Exclusive: father of Stephen Lawrence says police’s promises to change have not been met
Neville Lawrence voiced his backing for peaceful anti-racism protests. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA
The father of Stephen Lawrence has said black people are still treated as second-class citizens in Britain, with police breaking promises to change they made two decades ago after being shamed by their failure to find his son’s racist killers.
Lawrence said racial injustice in Britain was worse than it should be and that the government, from the prime minister down, was not doing enough.
Revealing his continuing exasperation with UK policing, he said it was still institutionally racist, as shown by stop and search disproportionately targeting black people.
Lawrence, 78, said statues such as that of the slave owner Edward Colston, which was pulled down and dumped in Bristol harbour at the weekend, were “offensive” and should not have been left up in the first place. However, he warned against violence and voiced concerns over the spread of coronavirus.
On Tuesday, protests moved to Oxford, with more than 1,000 gathering to demand the removal of a statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.
It came as Britain’s head of counterterrorism, Neil Basu, denounced racial bias in UK institutions and society, and said protesters had legitimate aims that should not be tarnished by a violent minority.
In an internal post for officers, the most senior BAME officer in policing wrote: “What we are seeing in America, and here in the UK, too, is anger directed not just at police brutality but the racial bias built into the very fabric of our institutions and society – perhaps best illustrated in the UK by the huge disparity in young black men in the criminal justice system.
“Meanwhile, recent reports describe how BAME communities are not only more likely to die as a result of Covid-19, they have also been disproportionately affected by the way we have policed lockdown rules. This disparity is seen in education, in health, in the workplace – it’s everywhere – and it’s a daily lived experience for many.”
Basu said he felt moved to see officers take a knee at the weekend, adding: “We must confront the fact that with many of our communities – especially the black community – we still have a long way to go.”
Lawrence’s 18-year-old son, Stephen, was murdered in 1993 by a racist gang in south-east London, with police bungling the investigation.
He and his wife, Doreen, now Lady Lawrence, spent years fighting the police, who denied wrongdoing, and won a public inquiry which in 1999 found errors were down to incompetence and “institutional racism”.
Police promises to reform and enshrine racial justice in the ranks, Lawrence said, were not delivered and he still had no idea when they would be kept. “I thought when they came out they would be respected and done in quick time, so people can see they are making the force more fair.
“It was not done in quick time, it’s not been done, I don’t know when it will be done – we should not be talking about it 21 years later. They have fallen way, way short. Twenty-one years short.”
The 2017 Lammy review concluded that “BAME individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination, in parts of the justice system”. It showed that, while black people comprise 3% of the overall population in England and Wales, they made up 12% of its prison population, with the percentage of black people in prison higher in relation to their share of the general population than the corresponding figure in the US. Just 1.2% of police officers in England and Wales are black, official data shows.
Lawrence said police had made some improvements but these were insufficient to gain support in certain communities, damaging their ability to fight crime. “Without the community behind you it is harder to solve crimes. It is like a them-and-us situation,” he said. “We do not want people stealing and doing bad things. Some people still think the police are not there for them.”
The Met police commissioner, Cressida Dick, has declared that Britain’s biggest force is no longer institutionally racist. Lawrence, who has previously praised her, said: “I totally disagree with her. Yes, the police are institutionally racist.”
Lawrence cited stop and search as an example. Figures for 2019 show the Met stopped more black people than white, despite black people making up 12% of London’s population and white people 59%. The Met has said it is focusing its efforts on the areas with the worst violence.
Lawrence said some officers were still misusing their powers: “Stop and search can be good if done in the proper way. A lot of these officers do not do it in a proper way.”
He said he had been stopped and searched, as had his black police family liaison officer, when driving off-duty in plain clothes. “I had to laugh,” Lawrence said. “It’s just a way to pounce on people, it’s an excuse, it’s not a reasonable excuse to stop people.”
He said the government should bring back a special steering group to oversee the changes promised after the 1999 Lawrence inquiry.
“There is no one policing the recommendations now,” he said. “The police cannot be relied on to reform. They are a group of people who do not believe they should be told what to do.”
Lawrence said the current Conservative government was failing on racial justice and that Johnson, who has compared women wearing the burqa to “letterboxes” and used the racially offensive term “piccaninnies”, may himself have a problem with race: “I have not seen anything that has convinced me he has not.”
Lawrence said the protests should be peaceful and that those attacking the police should be caught and prosecuted. He said black people were still treated as second-class citizens, “not only in this country but all over the world”, making action on the streets much-needed. “I am pleased there are lots of people trying to support it.”
However, he said he was concerned protesters were potentially exposing themselves to the coronavirus: “They have made a decision to put themselves at risk to show their displeasure at what’s happening.”
Amid controversy after protesters tore down the Colston statue, Lawrence said: “The people in power should have the decency to realise it is offensive. They should have removed it. [But] I would not have been part of that group that took it down. The authorities should have known it was offensive and taken it down.”
Addressing renewed anger over monuments honouring slave owners and colonialists, Lawrence said: “People who have done bad things should not be put up as heroes. Statues in public places should be someone who has done something good, not something bad.”
Lawrence said the loss of his son and the police failings still haunt his life, which is now split between London and Jamaica, where he was born and where Stephen was buried. “I can’t forget because it’s my life, this I have been going through for 27 years. We are all still feeling pain. When I hear a song me and my son used to listen to, I’m back, to the times we were together.”
Lawrence said the death of Floyd in Minneapolis shook him greatly. “When I saw the news, tears came out of my eyes. I did not believe someone could do that when others stood by and watched. It was unforgivable for someone to kneel on someone’s neck when they say ‘I can’t breathe’.”
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