic concerns," will begin in early September. The team expects to spend between two and three months on the road and will produce a report in December.

Concerns that police handling of cases involving nonwhites is often prejudiced and unfair were pinpointed by the high-profile inquiry into the unpunished murder of Lawrence.

The inquiry ended earlier this week after hearing testimony that police assigned to the case had been motivated by racist attitudes.

The police deny the accusations of racism. But they admit that although more than 20 local people identified Lawrence's killers within hours of the murder, station officers made no move to arrest anyone for two weeks. By then, key forensic clues had been lost or destroyed.

Michael Mansfield, an attorney for the Lawrence family, told the inquiry that racism had hampered the police investigation.

"The majority of the failures in this case cannot be explained by mere incompetence or a lack of direction by senior officers, or a lack of application by junior officers. So much was missed by so many that deep causes and forces must be considered," he said.

"The victim was black, and there was, as a result, racism, both conscious and unconscious."

In a major turning point, Scotland Yard Police Commissioner Ian Johnson now has conceded serious errors by his force.

At the outset of the inquiry, Mr. Johnson denied that his officers had been racially prejudiced or had failed to pursue the case vigorously. Midway through the hearings, however, he admitted they had "failed in the Lawrence case." He publicly apologized to Lawrence's parents, saying: "We are sorry we let you down."

"I think we've changed enormously since then," Johnson added last week. "If we have another case like this, it will be dealt with much, much better."

According to Scotland Yard, officers are now under orders to respond faster and more sensitively to attacks on members of ethnic minorities.

And the likelihood of further racist incidents occurring is high.

In London, Birmingham, and other large cities, the number of nonwhites living in some housing developments has risen higher than those of white citizens. In general, unemployment levels among non-whites are higher than for whites. According to Britain's Home Office, which is responsible for law enforcement, unemployment among nonwhites in some parts of London and Birmingham is four times higher than for whites living in the same areas.

The five white youths suspected of killing Lawrence are still living in the neighborhood where the murder occurred.

Largely because of police delays during the investigation, the director of public prosecutions determined that there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution. A private lawsuit by the Lawrence family also failed to convict the suspects because of a lack of evidence.

The results of a recent opinion poll, commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation, indicate that the Lawrence case has caused many British to question the impartiality of the police.

Some 90 percent of more than 1,000 Londoners surveyed said they had heard of the case, and 48 percent felt they now had less trust in the police. The poll suggests that 3 out of 4 people thought deficiencies in police procedures had been revealed by the inquiry.

CONTROVERSY over the Lawrence case has drawn attention to what the Home Office concedes is an upsurge in racially motivated crime.

In the past three years, the Home Office says, nine people have died in racially motivated murders. Over the same period there were 866 serious racist assaults and 402 attacks involving arson and explosives. The number of racist murders has doubled in the last eight years.

But these figures are contested by nonwhite spokesmen, who say they are far too low.

For instance, Peter Herbert, speaking for the Society of Black Lawyers, says the actual number of incidents of racist violence in Britain "is much, much higher."

"The official statistics refer only to reported incidents," he says. "There are many more incidents that are never reported."

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