Today, 18 years after his murder, Stephen Lawrence’s killers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were found guilty of stabbing him to death in a racist attack in South London. The reaction to the news has largely been positive: people are happy that justice has finally been done after all these years. However the conclusion of the case probably leaves more question marks surrounding the nature of racism, crime and police ability in Britain than it gives answers.
Has much changed in the years since the initial blundered police investigation? Within hours of the murder, 26 witnesses had named five suspects including Dobson and Norris, yet no arrests were made for two weeks, possibly giving the killers a chance to destroy evidence and get their stories straight. During this time, the police refused to believe that race could have played a part in the attack, despite the fact that the killers had called Stephen a ‘N*gger’ before killing him. Clearly this case speaks volumes about institutional and everyday racism in this country but it also highlights the issues in police capability back then and makes us wonder exactly how much has changed since then. With gang violence more of a problem today than ever and with the poor police response to the summer riots, I have been wondering lately whether the police are taking the right approach to inner-city crime in this country.
Dr Richard Stone, Lawrence inquiry panel member, told the Guardian in an interview that he, “couldn’t believe that this was how a murder inquiry was done in London by the Metropolitan police.” Since the inquiry into the case, there have been a number of changes made to the Metropolitan police, however two big criticisms of the report, which haven’t seemed to have changed are that there are too few black officers in the police and that they rely too heavily on stop and search tactics, specifically in targeting young black men. It seems that since the 90s, the way policing is done in this country has not changed enough and has not learnt the lessons of the Lawrence Inquiry.
I was recently targeted by a group of teens in a violent crime, which I cannot elaborate on too much as the investigation is still ongoing (don’t worry, luckily I was able to walk away unharmed). Two thing really annoyed me about the whole experience, one was the age and attitude of the attackers. Rather than being angry at them, surprisingly, I actually felt sorry for them. I had the overwhelming feeling that if they had more education, job prospects and opportunities, they wouldn’t have been doing these crimes. These kids could barely string a coherent sentence together and clearly had no moral compass. These things come from education and strong families and communities and these are the most important things we must focus on in 2012 and beyond.
I have lived on council estates in poor communities in London in the past and now live right next door to one of the biggest ones in Hackney and in my experience, and in the experience of local people I have discussed the issue with, London’s teens are becoming more alienated and less educated than ever before. Cameron talks about Big Society, and actually he is right. We all need to chip in to think of innovative and effective ways we can help and inspire young people. However, there just isn’t any money for these services and with cuts to charity spending, I just don’t see where these services are supposed to come from. We need home work clubs, youth clubs, sports and arts clubs to give teens hope, skills and something to aspire to.
The second thing that really annoyed me was the reaction by the police. Again, I can’t talk about this crime so I will be more general. I recently read a column by a man who had his car stolen and he came to the conclusion that if the police spent half the time on the beat and doing innovative police investigation as they did on paperwork, there would be far fewer car thefts. He asked the questions, ‘who has stolen cars in the past’, ‘who buys the cars’, ‘where do they go next’ etc etc. but the police don’t seem to want to take this approach. They are far happier sitting filling in forms than actually getting out there and finding out who are the local criminals and how do they operate?
From living on London estates, I have always regretted the lack of police presence in these places and have resented going to more affluent areas and seeing bobbies on the beat, something that is really a rarity in poor areas where they are needed. I remember one time I actually saw a local gang carrying knives and getting ready for a fight and rang 999. The police never came because it was a Saturday night and they were too busy. I’m pretty sure if I had rung from Chelsea or Kensington, the riot vans would have been there right away. And it is not only police presence we need, but to show people that the police are not the enemy, to install trust in the system. Rather than unfair stop and search tactics, what about local workshops, where people can discuss their concerns and ideas for their community with police and council representatives. If these things exist, they are not in the right places and not known about. We need strong community policing, where everyone can get involved and feel safe in their homes.
I hate to sound like I’m preaching and I must point out that there are some great community workers out there and some great police, but we need more direction from the top. We need to shake the status quo. We need to be trying out innovative schemes and seeing what works and where. Instead, since Stephen’s murder and since the riots, our politicians just seem to sit around and talk, not take action.