Column:Now is the time to take action

Peter Herbert says Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon should resign in the wake of the Lawrence Inquiry. Peter Herbert is a barrister at 14 Tooks Court and chair at the Society of Black Lawyers.

METROPOLITAN Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon's position is untenable. He now reluctantly accepts there is “institutionalised” racism in the force, as defined by the inquiry. Previously he admitted only to “unwitting” racism. Condon should either accept he was wrong in the explanation he gave to the inquiry, or he should resign.

There has been a tendency in recent weeks for the Police Federation, the Association of Superintendents and some parts of the establishment to adopt a defensive posture with the sole purpose of protecting their members' reputations. Nothing is more likely, under the weight of the evidence to the contrary, to undermine the public's confidence in a police force capable of delivering a non-racist service.

Racist ideology and stereotyping proved a major impediment to the police following legitimate lines of inquiry in the crucial hours and days after Lawrence's murder. The same tendency to view African-Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, Asian men as likely perpetrators of crime, rather than as potential witnesses or victims, still hampers good police practice.

The old “Sus” laws against loitering with intent, used to criminalise thousands of black men in the 1960s and 1970s and then abolished after a campaign by several black women in south London, continue to survive in the hearts and minds of police officers up and down the country.

The stop and search figures, recording an appallingly disparate impact, illustrate that the power to stop and search people and vehicles is the 1990s version of Sus. In 1997/98 black people were eight times as likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. Over 96,000 black people were stopped and searched in London alone during this period. The arrest rate is a miserly 10 per cent with an even lower charging and conviction rate.

The US Department of Justice, hosted by the Society of Black Lawyers at the London “Race Hate Crimes” conference, has, together with the national Black Police Association in the US, begun a campaign to combat the phenomenon known as “Driving While Black”. A similar anti-racism initiative must be prioritised by all 42 police forces in the UK.

It is no coincidence that uprisings in Brixton, Handsworth and Liverpool began with the questionable conduct of police officers dealing with black motorists.

The Home Office introduced eight new crimes of racially-motivated violence and racial harassment, in an attempt to stamp out race-hate crimes last year. The reports we are getting say that there is a tendency for these to be used to prosecute young black men who are alleged to have racially abused white police officers. There are reports that the police are “verbalising” or putting words into the mouths of black men and therefore trying to justify racial offence.

The Crown Prosecution Service has to take that on face value. Cases where racially aggravated crimes are not used by members of the public against other members of the public, but in order to accuse black men of racially aggravated crimes against white police officers, undermines the whole purpose of the legislation and subverts the intention of parliament.

White police officers are generally not the victims of racial violence – usually they are attacked because they are police officers, not because of their colour. The prosecution of black men under a statute designed to protect racial and religious minorities, on the other hand, is tantamount to abuse of process.

Stephen Lawrence's death marks a watershed for race relations in Britain and has provided, at a heavy price for his family, a window of opportunity for the Government and people to make real progress. The Government must follow the findings of the Lawrence Inquiry through, with the political will to create a reforming culture on race, not only in the police, CPS, judiciary and legal profession, but to address the issue of institutional racism in British society generally.