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Date TimeApril 17, 2018
VoiceNational police chiefs’ lead on race and religion urges action on issues such as recruitment of black officers
Police too slow to change after Stephen Lawrence murder
Police forces have been too slow to improve their record on race since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and their legitimacy is being damaged by continued shortcomings, a police chief has said.
Ch Con Jon Boutcher, the national police chiefs’ lead on race and religion, told the Guardian that he was challenging fellow law enforcement leaders to do more, in an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death.
The police bungling of the murder case, which allowed the killers to go free because of prejudice and incompetence in the ranks, led to the Macpherson inquiry, which found the Metropolitan police was guilty of institutional racism.
The inquiry findings in 1999 led the police chiefs to promise change, under huge pressure from the then Labour government.
Boutcher – in a break from the line taken by police chiefs since the landmark findings – said changes had not gone fast or far enough: “My challenge to policing is that the pace of change is too slow, since Macpherson. In my view it could have been faster.”
“I think it’s about commitment at a senior leadership level. I don’t accept that everything has been done ... There have been the words, but not the actions. We need to make sure we have words and actions.”
Boutcher is the chief constable of the Bedfordshire force, and before that was a counter-terrorism detective in the Met.
The 25th anniversary of Lawrence’s murder by a racist gang, and the police failings that were subsequently revealed, have led to a stocktake of how much progress has been made.
Boutcher said: “The police establishment need challenging on race. I am optimistic about the future. We need to move forward at a quicker pace. If we don’t remember the lessons of history, then there is a danger you repeat the mistakes of history.”
Police too slow to change after Stephen Lawrence murder
He said the lessons of the Lawrence case had been forgotten by some, as had the enduring importance of race to policing.
Race is continually at the heart of the biggest issues facing policing, from the over-targeting of black people for stop and search, to knife crime, female genital mutilation, honour-based violence, modern slavery and terrorism, Boutcher added.
“Race is at the core of so much, we should always have race as a priority regarding representation and community confidence. Race has not continued to be the priority it should have over the last 25 years,” he said.
“It has dropped off the agenda at times because of other priorities. It is too important to fall off the agenda at any time. The representation in policing from our diverse communities is still not as advanced as it should be.”
Just 6% of officers are from an ethnic minority background, compared with the national average of 14%. In 1999 the figure was just 2%.
After Macpherson, police chiefs from the 43 forces in England and Wales agreed to a government target to have the same proportion of black officers in their ranks as the communities they serve. They were given a decade to achieve it; none ever did. While she was home secretary, Theresa May pressed the police for more sweeping reforms.
Boutcher said that at current rate of progress, “it will take decades to end the racial disparity”. The biggest race gap is in London, where just 13% of the Metropolitan police are from an ethnic minority but 43% of the capital’s population are from ethnic minorities, meaning Britain’s biggest force is thousands of black and Asian officers short.
Boutcher, echoing sentiments voiced previously only in private by police chiefs, said: “Racial disparity in policing undermines legitimacy and threatens policing by consent, increasing the likelihood of adverse response or disorder relating to stop and search, or in critical incident scenarios.
“I am confident that the progress we have made around recruitment and workforce representation will grow into police forces which are rich in diversity so that we can serve the public with complete legitimacy.”
Boutcher set up an advisory group to spur police on, picking hard hitters on race such as David Lammy MP, the Black Police Association, and Liberty, the civil rights group.
Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said: “Police have made some important progress since Stephen Lawrence’s tragic death – but a quarter of a century later, we’re still waiting for powers like stop and search to be used proportionately, the end to police databases that perpetuate bias, and an investment in community-based policing practices to tackle the racial disparities that still run deep in UK law enforcement.”
Macpherson’s key finding was that the police were blighted by institutional racism. Some police chiefs say that criticism no longer applies but Boutcher said: “I think it is an area where we have not earned the right to be comfortable and complacent.”
Also on the advisory group is Tola Munro, president of the National Black Police Association, who said: “The progress is very stilted, we seem to be making the same mistakes. We are still institutionally racist.”
Boutcher said police in New York, where more than 50% of officers are from a minority background, are far more diverse than their counterparts in London: “We could have done more, we can do more and we need to do more. Maybe the American example is something we can learn from.”
But representation is not a panacea, Boutcher said, pointing out that the New York Police Department faces claims of discrimination and bias: “It’s not just about representation, it is about behaviours.”
In his own Bedforshire force, the proportion of ethnic minority officers has doubled during his two years in charge, sometimes in the face of opposition and inertia. “You have to go above and beyond; you have to show you mean it, ” he said.
Before becoming a police chief, Boutcher was a career detective and led investigations for Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, including the hunt for men who tried to bomb London on 21 July 2005 and the investigations into the attempted car bombing of London’s Haymarket in 2007 and the Glasgow airport attack.

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