Racial Inequality in Policing

The work of Tap Social tends to focus on the ‘back end’ of the criminal justice system, i.e. we work with people who have been through the system, have been convicted and sentenced for an offence (perhaps more than once) and often have already served the majority of a prison sentence.


However, arguably the single most important focus for criminal justice reform to reduce racial disparity is at the front end - the work of the police.  This is because the police act as the gatekeepers to the system and exercise significant discretion every day, which affects who finds their way into the system in the first place.  Put simply if the police choose not to stop and search, investigate or arrest someone there is no risk of them being convicted or sentenced for a criminal offence, and those who the police pay disproportionate attention to (e.g. BAME individuals, those living in cities etc.) will almost inevitably be over-represented in the later stages of the CJS, whether or not those later stages also display racial bias (plot spoiler – they do).


The police also enjoy wide and significant powers to interfere with the rights of individuals, such as powers to stop and search, use force to effect an arrest or prevent an offence and enter premises to search for suspects or evidence.  If abused or used improperly, as so vividly and horrendously illustrated by the George Floyd killing and many others, these police powers can have dramatic and terrible consequences, irrespective of whether or not the individuals engaged by the police end up proceeding through the CJS. 


For this reason, it is a shame that the terms of reference of the Lammy Review, whilst wide, were limited to the work of the institutions and agencies falling under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice and so did not extend to a consideration of the Police, which falls under the Home Office’s remit.   This decision to limit the scope is perhaps unsurprising, as policing in England and Wales is conducted by 43 largely autonomous police forces, so any overarching review of the police would itself be a huge task.  One famous review of an English police force is the Macpherson report (by an independent retired High Court judge) into the botched Metropolitan Police response to the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.  Whilst this report is now more than 20 years old (it was published in 1999) its finding that the Metropolitan Police Force was institutionally racist continues to echo to this day.


Every death in police custody, and each instance of the use of serious force by the police, is an incredibly serious matter and demands the strongest justification, following the highest possible levels of transparency.  That said, it is right to note in this connection that the scale of this particular issue in England and Wales, whilst still of enormous concern, is of a different order of magnitude to that in the USA, not least due the fact that most police officers in the UK do not carry firearms (though many do now carry tasers which can be deadly[1]).  To illustrate this point, a total of 23 people (of all ethnicities) were shot dead by the police in the UK in the decade to 2014, whereas more than a thousand black people were shot dead by police in the USA in 2015 alone and a similar number in 2016.[2] That is not to say that tragic and avoidable deaths at the hands of the police do not occur in the UK.   The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police officers in August 2011 (whilst a public inquest ultimately and controversially concluded in a majority jury verdict of lawful killing) sparked riots in London and across urban areas of the UK, fuelled at least in part by a sense that the key conclusions of the Macpherson Report over a decade earlier remained true.


Of the 163 deaths in police custody in England and Wales in the last decade, 8% (13 individuals) were black, compared with just 3% of the general population.  On the face of it then, the most serious of all possible results of police intervention, a death in police custody, is more than twice as likely to befall a black suspect than a white one, and significant concerns remain about the way in which such deaths in police custody are investigated when they do occur.[3]


Even outside of the most serious cases of police brutality and deaths in custody, a stop and search or an arrest in public is an indignity and a major infringement of a person’s rights in and of itself.  The use of these powers require scrutiny and proper justification, not least because unequal use of these powers will lead to disproportionate attention to minority suspects which will feed inequality later in the system.[4] In this regard the statistics in England and Wales are grim.  In the year to March 2019 a black person was 9.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched by a police officer in England and Wales than a white person.[5]


 At least some of this staggering disparity is explained by indirectly rather than directly discriminatory practices, e.g. ‘hot spot’ policing strategies which focus police resources on high crime urban areas and public spaces which are often disproportionately occupied by BAME individuals.  However, given the scale of the unequal impact of stop and search alone, it is no surprise that reported levels of trust and confidence in the police amongst black individuals are consistently lower than amongst individuals from other ethnic groups.[6]


Given the important role the police play as gatekeepers to the CJS, the significant powers we give to the police and the fact that people are seriously injured and killed through interaction with the police, it could not be more imperative to reform the police to eradicate racial injustices and to increase accountability (and hopefully, in time, rebuild public trust).  One method for achieving this greater accountability could be through greater public participation in elections of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).  Since 2012 separate PCCs have existed for each police area (outside of London and Greater Manchester, where the role falls under the Mayor’s office’s remit) who are elected officials whose role is to secure the maintenance of an efficient and effective police force within their area, to hold the Chief Constable to account for the delivery of the police and crime plan, to hold the police fund (from which all policing of the area is financed) and to raise the local policing budget from council tax. PCCs are also responsible for the appointment, suspension and dismissal of the Chief Constable for each police force (Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011). Despite this apparently important role in setting the policing agenda, voter turnout at elections for PCCs have been stubbornly low since their introduction with a nationwide average turnout in the last PCC elections in 2016 of only 26% (which was an increase on previous years).[7] 


We would encourage you to engage with this democratic process which, whatever its flaws to date, has the potential to hold the police to much greater public account and to involve communities more directly in setting policing strategies and priorities.  We will also recommend in the final post in this series that much more money and effort is invested in increasing public awareness and engagement in this process, particularly within black communities where public trust in fair policing is (justifiably) lowest.  Given the PCCs strong role in controlling police force budgets and spending priorities, if PCCs with a genuine popular mandate from the communities they serve were elected this could in theory create a major shakeup in the way in which we apply public funds to reduce crime.   Ultimately this could result in a reduction in funding for police forces whose personnel or strategies had lost legitimacy and public support, in favour of investment in other more proactive crime reduction strategies (e.g. early intervention by other agencies).  Such calls to ‘de-fund the police’ in a more immediate way are of course at the heart of the demands being made by activists in many parts of the USA. The next PCC elections will be held in 2021, having been postponed from their scheduled date in May this year as part of the coronavirus control measures.


[1] For recent controversy regarding the unequal way in which taser have been deployed by the police see e.g.  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/tasers-police-black-mentally-ill-stun-guns-iopc-a9515181.html


[2] (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database). 


[3] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jun/11/black-deaths-in-police-custody-the-tip-of-an-iceberg-of-racist-treatment?CMP=Share.


[4] Nor should we be quick to accept justifications couched in terms of the greater objective risk said to be posed by certain communities, or in certain areas, since such risk algorithms, if used uncritically, can lead to a feedback loop of increasing racial bias https://www.statewatch.org/news/2019/nov/data-driven-profiling-web-final.pdf


[5] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/crime-justice-and-the-law/policing/stop-and-search/latest


[6] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/crime-justice-and-the-law/policing/confidence-in-the-local-police/latest#by-ethnicity-over-time


[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2016/police