UK police’s racial disparities persist a decade after riots

Mistrust between Britain’s ethnic minorities and the police lingers, a decade after the shooting of a man whose death sparked the country’s worst civil unrest in a generation.

On August 4, 2011, Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old mixed-race father of six, was shot dead by an officer working for a special team targeting gun crime in black communities.

Outrage, economic hardship and criminal opportunism then coalesced as riots devastated Duggan’s north London neighbourhood of Tottenham and spread across England, claiming five lives and causing substantial damage.

A coroner’s inquest later judged that Duggan was lawfully killed, but London’s Metropolitan Police admitted they had “much more to do” to improve relations with black citizens.

That challenge gained fresh resonance during last year’s worldwide Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police brutality.

The anniversary of Duggan’s death comes after UK lawmakers last month decried “persistent, deep-rooted and unjustified racial disparities” in policing and a “systematic failure” to tackle inequality.

– Stop and search –

The tensions remain even two decades after a landmark report on an investigation into the racially aggravated murder of a black teenager concluded the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”.

One sore point is “stop and search”, which allows police to frisk people they suspect of carrying weapons or drugs on the street.

In the year to March 2020, black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in England and Wales.

Ken Hinds, 62, leads a stop and search monitoring group in the London borough of Haringey — the epicentre of the 2011 riots — and believes relations are “at an all-time low” between police and the black community.

Frequent rotations of local police commanders and heavy-handed arrests undo any progress, while a lack of accountability blights policing as much today as it did when he set up the group in 2008, Hinds said.

The government has defended stop and search, saying it led to more than 74,000 arrests and 11,000 weapons being seized in the past year, and plans to step up its use.

Hinds, though, doubted the measures will reduce violent crime and homicides, which disproportionately affect young, black men.

“We’re not seeing the lessons being learned. What we improve today will get eroded tomorrow,” he told AFP.

– Confidence crisis –

A government-commissioned report on racial disparities in March controversially concluded the UK was a “model for other white-majority countries” and no longer “rigged” against minorities.

But ethnic minorities are under-represented in police forces, especially within senior ranks.

The latest figures show 7.6 percent of officers in England and Wales were of a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) background, compared to 14 percent of the total population.

Last week’s parliamentary review warned that representative policing will not be achieved for another two decades.

The charity INQUEST, which campaigns against deaths in custody, says BAME people disproportionately die following the use of force or restraint by police.

Concerns have also been raised about ethnic minorities being tasered in excessively high numbers.

A report by the right-wing think-tank the Henry Jackson Society in February found 57 percent of polled black Britons thought the police treated black communities unfairly.

In Haringey, locals view the police as an “occupational force” and youngsters are more likely to carry knives and guns, warned Hinds, who wants police to wear more body cameras to improve transparency.

“There’s no respect for the police. They’re not going to earn it if they do the same thing and expect a different outcome,” he said.

– ‘Much more to do’ –

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and author of a 2017 report about racial inequities in the criminal justice system, said cuts to police, youth and local authority services risked recreating the conditions that fuelled the riots.

“By failing to implement the measures designed to tackle society’s dissatisfaction, alienation and fragmentation, (Prime Minister Boris) Johnson risks letting a spark set fire to the fuel again,” he wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse said forces across England and Wales had made “major improvements” in community engagement and dealing with racist crimes, but accepted there was “much more to do”.

Senior Metropolitan Police officer Stephen House admitted black Londoners trusted his force the least and that there had not been enough change.

But increased recruitment of ethnic-minority officers and better training would change the Met “from the inside out” and gain the confidence of all communities, he said.