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When being black is a criminal offence

Policing remains one of the critical fault lines in the stormy relationship between Government and Britain’s black communities, writes Lee Jasper.

While there have been some cosmetic improvements in police/community relations – particularly after the publication of the seminal Stephen Lawrence report in 1999 – not much has changed. And what has changed has been delivered by committed individuals rather than large scale institutional policy reform.

Government and chief police officers, having accepted the recommendations of the Lawrence report with much fanfare, committed themselves to reducing the number of innocent black people who were subjected to stop and search.

The fact is they have failed miserably. Over the least 10 years we have witnessed massive increases in the numbers of black people who are stopped. Looking around the country it is clear that any real commitment to reduce these figures has now been abandoned, and we have returned to the bad old days of an informal culture of racist policing.

My own view is that within the criminal justice process institutional racism is very much alive. In operational policing terms this is most starkly evidenced by the massive increases in rates of stop and search endured by Britain’s black communities.

Of late more evidence has emerged and this discriminatory approach to policing can be seen reflected in the over-representation of young black people in the criminal justice system and the DNA database.

The recent revelation that 75% of British black males DNA profiles are currently stored on the police national database, including thousands of people who were not charged or found guilty with any offence, provides a perfect example how the culture of institutional racism works.

Racial profiling in policing is denied, and there is no such formal policy, however the culture of policing is a powerful one that encourages police officers to see the majority of black people as suspects or criminals. Police are, I believe, informally targeting young black people in a serious attempt to harvest their DNA.

First let’s look at the facts. We are living in a society where the state is increasingly entrusted with huge quantities of personal data. Worrying though that is, I do believe that the scientific advances of recent years have, and will continue to, help solve crimes and free innocent people wrongly convicted.

Recent rulings by the EU have meant that the UK has now had to review its DNA retention policy. The European Court of Human Rights said the database in England and Wales was illegal because it allowed police to indefinitely retain the profiles of people who had been arrested but not charged or found guilty of a crime.

I agree with the principle of collecting and retaining the DNA from people who have been arrested for serious offences, however where people have been proven to be guilty of a minor offence or no crime at all, then that DNA should be destroyed and removed from the database.

This is particularly true of juveniles below the age of 16, none of whom except in the most exceptional circumstance should have their DNA retained. I suspect there is even greater representation of black youth on the database than that of adults although the Government claims that these profiles are now being destroyed.

Juvenile or adult, if you are innocent or convicted of some minor crime you should have a right to have your sample destroyed. The current Government proposals to retain your DNA for six years make no sense at all.

Given the fundamental tenant of British law; that a person remains innocent until proven guilty, this state of affairs is not only a serious affront to civil liberties but it also speaks to the deeply held fears of innocent black people here in Britain.

That fear is that such information in the wrong hands could be used to prosecute a racist scientific or policing agenda. Sounds far fetched no doubt but consider what governments of the future may decide to do with the database. In terms of security of your personal data consider the fact if millions of our tax records can go missing anything is possible.

You see as black people our experience of a racist criminal justice system teaches us that we can have very little confidence of being treated fairly. Our historical experience of the infamous SUS laws, police brutality, miscarriages of justice and the policing of racial attacks teach us to be deeply suspicious and cynical.

This experience of the process of criminal justice and policing leads us to the inevitable conclusion that institutions like the police have a cultural default setting that is racist.

That’s why we have led campaigns for the police to be strongly independently supervised, externally accountable, and have a degree of transparency that is quite simply opaque.

Of course what we are seeing in these DNA figures is a direct reflection of operational policing on the ground. When you study the figures for the collection of DNA samples by police forces nationally what you see is that these figures mirror the disproportionate numbers of black people being stopped and searched in each area.

Those areas with the largest non-white populations represent four out of the top five for DNA profiling and stop and search. No surprises that these are London, West Midlands West, South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and to a lesser extent Merseyside.

Despite recognition by the Government of the problem of disproportionality in policing, the rate of increase in the use of stop and search of black people in London has increased massively since 1998/9. Back then black people were 2.6 times more likely than whites to be subject stop and searched and in 2007/8 it had risen to 4.1.

I believe that today 2009/10 that figure is likely to be six times more likely as a consequence of targeted policing operations seeking to tackle youth violence.

Whilst working for Ken Livingstone I fought long, hard, and interminable battles with the Metropolitan Police in an attempt to break the culture of racism that gave rise to the massive over-representation of black people in the stop and search figures.

At committee after committee I robustly argued that this led to the police being routinely distrusted; because it was obvious people were being stopped because they were black, and the quality of these interactions in the main are reported as leaving people feeling both angry and abused.

Huge levels of over-representation were then and are now, a direct result of individual officer discrimination. You can’t police a community as though the majority of them are criminals suspects and expect community relations to be good.

I clearly lost that battle, and the reality was that tackling youth violence and saving lives, rightly in my view, was the major priority. However we should not ignore the warning sign that the DNA figures provide. It should be viewed as the ‘Canary in the Coalmine’.

Continued increases in the rate of stop and search are the real problem of which these DNA figures are symptomatic. If the figures continue to increase, as I fear they will, then I can see huge tensions developing between police and black communities in the next few years and a return to the civil uprisings of the 70s and 80s.

We are fast approaching the time when the majority of black people in areas like London will have experienced being stopped and searched by police officers. No community can sustain this level of intrusive policing for long.



3 Responses

  1. Yoo Lee,

    I agree entirly! – Every day, I see the police treating African people like crap! – Like their ‘Bread & Butter’! A prejudice way to justify their time, and earn money, at the same time!
    The Met Police, from top to bottom, treat Black people as ‘fare game’.

    From STOP & SEARCH to blatant DNA gathering, by following, our children, on the way home, after school!
    Lee, the problem is, they are right to do this! – As long as ‘WE’, as a ‘Community’, ‘STAND-BY’ and do NOTHING!

    If the Met Police tried out this crap! – On white middle class children: The parents would club together, and pay lawyers to simply go to the High Court, and get an Injunction against the Police Chief Constable! DONE!

    But the Black Community’, we just sit-back and take it!

    For those less fortunate!


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  2. Instead of giving these youths what they want – attention. Why don’t we all start promoting the good youths, the one painting a positive picture.
    Victizzle and Guvna b are great examples of positive youths.

  3. I second that Jason!

    There is a disproportionate coverage by the media of youth crime. Which is unfair as there are many inspirational youths, who have been actively making positive contributions to the society they’re apart of. Myself for instance!

    But this sort of activity unfortunately, isn’t news worthy as its not financially profitable as news concerning youth crime!

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