Neomi Bennett is one of black Britain’s success stories. For almost three decades a nurse in the UK’s NHS, Ms Bennett is also an entrepreneur, having established a successful company to market a surgical stocking she invented. In 2018, she was awarded the British Empire Medal — reserved for those who make a substantial contribution to civil or military service.

Yet, for Ms Bennett — whose parents came to the UK from Jamaica as children in the 1960s — an incident in April 2019 near her south London home has, she says, overshadowed her success. When a police officer, without warning, tried to pull open the door of her parked car to search it, Ms Bennett says she panicked, thinking she was being robbed, and refused to move. She was dragged from the car, handcuffed and held overnight before being charged and convicted of obstructing a police officer. The search had been instigated, Ms Bennett was told, because the tint on her car windows was too dark. The conviction was overturned in May last year when the prosecution declined to offer any evidence at her appeal.

The incident is one of a number allegedly involving excessive force that has renewed attention on police tactics towards the country’s black population — the almost 2m people who for the last census in 2011 described themselves as being of African or African-Caribbean heritage.

The police watchdog for England and Wales — the Independent Office for Police Conduct — in July began looking more closely at the disproportionate use of force and stop-and-search towards minority communities. The organisation has since published a number of reports critical of the handling of individual stop and searches by officers, mainly involving London’s Metropolitan Police.

Line chart of number of stop and searches by ethnic group showing black Londoners are still disproportionately targeted by officers

The rise in reported incidents has been linked to the first national coronavirus lockdown — when all movements were severely restricted — between March and July last year. The Metropolitan Police conducted 43,000 stop and search operations in London in May alone, double the number just 12 months earlier. Black people were disproportionately targeted. According to the force’s own published data, black people were 3.7 times more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped and searched in the year to the end of November 2020. For May, the figure rose to 4.25 times.

“I had no idea of the extent of the racism within the police service until that happened to me,” says Ms Bennett, who had previously supported the police. “Gradually I’ve watched it become worse and worse.”

Ms Bennett, who says she plans to seek either compensation or a formal apology from the police but has not yet lodged a formal claim, says she is particularly worried about her two adult sons. “If they get stopped by the wrong police officer, it’s potentially not going to go down very well,” she adds.

Protesters from a Black Lives Matter stage a rally in London on July 11 last year
Protesters from a Black Lives Matter stage a rally in London last July following the killing of George Floyd in the US © Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The frustration for campaigners is that the issues are longstanding and well known. It is 21 years since an official report found the Metropolitan Police “institutionally racist”. For senior police officers in the UK faced with a growing lack of trust, the question is whether they can do anything now to restore it.

Dave Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands Police, England’s third-largest force, says his officers had a “rude awakening” last summer when confronted by large Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, in the US city of Minneapolis.

There were BLM demonstrations across the UK, and among the grievances raised was heavy-handed policing along with the Windrush scandal which had stripped some Commonwealth citizens of their right to remain in the UK, and the lax standards that led to the death of 72 residents of a tower block, housing mainly ethnic minority families, in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

“I think we have to keep working with communities as to what is the right solution,” Mr Thompson says of the use of stop-and-search and other discretionary powers. “We have to be careful how we use our discretions.”

Every time I’ve been stopped, I’ve felt that underlying disdain [of a police officer]...It’s that  bias that we’re facing every day in all walks of society" SAYCE HOLMES-LEWIS

Growing confidence gap

In London — home to more than half the UK’s black population — the number of black people saying the police were doing a good job fell 9 percentage points in the year to September to 49 per cent, according to the Public Attitudes Survey by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. For Londoners as a whole, the figure fell 1 percentage point to 57 per cent in the same period. The same survey found that the proportion of black people in the capital confident the police would treat everyone fairly had fallen 15 percentage points to 59 per cent, against a decline of only 3 percentage points to 74 per cent for Londoners generally.

Such declines in confidence are being driven partly by high-profile incidents. In one such case the British Olympic sprinter Bianca Williams was videoed being handcuffed after her partner’s vehicle had been pulled over by Metropolitan Police officers in July. The black athlete accused the police — which subsequently apologised — of racial profiling. The IOPC in October said it was investigating the conduct of five officers over Ms Williams’ treatment.

Lee Jasper, who from 2004 to 2008 offered policing advice to Ken Livingstone, then London mayor, calls the drop in black communities’ confidence in the police “catastrophic” and warns the effects are likely to become more obvious.

“There’s a lag issue between the experience and beliefs of the African-Caribbean community and the extent to which wider society becomes aware that there’s an issue,” Mr Jasper says of what he calls an “unrecognised” crisis in police-community relations.

Public perceptions of the police in London, 12 months ending September 2020, percentage who think the Metropolitan Police understands local issues, listens to concerns of local people, treats everyone fairly, does a good job

Simon Rotherham, a superintendent in the Metropolitan Police specialising in stop and search policy, says he does not know what is driving the falls in public confidence. But he acknowledges there is “obviously anger out there from the black community”.

“There’s a real feeling that the police aren’t listening,” he says.

Like other officers, Supt Rotherham nevertheless insists the right to carry out searches remains a “vital power” that plays a critical role in protecting ethnic minority communities, who suffer disproportionately from the effects of crime.

I had no idea of the extent of the racism within the police service until that event happened to me in 2019 and gradually I’ve watched it become worse and worse. NEOMI BENNETT

The police frequently cite the importance of stop-and-search in detecting weapons used in street killings, of which black men are disproportionately victims. Black people accounted for 45 per cent of the 93 victims of murder and manslaughter in London in 2020. The link is dismissed by campaigners, however, who say such levels have fallen despite recent years’ reduction in the levels of stop-and-search activity.

“We absolutely believe it does protect Londoners,” Supt Rotherham says. “It takes weapons off the street and protects London from violent crime and acquisitive crime.”

Riots in Brixton, south London, in the 1980s were sparked by policing tactics © Brendan Beirne/Shutterstock

Stop and search in lockdown

Sayce Holmes-Lewis was just 14 when a police officer assaulted him as he went home from school with his friends, an incident that led his family first to seek action against the police and then prompted an effort by the police to charge him. That charge was thrown out after CCTV evidence supported Mr Holmes-Lewis's version of events. Of African-Caribbean heritage and a life-long resident of south-east London, the 38-year-old says he has been stopped by police more than 30 times. 

“Every time I’ve been stopped, I’ve felt that underlying disdain,” Mr Holmes-Lewis says of officers’ attitudes.

Yet, Mr Holmes-Lewis, who in 2016 co-founded Mentivity, an organisation that provides mentoring to hundreds of young people in London, parts of Sussex and Africa, believes the peculiar dynamics of the lockdown helped to increase tensions. He attributes the disproportionate stopping of black people in the period to the fact they tend to be over-represented in areas such as healthcare or transport — jobs that required them to leave their homes.

“We were more present on the street,” he says. “[It] made it easier for them to target us.”

[There is] obviously anger out there from the black community . . . There’s a real feeling that the police aren’t listening. Superintendant SIMON ROTHERHAM

Supt Rotherham justifies the Met’s practices, insisting that the “positive outcome rate” — the proportion of stop and searches that result in an arrest or other enforcement action — is broadly similar for different ethnic groups. That, he says, suggests officers are targeting searches according to evidence of crime, rather than the person’s ethnicity.

Yet, the positive outcome rate for searches of black people is consistently slightly lower than for white counterparts — it was 22.1 per cent in November, against 23.7 per cent for white people. Activists complain that the figure for black people is disproportionately inflated by charges for minor drug offences, which they believe are often used as justification for targeting black people. Excluding the effects of searches for drugs and psychoactive substances, just 14.6 per cent of searches of black people led to a positive outcome in May, against 19.3 per cent for white people.

Mr Holmes-Lewis, who argues that many police attitudes towards black people are consciously, rather than just unconsciously, biased, was stopped in his car on May 5 as he distributed meals to people struggling to get food during lockdown. The stop led to no further action.

“I told the officers, ‘You understand I do a lot of work in the community?’” Mr Holmes-Lewis says. “But that was disregarded. I heard them speaking to each other: ‘Look at his car — what does he expect? Look at what he’s wearing.’ It’s that bias that we’re facing every day in all walks of society.”

Stop and search across London, by borough (Nov 2018-Nov 2020)

Institutional racism?

For Leslie Thomas, a black barrister and legal academic specialising in police abuse cases, the roots of the current distrust are linked to the “pushback” from police forces, triggered by the 1999 MacPherson Report which found that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”.

The report followed a critical inquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s bungled investigation into the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, in south-east London in 1993.

“It was seen as political correctness and so it got to the stage where suggesting something was ‘institutionally racist’ was just political correctness talk,” Prof Thomas says.

He expresses particular indignation that, when asked by MPs in July, if her force was still institutionally racist, Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said it was not a “massive systemic issue”.

Police briefly detain a protester outside Tottenham Police station last August in Tottenham © Guy Smallman/Getty

“To have the head of an organisation take a position like that given the statistics and given the difference in the treatment of people of colour and in particular young black people, I think is shocking and shameful,” says Prof Thomas.

The challenge, according to many police officers and campaigners, is for forces to find ways to reverse the current trends by restoring the trust of black communities. A “community policing” approach — as opposed to an inflexible, centralised approach — was first recommended as a way to relieve tensions between black communities and the police in the 1981 Scarman report into riots — in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool — sparked by harsh police tactics over the previous two years.

Mr Thompson, in the West Midlands force, blames the erosion of trust partly on the sharp declines in police staffing and funding during the last decade of “austerity” spending cuts. He contrasts the conditions he faces today with his 20 years with Greater Manchester Police from 1990 to 2010, when he was able to spare officers to explain police tactics to members of minority communities and to hear their concerns in return.

“We’ve squeezed that away,” he says. “I couldn’t find the time to take that many officers offline. We’ve had to go back to some stuff that I think got squeezed out.”

James Weston, the Metropolitan Police commander for the violence suppression unit for the south London borough of Croydon, says he realised last year that his officers understood relatively little about the communities they were meant to be policing. Around 24 per cent of the borough’s roughly 386,700 people are black. “We were out policing on the streets and there’s a whole community there that we don’t understand as well as we would like to,” he says.

The most severe consequence of that incomprehension is the tendency to use excessive force when restraining black people, especially men.

We were out policing on the streets and there’s a whole community there that we don’t understand as well as we would like to. INSPECTOR JAMES WESTON

Prof Thomas says that over 30 years he has appeared in multiple court cases and inquests involving black men who were restrained by police in ways that stopped them breathing. Most recently he represented the family of Kevin Clarke, 35, who died in 2018. An inquest in October concluded that the Metropolitan Police’s use of inappropriate force in restraining Mr Clarke, who had schizophrenia and was suffering a psychotic episode, contributed to his death. Like George Floyd in Minneapolis, Mr Clarke had told officers he was unable to breathe.

“[It’s the] same questions, [the] same issues,” Prof Thomas says of the similarities between the multiple cases where he has been involved. “That leads me to believe that the problem has to be one of institutions.”

Mr Thompson says use of force questions are a “bigger issue” than stop-and-search in his region. He believes mutual misunderstanding and mistrust lead both the police and black communities to react in unhelpful ways. “I think there’s a case to ask, ‘Do the community expect trouble and respond in a way that’s tricky and do the police go in expecting trouble in that space?’” Mr Thompson asks.

The MacPherson report was seen as political correctness and so it got to the stage where suggesting something was ‘institutionally racist’ was just political correctness talk LESLIE THOMAS QC

Resetting relations

Insp Weston in May this year held an informal meeting with leaders of Croydon’s black community. It has now become a weekly event, attended by up to 50, mainly black people from a range of organisations. Mr Holmes-Lewis — who has started offering training for police officers based on his experience — regularly attends, as do representatives of formal police consultative groups and other bodies such as churches.

Standing outside the community group offices that host the meeting, Insp Weston says his officers have learnt to start conversations with groups of youths rather than immediately start assuming they need to search them for knives. “We’re not immediately putting a tension in there,” he adds.

Anthony King, a comedian and speaker who regularly attends the meetings, guardedly endorses the idea that the borough shows the potential for a new effort to end mutual suspicion. But substantial distrust remains. He reports that one black man, seeing him walking with two police officers, asked him bitterly, “So, you’re one of them now?”

Yet he believes that the borough’s experience shows the potential for a wider reset of relations between police forces and the UK’s black communities. “I think they’re learning,” Mr King says. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done but everybody is doing their part.”

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