Doreen Lawrence, police spies and institutional racism

Allegations of police spying on anti-racism groups shed new light on the meaning and operation of 'institutional racism'. Here, Adam Elliott-Cooper reflects on the Stephen Lawrence Campaign and the MacPherson Report.

Adam Elliott-Cooper
14 January 2014

Doreen Lawrence: There was one incident that stuck out in my mind when I was asking about the boys in prison. I was asking: ‘Why couldn't they put a bug in with them in the room to listen to what was being said’, because if they wouldn't talk to the police they would talk to individuals. [Detective Chief Superintendent] Ilsley said: ‘We don't do things like this. No way.’ I could remember he was very angry. (Quoted in MacPherson Report, 1999)

This request, quoted in the report by Lord MacPherson into the death of Stephen Lawrence, underlined the frustration felt by Stephen’s mother at police inaction in the pursuit of her son’s killers. What was received as an outlandish suggestion at the time now takes on a painful irony.  

Earlier in 2013, ex-police spy turned whistleblower Peter Francis revealed that a number of peaceful racial and social justice campaigns had been infiltrated by undercover police. One such campaign was that pursuing justice for Stephen Lawrence, making the parents of the murdered teenager prime targets. As the Metropolitan Police demand notes from a Channel 4 expose into the alleged spying on the Lawrence family, they should perhaps re-examine the notes from the MacPherson Report itself.

Spying for stereotypes

MacPherson Report: Family liaison is an important aspect of any case. Mr Crampton [who headed the police investigation in the first 72 hours after Stephen's death]….picked DS Bevan for family liaison because he believed that DS Bevan had some training in ‘human awareness’. He picked DC Holden because she was a woman, and it was felt desirable that there should be a woman involved in the liaison with Mr & Mrs Lawrence. (MacPherson 1999: 91)

Family Liaison Officers were created in order to provide a more caring role for police officers interacting with a grieving family whilst carrying out an investigation. Doreen Lawrence said she always thought it strange that grieving family and friends visiting her home had their names recorded by police. The reasons for this were apparently not explained at the time, but the recent allegations suggest that it was because friends and family of the Lawrence’s were being spied on by police. The alleged intelligence gathered by Family Liaison Officers was passed through Special Branch to undercover officers whose job it was to spy on the Lawrence family, their friends and campaign members.

Francis, the ex-undercover police spy, states that he was tasked with finding out if any of these people had attended demonstrations, or were drug dealers – with the intention of painting members of the Lawrence campaign as political extremists, drug users and/or violent criminals. A central explanation is that police hoped to exploit racist stereotypes of black men as intrinsic trouble-makers and criminals by bringing prosecutions forward if even the weakest shred of evidence could be found. The alleged police strategy of spying on the Stephen Lawrence Campaign thus appears to have been predicated upon the expected ability to exploit the same stereotypes that the police have been criticised for perpetuating in their everyday activities, in particular within stop-and-search,

This is not the only time that attempts at character assassination have been used by the police (with the support of the media) to draw attention away from police failings. Racialised stereotypes of ‘gangster’ or ‘crime lord’ were exploited to great effect following the killing of Mark Duggan in August 2011. This is what makes the spying of the Lawrence family different to the spying carried out on environmental movements.

Exposing institutional racism

Neville Lawrence: It is clear to me that the police come in with the idea that the family of black victims are violent criminals who are not to be trusted (Quoted in MacPherson Report, 1999) 

With a lifetime of interacting with institutionally racist organisations, such as schoolsemployers or the criminal justice system, it is unsurprising that the subtle nuances which produce racist outcomes can be detected by those systematically victimised by them. These words depict a feeling that Neville Lawrence, and indeed many other black people, have when interacting with the police.

However, the significance of this powerful statement from Stephen’s father was not fully understood at the time. To many, they may appear to be words of a man broken by the murder, and his family’s experience of police corruption and racism. At best, they were interpreted in the light of his treatment by police in the context of the black British experience of policing. Indeed, their substance couldn’t be appreciated until the exposure of police spies uncovered the true extent of corruption and institutional racism.

The family was certainly receiving poor treatment due to the racialised nature of the case, and there was evidence that police officers had personal links with the criminal families involved in the murder of Stephen. During a Customs & Excise surveillance operation on the father of one of Stephen’s suspected killers, an officer working on the case, known as Sergeant XX, was observed drinking in pubs with both the suspected killer and his father on at least four occasions. The officer in question was given a verbal warning, with no disciplinary procedures or investigations pursued.

Simultaneously, organisations like Newham Monitoring Project and the Colin Roach Centre, representing victims of racial and police violence were infiltrated and spied on extensively. While it was understood that institutional racism led to violence and over-policing in black communities, few people realised the extent to which the police would go in their efforts to secretly monitor and undermine challenges to institutional racism.

Neville Lawrence’s analysis of police assumptions relating to black criminality and untrustworthiness, are statements he chose to say in public rather than to family and trusted friends. They were words that he knew the country needed to hear, both in the press and in the MacPherson Report. Following the allegations and revelations of police spying on anti-racism groups, as his words take on new significance, the necessity of their being heard is as strong as ever.

Accountability and police racism

Doreen Lawrence: "Coming across a black family who have no criminal background is new to them, an alien concept. It was like you have to be a criminal if you are black." 

The success of the movement led by the Lawrence family is testament to its unity and courage. They were able to win battles with the press, public and courts despite the fact that their resources were dwarfed by that of the police – resources which it seems included covertly gathering evidence on the family intended to subvert and smear them and their supporters. It is a solemn reminder that resisting police racism, corruption and brutality is a struggle which black communities, and those standing in solidarity with them, accomplish against almost unthinkable odds.

Institutional racism is, according to the MacPherson Report: “the process by which people from ethnic minorities are systematically discriminated against by a range of public and private bodies. If the result or outcome of established laws, customs or practices is racially discriminatory, then institutional racism can be said to have occurred. It is a type of discrimination which is woven so deeply into the fabric of an organisation that it is very difficult to hold any individual, or group of individuals, accountable. No single, or even group of senior police officers can be held directly accountable for what is often explained as the ‘unwitting’ racism which leads to disproportionate stop and search of black men. The recommendations which emerged from the MacPherson Report laid out best practice policies intended to help combat such institutionalised problems. But rather than create an independent body to oversee implementation, police officers remain responsible.

Instances of overt racism by frontline officers, who have used racial slurs towards members of the public, can result in cases brought against these lower ranking officers, as individuals. These cases do not necessarily produce evidence of endemic racism but, unlike institutional racism, holding specific officers to account is far more straight-forward.

What the recent spying on the Lawrence family reveals, is a combination of these two forms of racism. This racism is not simply the product of depersonalised or diffuse institutional practices, it is also sanctioned by those at the top, filtering down the chain of command. The accusations of police spying point to overt racism, by exposing attempts to use racist stereotypes, such as drugs and criminality, or playing on racist fears, such as black political militancy, to smear campaigns for racial justice and equality. This case reveals a targeted policy and practice, with officers at the top level who can be held directly responsible. For the first time, specific senior officers must explain to the public their role in implementing overtly racist policies and demanding the same from the officers under their command.

This is not just an embarrassing leak, but a moment of rupture in police use of racist stereotypes to blame and malign the victims of their violence and mistreatment. Exposing this mechanism, and disrupting its use, is vital: this form of racism does not simply guide policing, policing enforces this racism – propagating and 'actualising' the racial stereotypes used.

Organisations targeted by police, such as Newham Monitoring Project, the Colin Roach Centre and even the Stephen Lawrence Campaign are often dismissed by police, government and sections of the press as ‘trouble-makers’ preventing the police from ‘doing their job’. But the revelations only reaffirm how vital and urgent the work of community organisations is in resisting such practices in the future. The efforts by police to resist democratic accountability, progressive reform and justice for those consistently victimised by racial discrimination demonstrate wilfully racist police practices at the highest level. 

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