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Racism in the Met: memories from the 1980's

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With the sentences on the two men found guilty today of the murder of Stephen Lawrence being shorter [15 and 14 years] than the time taken to obtain them [18 years since the murder], I want to record a couple of memories relevant to the background of this case.

Firstly, the sentences reminded me of Wilf Knight's thesis for his Cambridge MPhil in the early 1980's [1985, I think]. I supervised that dissertation. Wilf was a Superintendent in the Met and a high flyer from the grass roots. I discovered today that he had died in 2008, bless him. He was a good guy and saw racism as an alien mentality. We spent a lot of time talking about the police force and how it was changing. His research topic was racism in the Met. Because the content of the final work was so explosive and controversial, Wilf's thesis was placed on 'restricted access' in the Cambridge University Library at his request. 

Wilf had carried out a survey of racist attitudes amongst his colleagues at the Met and the results were appalling and disturbing. He sent out around 650 questionnaires, with the express backing, if I remember rightly, by accompanying letter, of the Metropolitan Commissioner himself, and amazingly, about 350 officers actually refused to respond, despite its authoritative nature. Many of those who did respond, although not all by any means, expressed the crudest form of racism you could imagine.  As Wilf's supervisor, of course I saw many of these returned questionnaires and was dismayed by the frequent reference to monkeys swinging from the trees and other colonial crudities. 

David Leigh, the distinguished investigative journalist at the Guardian, then of the Observer, had come to my Cropwood conference on 'Crime, justice and the media' [1981, Cambridge Institute of Criminology] and wanted to see the thesis. But I would not divulge its contents or my memory of them. Wilf had told me that any public disclosure would likely result in him being 'promoted' to some police training outpost in the Orkneys, and, like journalists, academics should be loyal to their sources. 

Wilf and I were at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. For example, while he was injured aiding colleagues policing the miners' strike I was supervising Penny Green's doctoral thesis on the policing of that strike, later published as The Enemy Without in 1990 [Open UP], and defending that research against criticism [for being 'political'] at the House of Lords' Advisory Committee to the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, thankfully with the support of Professor Stuart Hall and Robert Kilroy-Silk MP, two members of that Committee. Wilf went on to leave the police and form a company advising multinationals and banks on security issues; Penny is now a professor at Kings College in London and directs funded research on state violence and resistance to it. 

I do wonder now, given that Wilf has passed away, and can't be censured by the police any more, whether it is time that his thesis is released into public access?  It doesn't of itself resolve much of course and no doubt there would be endless arguments over it.  Some would say that the Met has changed drastically, such as Cressida Dick did yesterday [she of the Menezes case, the Brazilian shot in error on the Tube]. Others would say it hadn't changed a bit on racism, like Dr Stone, of the McPherson report panel, quoted today in the Independent. But what the thesis will prove beyond any shadow of a doubt is the depth of racism within the Met in the 1980's.

My view: police represent society, or should do anyway, and this society, like all others I've lived in, is still very racist so I would be surprised if the Met wasn't still fairly racist, although I would also hope that things had improved a lot since the Stephen Lawrence case and the efforts of the Lawrence parents to get justice. There was certainly room for a lot of improvement. What I saw in Wilf Knight's thesis told me that the racism in the Met was at epidemic levels at that time, and maybe even institutionally rooted and amplified, and actually, in all probability, worse than the rest of society.That level undoubtedly could have hampered, confused, obstructed, diverted and delayed the Lawrence investigation.

This brings me to my second memory: later the Metropolitan Police Commissioner from 1993-9, Paul Condon was one of the attendees at one of the biennial Institute of Criminology's 'Senior Courses' during the 1980's. The Senior Course was for middle-management criminal justice professionals: each one lasted two weeks and was held in a Cambridge college. At that time, I was teaching a postgraduate course at the Institute on Crime, Justice and Underdevelopment and had just published a book on the subject [1982]. For one of the focus groups, I asked Paul to write a short paper on instituitonalized racism in the police force - he didn't need a great deal of encouragement. We talked about the subject first and, as I recall, I outlined some reading that he might do on the possible links with imperial policing in Northern Ireland, Nigeria and India, and how that had left its mark on domestic policing. The paper he gave to his group a few days later was outstanding and pulled no punches.   He had an excellent grasp of the reasons why racism within UK policing might be institutionally and historically grounded in practice, ethos, attitude and training, and why it might well be very mistaken to treat it as a 'personal' problem for a few bad apples or something just borne out of ignorance or culture. His analysis was critical and incisive. 

Well, Paul of course became Metropolitan Commissioner the year Stephen Lawrence was murdered and, unbelievably to me, later found himself accused of racism for saying something someone deemed inappropriate. It was obvious to me that, given the findings of Wilf Knight's research just a few years before, Paul was always going to have a hard time being caught between the racists in his rank-and-file on the one hand and a growing race relations industry often focussed on surface not depth.


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