BRITISH race relations groups are accusing police of a sharp increase of ethnic prejudice toward nonwhites, and official figures appear to back up their allegations.
The government-appointed Police Complaints Authority (PCA) reports that last year claims alleging racial discrimination by police officers rose by more than 300 percent. The PCA says also that allegations of police causing serious injury or death to people in their custody rose by 50 percent over the same period.
The findings, which are disputed by police, have prompted the PCA to launch a research program aimed at learning what lies behind the statistics.
The March 28 publication of the report coincides with a series of actions ordered by Michael Howard, the home secretary, aimed at curbing crimes by imposing tougher sentences on criminals and enforcing stricter prison conditions.
Mr. Howard's hard-line approach has strong support in the white community, but representatives of nonwhites claim that the new policies tend to discriminate against minority ethnic groups.
Many of the complaints investigated by the PCA arise from what police call ``stop and search'' routines aimed at curbing the sale and use of narcotics.
Police say much of the narcotics trade is in the hands of people of Caribbean origin, and this leads to a higher proportion of nonwhites being approached and questioned about their activities.
Nazmit Dholakia, a senior official of the state-supported Commission for Racial Equality, believes police can be unaware of their own prejudices.
``The PCA figures probably understate the size of the problem,'' Mr. Dholakia says. ``It is very difficult to prove racial discrimination after the event, and many people with genuine grievances either drop their initial complaints or didn't bother to complain at all.''
But there is evidence that growing numbers among Britain's nonwhite population are becoming more aware of their rights and are exercising them.
Len Peach, chairman of the PCA, believes the growing number of complaints of ethnic discrimination by police can be explained partly by ``a greater awareness of the complaints system,'' he says. ``There may also be a greater unwillingness to accept racially offensive behavior.''
Less likely to complain
Dholakia supports this view. ``Nonwhite people who came to Britain and settled here are less likely to complain about the way they are treated by police than their children who consider themselves full citizens of the United Kingdom ...,'' he says.
Dholakia thinks the PCA report can be viewed ``as a barometer of race relations in Britain.''
British police claim the PCA's findings reflect an increase in violent crime generally. A senior Scotland Yard officer denied that police are racially motivated.
``If the sale and use of hard drugs continue to increase, and violent crime stays on a rising curve, it is inevitable that police and members of minority communities will eye each other with suspicion,'' the officer said.
Support groups representing nonwhites contend that police violence and ethnic prejudice often go together. Last year 27 people died in police custody, the PCA reports. More than half were nonwhites.
The case of Joy Gardner, a Jamaican woman who died last year when police attempted to enforce a deportation order against her, attracted much attention.
Gardner resisted arrest, was forcibly restrained, and died in custody. The case is being examined by the government prosecutors. Tighter immigration rules have increased the number of cases where police and nonwhites find themselves in sometimes violent confrontation.
Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, argues that the government's hard line against immigration makes it more likely that police will be accused of prejudice. He recalls that last Christmas police swooped down on a plane from Jamaica arriving at London's Gatwick airport, detained and questioned nearly 200 of the passengers, and sent many of them back home.
Mr. Moraes says the case was ``a total humiliation for black people.'' He contends that a new immigration law passed last year is directly aimed at nonwhites and denies would-be immigrants the right of appeal if they are turned back at the frontier.
Officials at the Commission for Racial Equality believe accusations of racial harassment by police need to be seen in a wider community perspective.
Dholakia argues that racial harassment is common in many parts of Britain. ``The Home Office admits that a racist incident occurs every four minutes, and that is very substantial,'' he says.