Lady Justice, Old Bailey Lady Justice, Old Bailey Photo: Chris Downer / Geograph / CC BY-SA 2.0, licence linked at bottom of article

Attempts to minimise racism in the UK because British police aren’t armed like their US counterparts don’t stack up, argues Luna Williams

The repercussions of George Floyd’s brutal murder earlier this Summer have continued to reverberate around the world. Now, in the wake of his death (and the revitalisation of antiracism campaigning it has prompted) people in every continent are beginning to examine national structures that continue to ‘green light’ discriminative procedures and outcomes. These examinations are placing a spotlight onthe presence of racism in these countries, as well as the national and global systems that continue to give it a home. At the top of many of these country’s agendas are examinations intotheir criminal justice systems.

At the end of August, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) commissioned an investigation into the English and Welsh police forces,to evaluate whether Black, Asian and other non-white ethnic minorities (BAME) were consistently subject to racial discrimination by them. This has been prompted by rising complaints against officers who have been accused of making decisions based on racial and religious bias in the UK.

Ben Bowling, a professor of Criminology at King’s College London, has undergone extensive research into the presence of institutional racism in the UK’s police forces. In the midst of the UK’s Black Lives Matter protests this June Bowling publicly pleaded with MPs to drastically review the issue, saying that “prejudice, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping” continue to influence decisions made by officers, and that black and ethnic-minority people are being “over-policed and under-protected”.

This plea was just one of many that are calling for claims of racism within the police to be addressed by the government. These come more than 20 years on from the MacPherson report of 1997, which exposed the presence of institutional racism in the British police and made a range of recommendations that the Tory government insist have since been addressed. The report was commissioned off the back of the gang murder of black teen Stephen Lawrence and highlighted the existence of racial bias in police stop-and-search, arrest, and conviction rates.

It has become commonplace for many critiques of the renewed Black Lives Matter movement to simplistically compare the state of racism in the UK to that of the US. In these arguments, racism is boiled down to aggressive, overt acts; like black American men and boys being shot and killed by officers. Those kinds of acts happen significantly less frequently in the UK, such critiques pose, and so racism must be much less of an issue here than it is on the other side of the Atlantic.

But it isn’t only guns that kill black men and boys. And it isn’t only overtly racist officers who are responsible for ending their lives. Systemic forms of racial discrimination and inequality mean that many black, Asian and non-white ethnic minority people continue tolose their lives because of the UK’s criminal justice system.Many others live in fear over whether they or their family members will be subject to discrimination at the hands of forces who are supposed to protect them.

Stop-and-search, arrest and conviction rates indicate that BAME people are still more likely to be falsely targeted, arrested and sentenced than whites within criminal justice systems. When it comes to stop-and-search, for instance, black people are still 9.7 times as likely to be targeted than their white counterparts. This disparity has remained despite the overall numbers of people being stopped-and-searched falling over the last two years. Asians are also almost 3 times as likely than whites to be targeted. What’s more, average custodial sentences are ten months longer for black people than they are for white people. If you are black you are more likely to die in prison before and after you have been convicted of a crime – twice as likely according to the most recent studies.

Despite assurances from our own Prime Minister that the British Metropolitan police are notinstitutionally racist, people living here continue to be treated differently at a law enforcement level because of their ethnic background. The way in which policing has been conducted in England during the Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect illustration of this. Officer’s attempts to enforce social distancing laws have highlighted continuing disparities between the way in which white and black people are approached by the police. For instance, while predominantly white VE day celebrations were seemingly allowed to continue uninterrupted by any kind of law enforcement – despite being held in the height of lockdown and breaking numerous social distancing laws – black and non-white minority ethnic citizens perceived to be flouting the same regulations have been clamped down on by officers. One such example saw a black man, Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara,tasered in front of his five-year-old son, despite video footage showing no signs that his attitudes or actions were aggressive, provocative or resistant to the officer’s demands. No thought was apparently given to how this traumatic experience would impact the life of the child, who was not accompanied by another adult other than his father and could be seen to try and run to him while calling out “daddy”.

The IOPC report will look intowhether racial discrimination continues to have a bearing on the way English and Welsh forces police and make recommendations for what should be changed and how this can be done according to its findings. But many are concerned that the report will just be one of many that will fall on deaf ears. Several other extensive reports have been commissioned and published since the Macpherson report. The Lammy Review for example, published in in 2017, exposed various forms of racial discrimination within the UK’s policing and criminal justice structures.Just last Summer, the UN underwent a special investigation into the presence of racism, racial discrimination and racial inequality in all its forms across various sectors in the UK and found similar results. The special rapporteur who conducted the investigation concluded that racial bias and profiling is still rife within the way in which BAME people are policed, arrested, sentenced and convicted in Britain.

The findings of these reports, as well as the IOPC’s,must be taken on board, and the recommendations need to be actively listened to and implemented. Without this happening, racism will continue to flourish in Britain’s criminal justice system, and people will continue to lose their lives because of it.

Luna Williams is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service (IAS). This is an organisation that works with asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants in cities around the UK, including London, Manchester and Birmingham.

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Luna Williams

Luna Williams is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service and covers all things political and social. She is motivated by calling out injustices and supporting vulnerable people. 

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