One day in June 2014, ‘D’, a young man of African-Caribbean background, was driving through Brixton, South London. Stopped at a red light, he saw his uncle outside a bookmaker’s, and the two men had a brief conversation through the car window. A passing van of police officers, witnessing this innocent family chat, deemed it to be suspicious. They followed D as he drove off, pulled him over, and demanded to search him and his vehicle. In the course of the encounter, D was arrested, and suffered a cracked rib. Nothing illegal was found on him, and he was not convicted of a crime.
This quotidian example of police racism and violence – two black men speaking through a car window risk the perception that they are dealing drugs, any black man being searched is liable to suffer violence from the searching officers – offers an insight into the reality of institutional racism that exists at every level of policing and criminal justice in Britain. Every measure shows that people from minority communities, especially black people, suffer disproportionately in the policing and criminal justice system.
In 2013/14, more than half of searches were conducted on the pretext of looking for illegal drugs. According to the charity Release, white people use drugs at almost twice the rate of black people, and yet it is black people that are six times more likely to be subject to a search for drugs.
Such searches are not only a humiliating intrusion into personal space and an unwanted interruption of one’s daily business, they are also sometimes the starting point of an incident that ends with police violence, as in D’s case. In May, an investigation by the Independent revealed that over 3,000 police officers from the Metropolitan and West Midlands Police are under investigation for brutality. Ethnic minorities are over- represented among these complainants by a factor of 3.5.
Victims of police violence or misconduct have a vanishingly small prospect of redress. Most complaints are handled internally by the police themselves. Last year, Channel 4’s Dispatches revealed that the Metropolitan Police upheld just 20 out of 4,730 allegations of racism made against officers between 2005 and 2012, which is 0.4 per cent. Meanwhile, black people suffer disproportionately in the courts and prisons too, making up around 2.2 per cent of the general population but 15 per cent of prisoners, according to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report from 2010. That’s a disparity greater even than that in the United States (though the latter has a much larger prison population overall).
Though the police have reluctantly acknowledged that they are institutionally racist, there is little evidence that they understand the term. The problem has been cast as one of individual morality (racist bad apples) rather than structural power. In fact, the term ‘institutionally racist’ means that racist outcomes produced by the police and the society they serve are a function of the policies and practices set out by policymakers and the ideologies that govern these institutions. We cannot individualise the problem of racialised state violence, as it is evidently political and structural.
Countering institutional racism in policing is therefore part of a wider effort against racism in British society, whose effects are also seen in housing, education, unemployment and health. In the field of policing, practical steps will include the creation of a police complaints system that is truly independent of the police and the state, controlled by the people. Such a body must have the power to ensure that police face the consequences of their actions. Officers must be prosecuted and convicted for their violent behaviour. While its application continues to exhibit extreme racial bias, there is also a strong case for the abolition of stop and search.