The Police, Criminal Justice and Race
The Millennibrum Oral History Project has been concerned with recording the memories of approximately 150 individuals reflecting change and development within the city from 1945 to the present day. The material accumulated is vast and covers a wide range of themes. I have chosen to focus my interest on interviewees who spoke of issues relating to policing and the community. Extracts have been selected from five interviews conducted by Helen Lloyd, ranging from a retired Assistant Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, a man who acts as a liaison officer between young people and police and a woman who became a foster parent.
The City Council published in March 2001, the Report of the Birmingham Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Commission, entitled "Challenges For The Future: Racial Equality in Birmingham". I have taken chapter 10 of this report, "Criminal Justice System" as a basis for the article.
Many minority ethnic groups have consistently raised concerns about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, from the sentencing policies of the Courts to the over-representation of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in prisons and the treatment of minority ethnic prisoners. According to the Howard Leaguethe number of black people in our prisons is out of all proportion to the size of the Black community yet there is no evidence to suggest that people from minority groups commit more crime.
Ossie is in his late 30s and grew up in Handsworth. He is a social worker who is employed as a liaison officer. He comments:
"After being a teenager and being stopped and harassed by police officers, I was then put in a situation where I worked directly with police officers. My experience has been very mixed and quite sadly some of the stereotypes which we attribute to police still exist, even in a professional setting. I remember attending a police station and part of our role working as a social worker in a youth offending team is to attend police stations as an appropriate adult for young people who have been arrested. And police officers just by seeing me would assume that I was someone who had been arrested, that I must be an offender. But I do think the two issues were me being young and black, and it happened quite a lot of times. On one occasion I had to make an official complaint to the police...
I do see a lot of injustices happening with the criminal justice system and with young black people in general. Those remanded in custody and those who do get sentences tend to get longer than their white counterparts. In the last report over the years it has reduced a lot, but I still think we have some way to go. It shouldn't be so different where somebody gets a hefty sentence and another gets probation". (1)
Forty years ago an article appeared in the Yardley Wood News, September 1961, "Crime: Coloureds not To Blame". It began:
'Contrary to popular belief the police records do not confirm that coloureds are responsible for the increasing wave of crime in Birmingham. The worst section of immigrants as far as crime is concerned are the Irish... (2)
Even as far back as the early 60s there were demands for liaison officers.
'There ought to be a Police Liaison Officer for coloured people in every city. There are very good men in West Bromwich&, but so far Birminghams Chief Constable has not agreed to one'. (3)
This newspaper article featured at the time of the 1960-62 Royal Commission on the Police which was the first large-scale investigation into the premises and structure of policing since 1853. The need arose out of concerns about numerous complaints of police conduct and a rise in crime. The 1964 Police Act acting largely on the recommendations of the Royal Commission fostered a more national policing system and clarified many ambiguities.
John Glynn, formerly of West Midlands Police, recalls patrolling the streets of Aston in the late 50s:
"I cannot remember a single incident that one could call vicious. There were plenty of fist fights and pub fights. We didn't have a radio in those days. We carried a truncheon but I was never called upon to use mine. It was very useful for knocking nails in and things like that. We learned the art of talking our way through troublesome situations. You were out there on your own, no one to call upon for assistance apart from your public. They, without exception, would come to your aid if you got out of your depth because you served them on a daily basis. I've very fond memories of Aston." (4)
This is in stark contrast to the experience of Scenes of Crimes Officer, Zubair Khan, in the present day:
"I currently work in the Aston area, which is quite a deprived area of Inner City Birmingham. There's high unemployment, a very large number of ethnic minorities. We tend to get a lot more serious crime. There's quite a few murders per year, quite a lot of woundings, a high incidence of serious crime including shootings. It involves so many resources that you are always at a stretch.
Many factors are involved here. You need education, employment, social activities...When there's boredom, deprivation, poverty, bad housing, all those factors accumulate into people committing crime. What we need is a multi-agency approach." (5)
The testimonies of both interviewees hint at the overwhelming change in policing in the community and how the rise of the motor car has been a factor in changing that relationship. John Glynn, in particular feels that senior officers have lost touch with what it's like to be at street level. He acknowledges the demographic changes in the City in the early 60s and how they affected the police:
"I was posted to Handsworth Police Station, the C Division in the early 1960s. Interestingly it coincided with the period of social life in Birmingham where people were trying to make sense of living in harmony with quite an alien culture, the immigrant community. It must be remembered that Birmingham was quite insular in those days.
From a police point of view, although we were heavily criticised for it, and still are to this day, very unfairly criticised for it, the police made, to my knowledge, huge efforts, not always successful, but huge efforts. Not only to engage with the immigrant community, but to understand and be sensitive towards their particular culture and religious beliefs. It would be nae of me to suggest that there were no people in the police force, as in every other society, who were not racist. They obviously had racist ideas, but they were usually people of low intellect I must say.
It was a two-way problem. Because in their home countries many of these people had learned to distrust the police, their own police. They saw us as an arm of the government and of authority. Like for example the restitution of stolen property. We might have found a wallet that theyd lost. All we wanted to do was give them back their wallet. We were rejected. A sort of funny situation which illustrated a lack of understanding on both sides. I rather tend to believe looking back on it, that we've lost our way. Later on we, in the police, found ourselves recruiting people from the black and Asian communities." (6)
Zubair Khan is one such recruit, who decided, with the support of his father to join the police in the mid-80s. He compares and contrasts his training period with that of new recruits today:
"When I first joined people were a bit apprehensive at first about me being in the police force. People probably thought I was against the community. That is not the case. I'm also currently involved in recruiting a lot more ethnic officers because the Home Office is putting figures on all police forces to recruit a certain number. The West Midlands Police has got 16% I believe.
In the training first it was very good. There were some problems later on of prejudice and some discrimination. There is good and bad in all organisations. There are some excellent police officers but others are quite discriminatory. It's hard work dealing with them, but I think those are far and few between nowadays. The old network, if you like, is now going slowly out of fashion and they are retiring. The new breed of officers is far more dynamic, far more cultural awareness. But having said that I think the discipline was better in the older days. I would prefer the police force we had 20 years ago with no discrimination than the police force of today.
I'm one of the first contact officers for people who may be experiencing racism, discrimination or any other harassment when they first join. This scheme is called 'Buddy Contact'. The police force is quite unique in the way it works, everybody sticks with each other and it's like one large family.
When I first joined the police service the canteen culture was very bad. They would get together and talk about Pakis, Indians and derogatory remarks about other races. It was an accepted norm in the mid- to late- 80s. Since the Macpherson Report there has been a watershed in attitudes. Everybody has now been on a multi-cultural awareness course and is aware of race relations policy." (7)
However, Gurbux Singh, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality believes that there is a still a long way to go, especially when a case of racial discrimination is profiled in the media. Negative perceptions remain a barrier to minority ethnic recruitment.
Mistrust and lack of confidence in the police were very evident in many of the submissions from minority ethnic communities. The young participants pointed to several incidents of police mistreatment.
Lester Burke, of Edgbaston, reveals that this is not new and has been an ongoing problem:
"I live in Woodview, Edgbaston. This area had nothing, I mean nothing. They discriminated against us on the estate. I said to the police officers about their racist attitude. In 1981 I was involved with the Scarman Report and I was asked to sit on the committee. We made our feelings known. Woodview itself was the original centre in looking at blackness in terms of fundamental change within the system. I became involved with the police as a liaison officer. We were afraid that when a lot of black people were picked up on the streets they were beaten by the police officers. It was to make sure that the alleged brutality didn't take place. People would knock at my door late at night and say, my son has been arrested, can you come?" I felt the need to talk to officers at the grassroots level. I became Chairman of the Police Consultant Committee." (8)
Lord Scarman's investigation into the race riots of 1981 propagated the notion of the 'bad apple' theory, whereby police officers with racist tendencies amongst the lower ranks could seek refuge and avoid disciplinary action. The difficulties in exposing institutionalised racism were exacerbated during the period of the Handsworth Riots in 1985 when the Conservative Government refused to agree to set up a similar judicial inquiry. A police inquiry was deemed to be satisfactory in this instance.
Ossielived in Handsworth at the time, but was in the USA at the outbreak of rioting:
"I remember doing an article for a newspaper [in Alabama] and they were asking what was my opinion of the Handsworth Riots. Is it unrest between the black and white or Asian in the community? I don't think the Riots sparked out of any unrest in the community. I actually believe it was a police / young people thing or particularly a police / black young people thing".
He feels particularly strongly about distorted commentary in the media about the riots:
"Media coverage of the riots.... a lot of it was negative in the sense that it portrayed particularly black young people in a worse light. I dont see it as what they call a 'race' riot, in a sense of community against each other, but certainly anti-authority or anti-police might be more accurate". (9)
John Glynn has a similar point to make about media coverage, though he arrives at a different conclusion about the riots;
"The reasons for the riots were quite spurious in my opinion. Like, for example, the Handsworth Riots, which were said to be racial. There is no doubt that there were troubles in local communities. West Indians became associated with partying and unlawful drinking dens. They were seen as pleasure-seeking people as distinct from hard-working people. These were stereotypes of course, and it did cause friction.
The picture that was put out in the news media, about the Handsworth Riots and problems associated with race were, in my view, grossly exaggerated, and therefore many wrong conclusions were arrived at from the social unrest.
If you want to look for one of the causes of a riot, always look for a spell of hot weather when people are on the streets. It only takes one little thing to strike the tinderbox as it were". (10)
Stop and search
The use of stop-and search is an important aspect of the polices approach to crime prevention and detection. Many parts of the minority ethnic communities acknowledge this. Stop-and-search should be based on intelligence and used as a last resort, and not first resort policing measure.
Ossiestates that in the years following the Handsworth riots this was a regular occurrence:
"I remember police stop and search was a major thing for black young people. It was certainly some kind of harassment issue with police. It was commonplace for us to be walking home in the evening and be stopped and searched for what we felt was no reason at all, apart from our ethnicity. Stopped and questioned on suspicion of our committing some crime or whatever. In the mid- to late-80s being stopped in a car was certainly a black driver's experience...at least every week". (11)
More than a decade earlier Olive Palser recalls the frustrations of her family at the treatment of their foster child:
"The authorities supplied a little boy and he was black and this is Solihull. You can imagine what we went through, even with the police. Every time they wanted somebody they would come to my door and ask me. They saw him one day in Acock's Green. He went to a school in Birmingham and had got the day off. The police car stopped, picked him up and brought him back, asking why he was here. We've had lots of problems..." (12)
Zubair Khanis optimistic that, in the wake of the Macpherson report, the police can strive to address serious criticisms and implement change:
"The police have had so many problems in recent years with miscarriages of justice that people have, to a certain extent, lost confidence in this service. But it's going to take a few years to rebuild that confidence. Yet most people I deal with a very supportive of the work the police does". (13)
1) Transcript of oral history interview MS2255/2/101. All MS numbers below relate to transcripts of interviews held by Birmingham City Archives.
2) Yardley Wood News, Mid-September 1961.