Written by Sofia Eugeniou
How the death of one teenager transformed the debate on race and policing.
The racially-motivated attack by a gang of white youths that killed British black teenager Stephen Lawrence on April 22nd, 1993, transformed the way we approach racism and policing. The faults exhibited by the police force during the initial investigation into Stephen’s death have been recognised by various reports and inquiries. This has been accompanied by years of campaigning from the Lawrence family for better justice for Stephen and a need to eradicate institutional racism.
It was the revolutionary publication of the Macpherson Report in 1999 that truly criticised the police force’s original efforts into investigating Stephen’s murder as professionally incompetent and institutionally racist. As well as providing 70 recommendations designed to show ‘zero tolerance’ towards racism in society, the report also suggested a rethink of the ‘double jeopardy rule’, which states people cannot be tried for same crime twice. It was this proposal that led to the 2012 conviction of two of the five or six suspected murderers involved in Stephen’s death. Within the 18 years between Stephen’s murder and the conviction of some of his killers, a momentous change had been made in the way race relations are approached and handled in both society and practice of law. This is certainly a legacy that needs keeping alive in British debate and discussion.
Unfortunately, poor race relations continue to persist in society. Since 2013, hate crimes have doubled in England and Wales, with race related crimes remaining disproportionally higher than other types (see Home Office statistics below).
Image taken from the Guardian website.
Demonstrated by the Stephen Lawrence case, problems arise when incidents involving race are dealt with bias by the police force. These problems impact young and vulnerable members of society the most by creating an atmosphere of tension and distrust. A report published in January 2020 by the Godwin Lawson foundation found that the majority of the 70 youths interviewed in their study expressed concerns of distrust towards police. This makes the work of non-profit organisations like KickOff@3 so important because it is their efforts that help create trust and transparency between young people and police officers, through sport.
KickOff@3 co-founder and police officer Michael Wallace works in close association with the Violent Crime Prevention Board as a Community Champion. Along with Dr Angela Herbert (see below), Stephen Lawrence’s father used to co-chair the same Board. Due to Michael’s involvement and the work of the KickOff@3 team, ties have been formed with the Stephen Lawrence foundation and bonds between young vulnerable people and the police force continue to grow.
Image from the KickOff@3 2018 National Finale – KickOff@3 founders Michael Wallace and Ashley Levien (in green) alongside Dr Angela Herbert and police cadets from Southwark Borough.
Providing a unique insight on the tensions between young people and the police force, an ex-gang member from Acton who will be identified by the initials GW, argues that the issue of criminalising young people by the police force is shaped by a two-way relationship with conduct and approachability setting the tone for it. GW recalled how at the height of his involvement in gangs, he viewed the police force as a system designed to stop him from achieving the things he thought he wanted at the time. Now, he identifies the police force as “a needed and good cause”. For GW, the biggest difference he has experienced is one of approachability – where he has become a more approachable member of the public, officers feel more comfortable around him.
Interestingly, GW disregarded the idea that institutional racism in the police force is still a problem, but rather young people "make themselves targets" through behaviour such as moving in large and intimidating groups. Although this is a gross generalisation of our youth, the idea of conduct still stands.
Image from the KickOff@3 2018 National Finale – KickOff@3 co-founder Michael Wallace interacting with Southwark Borough police cadets.
Finally, GW argued that the lack of diversity in the British police force is not credited to poor efforts in recruiting BAME officers but is a consequence of past institutional racism that has left a heavy mark on older generations within the BAME community. As a result, younger members of BAME communities may show less interest in joining what they consider a corrupt body due to years of being told so by their family and friends. It is therefore our obligation, institutionally, socially and culturally, to repair these broken bridges before anything else. In addition, we must break down the myths that stain the police force as the racist system it once used to be.
To conclude the legacy of Stephen Lawrence and the impact his death has had on how we approach race relations in both the institutional and public realm, it is important to recognise the following three points:
1. We must continue to eradicate the deep-rooted impacts of institutional racism as well as racist undertones that continue to persist in British society;
2. We must continue efforts to diversify our police force to better represent, and thus serve, the British public;
3. We must continue to bridge and forge stronger and lasting relationships between young and vulnerable people and their serving police force to help break down issues of distrust.
It does appear we live in a society where institutionalised racism is not as rife as it once was, but racist perceptions still exist to some extent both institutionally and within the public attitude. It is the behaviour of these few that damage relationships between the police force and young vulnerable people on a large and penetrative scale. We must do all we can to be better and find resolutions to these problems. We must avoid the tragedies that surround cases like Stephen Lawrence’s from ever happening again. We must continue to volunteer for and support organisations like KickOff@3 that are dedicated to doing just that.
Written by Sofia Eugeniou, KickOff@3 Volunteer. #somethingbySofia