Chris Marshall: Police racism concerns cannot be simply ignored

Nearly 20 years have passed since the publication of a landmark report which found 'institutional racism' in the Metropolitan Police following the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The Metropolitan Police was accused of "institutional racism" after the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Now regarded as a watershed in not only British policing but race relations more generally, Sir William Macpherson’s 1999 report highlighted discrimination perpetrated through “unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping”. Its impact was far-reaching but nearly two decades on, progress has been mixed.

Members of the Scottish Parliament’s justice sub-committee on policing will tomorrow discuss Police Scotland’s engagement with ethnic minority communities.

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The conversation looks set to be dominated by a submission from the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER), which revived Macpherson’s famous phrase and accused Scotland’s national force of “institutional racism”.

The charity, which receives funding from both the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council, highlighted the low number of ethnic minority officers but made clear there was also an issue with how the force’s predominately white officers investigate offences against those from minority communities.

Police Scotland’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining black and Asian officers is well documented. According to the force, there were just 212 officers described as black and minority ethnic (BME) in March this year, around one per cent of the total.

Despite concerted efforts to attract more officers from ethnic minorities – including the introduction of a hijab to encourage Muslim recruits – the number actually fell from 224 the previous year. And of around 700 special constables, just eight described themselves as black or minority ethnic. With minority ethnic groups making up around four per cent of Scots, Police Scotland does not currently reflect the population it is there to serve.

But it is the suggestion from the CRER that officers routinely seek to play down racist incidents which should be most concerning for the force.

The charity says campaigns of racial harassment are often allowed to build up to the point of violence because earlier complaints of verbal harassment or minor vandalism are not taken seriously enough. It cites an example where a person who received a threatening racist e-mail was repeatedly asked if it could be “just a prank” and whether pursuing the complaint was “worth the hassle”.

The situation in Police Scotland is far removed from the Metropolitan Police of the early 1990s, where allegations of incompetence and racism dogged the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation.

And policing in Scotland is not the same as in London, where, for the most part, communities are considerably more diverse. Policing in Scotland has long prided itself on community relations and Police Scotland has been in a better position to maintain this aspect of its work than forces in England and Wales, which have experienced swingeing cuts to their numbers.

But the concerns raised by the CRER must be taken seriously. There remains a real risk that a force where 99 per cent of the officers are white will continue to labour under the unwitting prejudice and ignorance described by Macpherson nearly two decades ago.