It’s no secret that the Black community and the police have a difficult relationship.
Figures for 2019/20 reported that Black people in England and Wales are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched in comparison to White people. Stops under section 60, where no reasonable suspicion is required rose by 35% to over 18,000, with 4% leading to an arrest. For me, such statistics are not surprising, and I’m sure many Black Brits feel the same.
Twenty-three years ago, 1999 may have failed to live up to the hype that Prince sung about, but it gave Black Brits a glimmer of hope that the world wanted to seek the same justice as them.
Jack Straw, the then British home secretary, ordered an enquiry following the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence at the hands of a gang of White youths. Sir William Macpherson took on the task and his 350-page report concluded that the Metropolitan Police’s (the Met) investigation into Lawrence’s killing had been ‘marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership.’
Such findings rocked the UK. Or should I say they rocked those who had not been paying attention, and encouraged a barrage of promises of change from the Met. Yet, the question of how much the Met has done to address its internal (and some believe eternal) racism remains unanswered. Especially, when you learn about the Met’s responses to a number of recent cases involving Black people. Starting with two sisters who were brutally murdered by a stranger.
On one sunny afternoon in June 2020, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman had spent time with friends in a park celebrating a birthday. As the good weather continued into the night, the sisters decided to take advantage and prolonged their celebrations after their friends left. Unfortunately, neither women were seen alive again.
Questions about the police’s conduct began when the family initially reported that the two women were missing. The family claimed that the police had not taken their concerns seriously and for twelve hours after raising the alarm bell police officers were still not deployed to investigate the women’s last sightings. The family also noticed that one of the women was not registered as a missing person the next morning and that police officers did not seem to care enough once they learnt about one of the sister’s residential address. The fact that both women were professionals and had never disappeared before didn’t seem to matter; their postcodes and skin colour had already defined them.
The family’s worst nightmare came true when the boyfriend of one of the sisters found their dead bodies. Yet the saga does not end there. The final insult came when two police officers took photos of the dead women and shared them in a WhatsApp’s group. Instead of feeling remorse for the loss of life and empathy for the family’s heartache, police officers chose to ‘entertain’ themselves in a manner that no one with any common decency will ever understand.
Sharing photos and mocking Black victims is not a singular event. Members of an elite unit within the Met and colleagues of Wayne Couzens, the police officer who killed Sarah Everard, have been exposed for sharing odious content via, once again, WhatsApp. This time the murder of George Floyd seemed to tickle their ‘sense of humour’ as they celebrated his death whilst most of the world was horrified. The shooting of British Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist Sasha Johnson, who was shot in the head last year, was also seen as ‘funny’ as police officers cruelly came up with ‘Black Lives Splatter’; get it?!? From revelations of the exchanged messages, it seems no one was spared and further victims included Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and Everard herself.
Let’s move onto London’s Charing Cross Police Station. The Independent Office for Police Conduct found officers to have joked about rape and use derogatory language when speaking about BLM, disabled people and mosques. This discovery took place weeks before it was learnt that a Black school girl had been stripped search by the Met whilst on her period.
The incident took place at a Hackney-based secondary school in east London. The teachers had wrongly suspected the student of carrying cannabis. Police officers arrived at the school and took the child to medical room and proceeded to strip search her without another adult being present. There are so many things to unpack with this disturbing behaviour.
The first is the actions of the school. A report by City & Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership concluded that “racism was likely to have been an influencing factor,” for the Met’s response, but the onus of blame equally falls on the school.
The actions of the teachers must be publicly shamed. These are people who have a responsibility to protect their students from harm; not put them in harm’s way. By doing so, the Black community’s accusation of those in authority failing to see Black children as that and treating them as adults is a rightful (and frightful) one. Instead of speaking directly to the student to confirm if their suspicions of drug possession were correct, they chose to call the police and incriminate a child based on nothing more (I suspect) than their own unconscious bias and prejudices. I wonder how many other Black children have faced discrimination from these teachers, how much has taken place unsaid and what the long-lasting damage will be for those who have been on the receiving end?
The role of the police officers is beyond comprehension. You do not need to be a human rights lawyer to know it is ethically unjust to strip search a child; especially without a consenting adult. In doing so, those officers did not see a fragile frightened school girl or think about the long-term consequences that child will endure. They did not see a human being who deserved to be treated as innocent until evidence proves otherwise. They saw a criminal and their sole mission was to arrest and dispose of her, as society continues to do with the Black community. I would like to ask the police officers how they feel about their actions turning a once “happy-go-lucky girl to a timid recluse that hardly speaks”, who now self-harms and needs therapy?
I won’t hold my breath for an answer.
With such ongoing findings, it’s easy to conclude that the Met has made zero efforts to change their attitudes and behaviour towards the Black community since Macpherson’s report. However, this isn’t exactly true. Personally, I think the real question is how much the Met wants to change?
Articles written by former police officer, Leroy Logan who also co-founded the UK’s Black Police Association in 1994, provides disappointing insight as he states that the Met’s “look and feel is as similar to the organisation I was part of back in the 1990s.”
Logan gives insight that for the first ten years, after Macpherson’s report, the Met Police made ongoing effort to recruit, retain and progress Black, Asian and minority-ethnic officers. It saw an increase from 2% to 12% and seemed to be on its way of being more representative of the UK’s diverse society. However, such intentions now feel like a tick-box exercise and not something the Met truly wants to sustain to help rebuild and heal community relationships. In 2021, the Evening Standard reported that only 3.3% of newly-recruited Met police officers were Black. This is a far cry from representing Black Londoners who make up 13% of the capital’s population.
After years of austerity, the UK has become a population that is trying to swim in a sea of inflated prices and utility bills, whilst hanging onto a rubber float that was once known as social mobility with some hope that future generations won’t experience the same hardship. Therefore, with an increase of poverty, it is inevitable that crime will go up and that the Met has a difficult (and at times thankless) job. Yet, this cannot get in the way of them taking meaningful steps to implement and sustain a more positive relationship with the Black community. It cannot be enough to ask a community to not think racism rears its ugly head whenever officers act aggressively or with distain when encountering the Black community. After all, the facts speak for themselves.
If the Met really wants to change then the onus belongs on them. And that begins with asking itself some difficult questions. For example, why so many officers agree to protect and serve all, but seem less likely to do so when it comes to the Black community? Is the Met a safe haven for those with racist or prejudice intentions? And is the Met doing enough to root out those who misuse their power and not repeat the age-old excuse of “a few bad apples”, when they’re caught? Answers to such questions and more must be answered with unequable evidence that no one can second guess. Whichever side the Met lands on, only then can it stand in its truth of how it honestly views the Black community. And only then, real authentic rapport can begin to take place with both parties.