The police after Macpherson

Submitted by AWL on 23 March, 2006 - 4:00

By Sacha Ismail

Anyone who has reported a robbery to the police knows how ridiculous the claim that they exist to stop crime is.

The police do not exist to deal with the social problems bred by capitalist society, but to defend capitalism itself. That means that they are also defenders of the racism which the system breeds. It is no accident that so many police officers are themselves virulent and active racists, or that the police force has a serious problem with “institutional racism".

Contrary to what senior police officers have repeatedly claimed, police racism is not just a reflection of racist attitudes in society at large. The police are deliberately separated from the rest of society, sheltered from democratic accountability, given wide-ranging and arbitrary powers and run in a hierarchical and authoritarian way, so that they will be a reliable force against strikes and demonstrations. They are trained not only to defend the ruling class with physical force, but to believe and enforce ruling class ideas. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they reproduce reactionary prejudices such as racism at double-strength.

The police are one of the most bigoted groups in society, yet they have the power to harass, frame and even kill with near immunity. The police thug who killed Blair Peach on an anti-racist demonstration in Southall in 1979 has never been caught — because other police officers shielded him. More recently, the police officers who shot Derek Bennett in Brixton in July 2001 have not been named and are still at work. The ever-growing list of beatings, shootings and deaths in police custody — and the fact that black people, so under-represented in the police force, are disproportionately represented among the police's victims — is a powerful and disturbing reminder of what the police stand for and are capable of.

In 1999, years of stubborn campaigning by the family of Stephen Lawrence and their supporters finally forced the bourgeois establishment to admit that the police force is “institutionally racist". The Macpherson Report on how the police dealth with the dealt with the racist murder of Stephen, on 22 April 1993 in Eltham in south London, concludes plainly that the investigation “was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers". Even a representative of the cravenly pro-police Blair Government admitted that it was “outrageous" that the officers responsible had escaped disciplinary action.

The Macpherson enquiry found that the police officers responsible for investigating the Stephen Lawrence case had deliberately wasted time, ignored crucial evidence and treated Stephen's family and his friend Duwayne Brooks — rather than the men who killed him — as criminals. It also found extensive evidence of wider “institutional racism" in the police — essentially, that the police use their powers to persecute black communities, and especially young black men.

The Metropolitan Police responded by promising to clean up its act, under the slogan “Protect and Respect". Yet the measures proposed in, and resulting from, the Macpherson report were more about protecting the police than Britain's black communities. The aim was to stop the police being overwhelmed, by grassroots racism on the one hand and militant anti-racism on the other. A dose of “institutional anti-racism" was proposed, to moderate the racism of the police and make them more acceptable and credible in the black communities. The establishment wanted to restrain freelance racism so that the larger racism underpinned by immigration and asylum laws, and the mass unemployment of a rotten, dog-eat-dog capitalist society, could continue without uncontrollable disorder.

The problem, as Doreen Lawrence put it, is the police policing themselves — the complete absence of democratic accountability with which the police operate. The Macpherson Report, despite the starkness of its findings, did nothing to change this situation. It proposed no new measures of democratic control over or even monitoring of, police operations. Attempts by local councils to use existing Police Authorities to win accountability or at least constrain the police's freedom of action — for instance in South Yorkshire during the miners' strike — have always failed, because the Police Authorities are utterly toothless bodies and the police force was not designed to be democratically accountable. Far from proposing democratic control of the police, Macpherson did not even aim to curb existing police powers, insisting, for instance, that the law on stop-and-search should remain unchanged. In the absence of accountability, the pious wish that the police become more “sensitive" to racism will remain utterly utopian.

Similarly, “codes of conduct" against racist behaviour have been more than offset by recent moves to increase police powers. Just as the police currently use their “stop and search" powers disproportionately against black people, so they will use the new powers granted by the Terrorism Act and other pieces of legislation in a racist way. The police remain what they were when Stephen Lawrence was killed: armed, racist and dangerous.

Many in the labour movement have learned why young black people hate the police only when they themselves have been attacked. It is a lesson that the whole labour movement must learn. When Labour MPs and trade union leaders call for more police, bigger truncheons and a general crack-down on “crime", they are siding with a racist gang against working-class — and in the first instance black working-class — people.

To win socialism we must defeat the bosses. In order to do that we must oppose, fight and, one day, break the police force which defends them. In the short term, until the labour movement is ready to defeat and provide an alternative to the police, we should side with those at the sharp end of police brutality racism and do all we can to curb and weaken police power.


The police claim that their organisation “only” reflects the racism of society as a whole. That they are not in fact representative of society is shown by the very small numbers of black people in the police. Just under seven per cent of the UK population is from an ethnic minority, but only 2.2 per cent of police officers. In inner-city areas, where most black people live, this phenomenon is even more pronounced. In Greater Manchester, 2.5 percent of police officers are black, compared to 7.1 percent of the whole population; in the West Midlands Metropolitan region, around Birmingham, 4.6 percent compared to 17.1. In West Yorkshire, including Bradford, only 2.6 percent of the police force — but 9.6 percent of the population — are from an ethnic minority, while in London the equivalent figures are 2.3 and 25.1 percent!

The Macpherson Report notes that a black person is nearly eight times more likely to be stopped and searched, five times more likely to be arrested and seven times more likely to die as a result of police actions than a white person.

Police violence - the facts

There have been 555 deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990. In 89 percent of cases where a court or inquest found the police guilty of unlawful killing these involved a black victim.

Still not a single police officer has ever been convicted of an offence in relation to these death.

According to Inquest, the independent campaign against deaths in custody and for democratic accountability of the police, black people accounted for 19.3 percent of deaths in police or prison custody between 1991 and 2001.

* Figures from the Police Complaints Authority (in an in-house whitewashing body that sees the police investigate themselves) show that in the year up to March 2001, the organisation dealt with 5,211 reports of police assaults - or one reported assault for every 25 police officers in England and Wales. Of those complaints that were pursued (fewer than half), less than five percent resulted in a misconduct action. Only 11 officers were thrown out of the force.

l There have been 25 fatal shootings by the police in England and Wales since 1990 — yet not one police officer has ever been convicted.

Racist attacks

According to Home Office figures, the number of reported racist incidents (attacks or harassment) grew from 4,383 in 1985 to 12,222 in 1996, 13,151 in 1997, 13,878 in 1998, 23,049 in 1999 and 47,814 in 2000.

Although this growth can be accounted for partly by an increased willingness to go to the police in the aftermath of the Macpherson Report, it is probably still the case that only a minority of racist incidents are reported.

Free Satpal Ram!

Satpal Ram is serving a life sentence for defending himself against a racist attacker. On 16 November 1986, after going out for a meal in Birmingham, he was attacked by a group of six white men wielding broken bottles. He attempted to defend himself with a small knife he used at work to open packages, and wounded one of the attackers. When the man, who refused medical treatment, died shortly afterwards, Satpal was arrested on a charge of murder.

Before his trial, Satpal was allowed only one, 40 minute consultation with his barrister, who advised him to change his plea from “self-defence” to “provocation” and not to speak in his own defence. Thinking his lawyer was acting in his best interests, he complied. At the trial, most of the evidence came from Satpal’s attackers because the main defence witnesses (the restaurant staff) spoke mainly Bengali and were not fluent in English. Satpal’s lawyer did not request an interpreter. Vital evidence was not heard and the all-white jury found Satpal guilty of murder.

Ever since, Satpal has fought to overturn his conviction and has consequently been labelled a “disruptive prisoner”. He has been subjected to solitary confinement, beatings and movement from prison to prison. Despite attempts to break his spirit, he continues to read and educate himself, and has steadfastly supported the campaigns of other prisoners fighting for justice. At his first parole hearing in December 1997, Satpal had already served a year over his recommended tariff. He is still waiting to hear whether his case can be heard again by the Court of Appeal.

What happened to Satpal Ram is indicative of the racism and brutal authoritarianism of Britain’s criminal justice system.

* To send Satpal a message of support, write to: Satpal Ram [E94 164], HMP Littlehey, Perry, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE28 0SR

* Free Satpal Ram Campaign, Handsworth, Birmingham B19 1NH. Or PO Box 30091, London SE1 1WP. Telephone: 07947 595367. e-mail:

What we say

Socialists side with all victims of police harassment and law-breaking and campaign for justice. Ultimately, we want elected bodies of people to police their own communities. Immediately, we fight to make the police accountable and limit their ability to harass ethnic minorities, young people and the labour movement.

Workers' Liberty demands:

* The right to live free from police harassment;

* The outlawing of stop-and-search procedures by the police;

* An end to prosecutions based soley on confessions;

* An independent, elected and properly resourced police complaints authority. (Complaints against the police are currently dealth with by a powerless complaints body which relies on the police itself);

* Elected bodies to control the police, with power over operational policy and budgets. (Existing Police Authorities have little power, are only partly elected and can be ignored by the police);

* Repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism and Terrorism Acts;

* The disbandment of all armed units, Special Branch (the British political police) and the immigration police.

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