Police corruption, spying and racism: The ethnic penalty

This is an abridged version of Rebecca Roberts' paper, prepared in collaboration with Matt Ford, to the 'Police corruption, spying, racism and accountability' conference on Friday 6 February, 2015 at Conway Hall, London. The data mentioned in Rebecca's speech can be viewed in the slides below.

By: 
Rebecca Roberts
Date: 
Wednesday, 11 February, 2015

Over the last ten years I have been involved in a series of publications and initiatives at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies that have highlighted the harmful and biased ways that the criminal justice system can operate. I am also involved in the Reclaim Justice Network – which is a network of people who want to scale back criminal justice and identify socially just solutions. 

I’m going to speak briefly and cover two areas. Firstly I’m going talk about the Justice Matters initiative and try and offer some context to police racism, corruption and spying – through the frame of what myself and colleagues have described as the ‘Ethnic penalty’. Secondly, I want to try to challenge us all to be ambitious and optimistic about the opportunities for change. This is a joint paper with my colleague Matt Ford, Research and Policy Assistant at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. He has spent the last six months reviewing and compiling the data discussed here.

Justice Matters

At the Centre we have a strand of work called ‘Justice Matters’. This project is driven by our belief that as a society we rely too much on policing, prosecution and punishment – and that by doing so, we fail to tackle the complex social problems. What the criminal justice system (CJS) is very good at, for the most part, is to be an unsuitable container for a regular clientele of people who have a mixture of health, mental health and drug problems and are usually from low income backgrounds. These people are often those most vulnerable to capture because of the focus of the system. You can read more about the initiative in the Justice Matters flyer in your conference packs and also on our website.

What we have found is that the criminal justice process inflicts unnecessary suffering on many innocent suspects, defendants, and people convicted of an offence. The criminal justice system inflicts collateral damage – in terms of the wider community – and also the collateral damage experienced by victims of crime – who put their faith in a system that was never designed to offer an answer to loss and trauma. This unnecessary suffering is something I know many in the room today will have personal experience of. 

The police, our courts and prisons are not able to prevent social problems from arising, or adequately resolve those that occur. Criminal justice has historically been very good at punishing certain individuals and groups – and in particular the poor and marginalised. 

The 'ethnic penalty'

One area we are concerned about is the over-representation of black and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system. The Young Review published at the end of 2014 looked at the experiences of black and Muslim men in the criminal justice system and highlights disproportionality in the prison system.

  • 13.1 per cent of adult prisoners self identify as black, compared with 2.9 per cent of the over 18 population recorded in the 2011 Census.
  • Muslim prisoners account for 13.4 per cent of the prison population compared with 4.2 per cent in the 2011 Census.
  • In prison, black or mixed origin service users are subject to higher rates of adjudication, spend more days than average in segregation and are more frequently subject to the use of force.

When we look at children and young people in prison, survey results from the Chief Inspector of Prisons shows that of children in Young Offenders Institutions – 41 per cent were from a black or minority ethnic group, and 22 per cent were Muslim. 

Back in 2007, Will McMahon and myself were troubled by a political narrative about ‘black on black crime’ and we took a look at the evidence and data relating to the experiences of young black men in the criminal justice system and wider society. After looking at the data, we didn’t buy into the idea that young black men, or the ‘black community’ were the problem.  The ‘problem’, more often than not, seemed to be racism, surveillance and a society that creates problems and barriers for people. Black and minority ethnic people experience problems – they are not the problem.

We published Ethnicity, harm and crime in 2008. We found Lucinda Platt’s term ‘ethnic penalty’ very helpful. She had used it to explain poverty and ethnicity in the UK.

By ethnic penalty we mean a penalty or inequality in certain aspects of life (for example earnings) that exist even if a person from an ethnic minority has the same background as a white person. It is a penalty or disadvantage experienced because of their ethnic background. This suggests an underlying racism and discrimination embedded in our institutions and day to day interactions.

Matt Ford has revisited and updated the data and published a series of online articles detailing ethnic penalties in a range of areas. I would strongly urge you to take a look at his work – and in particular a paper he presented last week. This is going to be a very brief overview, and before I start, I need to acknowledge that the definitions and statistical categories in terms of ‘black’ or 'BME' are slippery terms. But the data is worth exploring as it gives us an idea of some of the inequalities in people's lives.

The data

Using the government’s data from it's ‘Households below average income’ (HBAI) publication we can see that all minority ethnic groups have much higher rates of poverty than white people. About 40% of all black people (grouping all different black groups together) in the UK are living in poverty. That’s between 660,000 and 750,000 people. 

In the education system we see disproportionality in tiering and the use of exclusions. When children are aged 14, teachers place them into different tiers of maths and science. The decision is supposed to be based on prior attainment and ability. You can see from the slide that higher proportions of most minority ethnic groups are put into the lower tier exams compared to white British pupils. We know that attainment can be influenced by other things like socio-economic background, poverty, and parent’s level of education. So the fact that some ethnic minority groups have, for example, higher levels of poverty could mean that a greater proportion of the children have lower attainment and so greater proportions are placed into lower tiers. 

The study that this graph is from, by Steve Strand, tried to eliminate the effects of these background factors using certain statistical methods to see if there was a more direct ethnic penalty occurring in the tiering process. He found that the inequalities between most of the ethnic groups could be explained by background factors such as socio-economic background. 

However, for black Caribbean children the experience seemed to be quite different. It appears that teachers were placing them in lower tiers in much greater numbers than could be accounted for by other factors. The conclusion the authors draw is that teachers stereotype black Caribbean children as more behaviourally problematic and this distorts teachers’ perceptions of academic ability. This is borne out in the government data on school exclusions. Greater proportions of children from most black backgrounds get permanently excluded compared to other ethnic groups. About 0.22 per cent of black Caribbean children get permanently excluded compared to only 0.07 per cent of white children.

Young black men (aged 16-24) consistently have the highest rate of unemployment of any ethnic group except for in 2013 when there was a massive increase for young Pakistani and Bangladeshi men. Even when ethnic minority people have similar education levels and socio-economic backgrounds to white people they experience worse employment outcomes. So for example black men with graduate level qualifications earn £3.86 an hour less than their white counterparts and black women with graduate qualifications earn £2.08 an hour less than their white counterparts.

The topic for today is police corruption, racism and spying. Why have I given us a whistle-stop tour of how the ‘ethnic penalty’ operates outside of criminal justice?

The point here is that across a range of institutions and agencies and social practices, something is happening that results in people facing a series of barriers and obstructions across their lives. What we are seeing is a mixture of thinking and unthinking, intentional and unintentional prejudice and racism that is acted out by and impacts upon a diverse range of people in multiple ways.  Importantly, this isn’t about just being poor. Or only having fewer educational qualifications. Or being unemployed. These problems are connected and cumulative. They are experienced in higher rates amongst black and minority ethnic people and are caused, aggravated and compounded by racism and discrimination. 

The data we are looking at tells us that barriers exist, but the important point about the ethnic penalty is that it is more than discrimination or racism. Discrimination can affect tangible outcomes such as employment, wages, school exclusions.  It can also affect your psychological and physical well being. It affects how the world relates to you, and how you relate to the world. 

This isn’t just a problem of police and criminal justice. It filters through a range of organisations and institutions. Policing does not operate in a ‘bubble’. It responds to and is driven by outside factors. The disproportionate punishment of black and minority ethnic people and the experience of the ethnic penalties build up throughout the life course. We are talking about a range of interconnected and related inequalities in education, employment, health and punishment. In particular, in terms of criminal justice, young black men (and increasingly so for young Muslim men) are frequently identified as different or dangerous and experience greater obstructions and barriers.

Historical roots

This is a contemporary problem that also has a historical context. The current focus and activities of our criminal justice system and the racism and inequality inherent to it has deep roots in the UK’s history of colonialism, exploitation and the enslavement of people across the globe – without which this country’s wealth, health and relative economic success would not have been possible.

In the United States clear connections have been made by activists about the connections between slavery, it’s abolition, and the emergence of a criminal justice system that has criminalised and incarcerated black communities at a horrifying rate. The relationship between the history of slavery and contemporary punishment has been documented very well.

So what about the UK? John Moore, a historian from the University of the West of England has written about the use of colonial punishment and violence of the British State and Empire. He documents the use of brutal punishment, surveillance and control of colonised populations across the globe – and how constructions of ‘race’ have been used to justify the inequality and exclusion that was created throughout British empire. Racist stereotyping, he argues, is nothing new and has been used to connect ‘race’ and ‘criminality’ throughout the history of colonialism to prevent and punish any form of uprising or dissent.

He argues that what we are seeing in the criminal justice system in the UK today is simply ‘the empire coming home’.

The over-policing, over-criminalisation and disproportionate punishment of people in this context is all part of our national history that has prioritised the lives and wellbeing of certain groups over others.

What can we do?

I’m not an expert on solutions – but here are two starting points. Simplistically put, the first is in the area of criminal justice, and the second is that of ‘social justice’.

  1. Criminal justice: How can we downsize criminal justice to reduce the harm it causes and obscures?
  2. Social justice: What can we do to change things so that criminal justice is irrelevant and unnecessary?

The police – individually and institutionally - must be held account for how they operate. This is legitimate given the powers they wield. Police should be subject to close scrutiny. I hope coming out of this conference, we will be able to identify ways to build awareness of state inflicted harm, and how to bring the state to account. However, this will only get us so far. Alex Vitale, a US commentator has been covering some of the policy proposals emerging from recent police killings in the States. He says ‘We don’t just need nicer cops. We need fewer cops’

I want to see the police protecting people better and responding to violence and harm better. That will only get us so far, if we take seriously some of the wider questions about their role in controlling so called ‘problem populations’. In the longer term, I would like to see a radical scaling back and dismantling of the police. The police should not be the primary agency empowered to tackle neighbourhood problems. Access to services such as mental health or drug treatment, for example, should not be dependent on police.

In a recent piece on the Centre’s website, Tim Hope has argued that the uniformed police service should merge with community health, ambulance and fire services to become a civil harm-response service with the delegated task of protecting and supporting victims of crime.

I’m interested in exploring further community led ways to deal with harm and violence. Creative Interventions in the US have drawn up toolkits for community based anti-violence strategies that seek to increase safety without resort to punishment or police. We should resist over-policing and, for example, support campaigns to keep police out of schools. 

The point I want to make here is that we need to push for change within criminal justice AND outside of criminal justice. We need to support ways to build individual and community capacity for tackling violence and disorder – and responding to harm. We need to make criminal justice irrelevant and unnecessary.

I also mentioned ‘social justice’ - and one dimension of this is redressing the balance in terms of inequality. One argument put forward by Myerson and Smith in the US is for an economic programme to tackle wider racism, inequality and discrimination. They say ‘We’ll need an economic program to make #blacklivesmatter’ and put forward the following suggestions:

  • True full employment (A government funded job guarantee. Direct money to communities that need it most – fixing up buildings, caring roles of children and elderly, building decent homes. Set a minimum wage for this.)
  • Universal basic income unattached to employment
  • Tax overhaul
  • Baby bonds (Close the racial wealth gap: A trust fund at birth that matures at 18: Everyone born into a ‘wealth poor’ family – below the median net wealth position would be granted a trust fund. Lowest quartile would receive in region of $50k to $60k.)

Abolition or reform?

At the Centre, we are involved in projects that seek to improve and reform some aspects of the criminal justice system – for example prison conditions. However, we are also deeply committed to a longer term vision of a society where criminal justice and punishment is relegated to the history books.

For a long time, criminal justice reformers of all political persuasions have convinced themselves and others that criminal justice can be fixed. With this comes a certain level of pessimism – about the future scope for social change. It is essential that, in the here and now, we make things better for those people caught up in the criminal justice system. But the racism and inequality experienced by people in the criminal justice system is part of a wider societal problem that needs naming. Racism is not part of the mainstream debate. Racism exists at an individual as well as institutional level. It has not yet been solved or fixed.

These are complex problems, rooted in historical events, political decisions and what is often a serious public apathy to serious inequalities and harms. There are reasons to be optimistic. I am optimistic that the future can and will be better. I don’t believe in ‘golden ages’ of the past that we should aspire to return to. Some things were better. Some things were worse. We need to be informed by the past and be ambitious about the future.

I’m looking forward to hearing from speakers and the audience on how collectively we can expose police racism and corruption. I hope we can build on the knowledge and experiences shared over the next two days, to keep challenging the system and identify ways to challenge injustice and build short term and long term solutions.

Thank you for listening.


A full copy of the conference programme and list of speakers can be viewed here.