Skip to main content

Urgent action needed to tackle deep rooted and persistent racial disparities in policing

30 July 2021

The Home Affairs Committee calls for urgent action to tackle low levels of BME recruitment and retention, unjustified racial disparities in the use of stop and search and other police powers, and a worrying decline of confidence in the police among some BME communities.

Twenty-two years on from the publication of the Macpherson report that followed the Inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Committee has found that whilst policing has changed for the better in many areas, there are still serious and deep rooted racial disparities, and that neither police forces nor governments have taken race equality seriously enough for too long.

The Committee warns that without real and sustainable change the effectiveness and legitimacy of the police will be undermined, and it will take another two decades for police forces in England and Wales to reflect the communities they serve.

The Committee’s report into progress against the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’s recommendations has found:

  • A persistent confidence gap between Black and White adults in the fairness of policing that has widened in recent years. Community confidence must become a priority for police forces and the Home Office.
  • On current rates of progress, police forces won’t be representative of their communities for another twenty years – that would be forty years after the Macpherson report raised the issue and nearly half a century after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. This is inexcusable. New minimum targets must be set immediately for current recruitment so that all forces in England and Wales reflect the ethnic diversity of their local populations and a national target of at least 14% is met by 2030.
  • The use of stop and search is more disproportionate now than it was two decades ago, with no adequate explanation or justification for the nature and scale of racial disparities, including on drug possession searches where in 2019 Black people were 2.4 times more likely than White people to be searched but in the last year were less likely to use drugs. New scrutiny and transparency is needed including more use of police body worn cameras, community oversight, and new police training.
  • Current arrangements for ensuring progress on race equality in policing are not working. A new statutory Race Equality Commissioner for Policing is needed to investigate and scrutinise progress alongside a new Race Equality Steering Group to be chaired by the Home Secretary.
  • The Macpherson report led to a transformation in the policing of racist crimes which senior officers are committed to sustaining, however policing is now being left behind by the rise of online racist crime and a new strategy is needed.

The Committee found that in the years following the Macpherson report there was a welcome focus by all policing organisations to implement the report’s recommendations and to drive forward institutional change. However, over time that progress has stalled and race equality has too often not been taken seriously enough.

The Committee concludes that policing today is very different from twenty-two years ago and there have been important and welcome improvements in policing, including on the policing of racist and hate crimes, the commitment of senior officers to promoting diversity and equality and good examples of local community policing.

However, it has also identified serious and persistent shortcomings on recruitment, misconduct, the use of key police powers and community confidence which point to structural problems that go beyond individual bias.

The Committee found that the Macpherson report’s overall aim of “the elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage, and the demonstration of fairness in all aspects of policing”, has still not been met.

Chair's comment

Publishing the report, the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Yvette Cooper MP, said:

“The Macpherson report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and the terrible denial of justice to his family had a huge impact on policing and tackling racism when it was first published. But we have found that in too many areas progress has stalled and for too long there has been a lack of focus and accountability on race equality in policing. There are still persistent, deep rooted problems and unjustified racial disparities in key areas where Sir William Macpherson made recommendations over twenty years ago. That is unacceptable and must change.

“Without clear action to tackle race inequality we fear that, in ten years’ time, future Committees will be hearing the very same arguments that have been rehearsed already for over twenty years. That cannot be allowed to happen. If the police and Government fail to address these problems urgently, community confidence in the police and the long-standing Peel principles around fairness in policing will be permanently undermined.”

Key findings and recommendations

Confidence gap

  • Adults from Black and Mixed ethnic backgrounds are less likely to have confidence in the police than adults from White or Asian backgrounds, and the confidence gap has widened. This is deeply troubling and puts in jeopardy the principle of policing by consent.
  • The Macpherson report recommendations on increasing trust and confidence in policing in minority ethnic communities are not being met today. This needs to become a priority for police forces and the Home Office; all forces must set out clear local plans to improve confidence among BME communities.

Racist incidents and victims of crime

  • The Macpherson report brought about a transformation in the way police recognise racist incidents and deal with racist crimes - one of the most important legacies of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
  • However, racial hatred remains a significant problem in society, with more than 75,000 race related incidents recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2019/20. We are deeply concerned that some Black men and women still report that they have been treated as suspects not victims of crime.  Police forces are being left behind by the rise of online racist crimes. Alongside the new Online Safety Bill there needs to be a new strategy, including skills training and technology, for policing hate crime online.

Recruitment and progression of BME officers and staff

  • By 2020 BME officers represented just 7% of the police service across England and Wales, far below the 14% of the population in England and Wales who identify as BME. Levels of under representation are most marked among senior ranks, only 4% of officers at or above the rank of chief inspector are from BME backgrounds.
  • Our analysis suggests that, on the current rate of progress, we will not have properly representative police forces in the UK for another twenty years. That would be four decades after the Macpherson report raised the seriousness of this issue and nearly half a century after the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It is completely inexcusable.
  • There has been a lack of focus, consistency and leadership in driving BME recruitment and promotion in the police service for far too long.
  • The planned recruitment of an additional 20,000 police officers must be used to make immediate and significant progress. The Government should agree minimum targets for the recruitment of BME officers with each constabulary in England and Wales reflecting the respective composition of its local population, in order to achieve at least 14% of officers nationally by 2030.
  • We welcome recent progress by forces such as Nottinghamshire. A national strategy should be drawn up by the National Policing Board with a requirement on chief officers to use positive action, and the Home Secretary should use her statutory powers to direct action if targets are not being met.

Police misconduct and discipline

  • BME officers are more than twice as likely to be dismissed than White officers. Delays in gathering robust data or conducting systematic analysis of the problem reflect complacency and a combined failure by policing organisations and the Home Office.
  • Urgent action is needed by all forces to implement NPCC reforms, to monitor and report progress and to include BME officers and advisers in Professional Standards Departments.

Stop and search

  • Black people are over nine and a half times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people. Despite the Macpherson recommendations, the disproportionality is greater now than it was twenty-two years ago.
  • Stop and search is an important police power, but no evidence to this inquiry has adequately explained or justified the nature and scale of the disproportionality in the use of stop and search powers. That has damaged confidence in stop and search which needs to be rebuilt.
  • The way the Metropolitan Police increased stop and search use during the first covid-19 lockdown was wrong. It should never have been possible for the equivalent of 1 in 4 Black men aged 15-24 who were not committing a crime to be stopped and searched in a three-month period.
  • Sensible recommendations from HMICFRS on stop and search from four years ago have still not been widely implemented or sustained. That needs to change urgently.
  • The Committee is also calling for further reforms, including recording the ethnicity of those who are subject to road traffic stops, additional training for police officers and staff on communication, conflict management and de-escalation, and full use of body worn video, with internal reviews and external community oversight, both to build confidence and to ensure improvements are made.

Use of police technologies and tools

  • In the first lockdown Black people were 1.8 times more likely to be subject to covid enforcement measures than White people. Policing and the Home Office need systems in place to ensure that new technology and new powers are implemented fairly, without racial bias and without widening unfair racial disparities.

Racism and the police twenty-two years on

  • The Committee found that policing today is very different from twenty-two years ago and there have been important and welcome improvements in policing since the Macpherson report was published. However, it also found persistent, deep rooted and unjustified racial disparities in key areas, and that there has been a systematic failure on the part of the police service in England and Wales and governments, over many years, to take race inequality in policing seriously enough.
  • The Committee recommends a comprehensive review and overhaul of police training on racism, diversity and equality so that training in the future explicitly focuses on anti-racism.
  • It also calls for action to challenge racism within policies, structures, organisational culture and institutions, including the adoption of the approach set out in the David Lammy review of the Criminal Justice System: explain or change.
  • The Committee believes that the concept of institutional racism set out by the Macpherson report remains important today and that institutions must be able to challenge themselves and be held publicly to account for addressing racism within structures or policies as well as within individual attitudes. It recommends that the Equality and Human Rights Commission undertakes work to determine a framework against which individual institutions including police forces can be rigorously assessed.

Delivery and accountability

  • The current system for delivery and accountability on race equality within policing is not working and the impetus for change from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry has not been sustained.
  • A new independent, statutory Race Equality Commissioner for policing should be established to provide ongoing scrutiny, including analysis and advice on policing policy, tools and procedures that have a potential impact on racial disparities.
  • The Home Secretary should establish and chair, under the aegis of the National Policing Board, a Race Equality Steering Group. The Home Secretary should have oversight of progress in addressing race equality across the 43 police forces.

Further information

Image: Unsplash/Kai pilger