Institutional racism in the police: how entrenched has it become?

Roger Grimshaw
Monday, 13 July 2020

The Black Lives Matter movement has called attention, yet again, to police racism: to understand why it has become a persistent sore we need to examine how routine practices have a discriminatory effect.

In 1999 the Macpherson report on the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence defined institutional racism as:

...the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

The meaning of institutional racism

What institutional racism means here is a tolerance of attitudes and working practices which disadvantage minorities. It does not mean that every officer is prejudiced or that no minority person receives a good service. It means that something is embedded in criminal justice practice which causes systemic injustice. That something is ignored or tolerated, and it often is linked to a working stereotype that feeds into group practices.

So it begins with stereotyped assumptions, for example, about what a drug dealer looks like, where the deals are taking place, and so on. The same applies to the assumptions about gang members, that if one person is in trouble, then they and their friends or associates are likely to be in a gang. These police-work stereotypes are attached to racial images that together create a powerful lens for identifying who is suspicious, and what dress and behaviour to look out for.

Suspicions and stereotyping

Resentment or resistance of course can increase the suspicions and lead to more persistent questioning. Moreover, when suspicions are confirmed the stereotype is reinforced, though if they are not, the stereotype retains its power unless rigorously questioned. Indeed it operates not only in areas where minorities congregate, but also in areas where they do not, in cases where a minority person is seen as ‘out of place’ and subject to questioning.

What makes these assumptions especially dangerous is the way they create information that is stored in databases that can be accessed by other officers and used in criminal proceedings.

"Dangerous Associations"

In a study we published in 2016 our colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University, Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke, examined gang databases and prosecutions in London and Manchester.

Young black and minority ethnic people featured heavily in gang databases but they did not appear to be responsible for most serious violence in their areas. Indeed, official data reveals that the majority of successful prosecutions for serious violence are of white people. It was BAME individuals who were overwhelmingly registered on ‘gangs’ lists (80 per cent in London) although they made up a smaller proportion of those convicted of youth violence (50 per cent in London).

More recently the Information Commissioner has intervened with an enforcement notice demanding revisions to the recording and use of data on the London Gangs Matrix.

Becky and Patrick analysed a survey of 241 prisoners who has been subject to joint enterprise prosecutions where the prosecution seeks to show that individuals in a group were equally responsible for an offence.

Racial stereotyping and disproportionality

The findings showed that prosecutors regularly deployed racial stereotypes in relation to black defendants, influencing juries to increase the likelihood of conviction of secondary parties. For example, prosecution teams were reported as being more likely to refer to ‘gang insignia’ and music videos or lyrics, particularly ‘hip hop’ and ‘rap’ genres, as a way of constructing a case against BAME prisoners. Similarly, police information focusing on phone or text contact was also reported as being used disproportionately with the BAME prisoners. Almost half of the questionnaire respondents reported not being at the scene of the offence, so such prosecution strategies are particularly important in the process of collective punishment.

Stop and search

The rates of stop and searches among BAME people are high: a consistent pattern repeatedly found over decades. According to government data, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every 1,000 white people, compared with 38 for every 1,000 black people.

Nearly half of all stop and searches took place in the Metropolitan Police force area in London. 

According to the Information Commissioner, being on a gangs list was likely to increase someone’s chances of being stopped and searched.

We asked Ben Bradford and Matteo Tiratelli, the authors of a College of Policing report looking at ten years’ worth of Metropolitan Police data, to write a briefing.

They found only a weak relationship between stop and search and overall levels of violence. Increasing levels of weapon searches sometimes led to marginally lower-than-expected rates of violent crime in the following week but not beyond that period. The authors concluded that there was limited evidence about the effectiveness of stop and search on crime rates. So stop and search is a very blunt and ineffective weapon and its widespread use must be described as unnecessary and discriminatory.

What now for tackling institutional racism?

What can we conclude? There are consistent patterns of practice in criminal justice which correspond with the definition of institutional racism, extending from stop and search, through gang databases to prosecution policies. Recent evidence has also raised questions about the proportion of BAME people penalised during the COVID-19 lockdown. The Home Affairs Select Committee is asking for evidence about developments since the landmark Macpherson Report; the next task for all concerned about racial injustice is to consider how to systematically challenge practices that the police and prosecutors, by themselves, have clearly failed to eliminate.

This article is a summary of the issues Roger discussed on a recent episode of Voices of Islam podcast which you can listen to here (from 10.18 minutes onwards).