Racism in the British Criminal Justice System – Selected Evidence

Last Updated on January 2, 2017 by

Unfortunately, there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting a long history of institutional racism within the Criminal Justice System. Below we are going to look at the short version, starting with the case study of Stephen Lawrence…  

 The list of evidence is long, but there are limitations with this evidence, and alternative ways in which it might be interpreted; you should also be able to draw on other pieces of evidence which we’ve looked at in other parts of the course which point to a broader range of factors besides police racism which explain the disproportionately high numbers of Black and Asian people being processed through the criminal justice system.


1993: The Stephen Lawrence Case and the Macpherson Enquiry (1993/1999)
In this case a gang of white youths stabbed African Caribbean teenager Stephen Lawrence to death after shouting racist abuse at him. Despite substantial evidence against the youths, the police failed to mount a successful prosecution and no one was convicted of the murder. Following sustained pressure by Lawrence’s mother, the

The Macpherson enquiry was established to look into why and six years after Lawrence’s murder in 1999 it found that the Metropolitan police were institutionally racist.

The report defined institutional racism as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide and appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can been seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping and which disadvantage minority ethnic peoples’.

Note the following quote by John Mewing, chief constable for Derbyshire who admitted during this enquiry: “In the police service there is a distinct tendency for officers to stereotype people. Discrimination and unfairness are a result. I know because as a young police officer, I was guilty of such behaviour”


Disproportionate and Discriminatory: Reviewing the Evidence on Police Stop and Sear

Bowling and Phillips (2007) (link)

Although ten years old, this is one of the major pieces of research to have reviewed police prejudice since Stephen Lawrence – Phillips and Bowling are two names you should know in relation to this topic. Below is an extract to give you an idea of how strongly they talk about the existence of police racism…This is a piece of secondary research, and is a review of all available work done into Police Racism in the UK up until 2007.

Research evidence over the past three decades has found that specific stereotypes are commonly used by police officers to classify people on the basis of their ethnic origin. Studies found that black people were believed to be prone to violent crime and drug abuse, incomprehensible, suspicious, hard to handle, naturally excitable, aggressive, lacking brainpower, troublesome and ‘tooled up’.

These findings on racial prejudice and stereotyping have not been restricted to constables, but have been found throughout the ranks. Robert Reiner’s study of Chief Constables found that race was spontaneously mentioned more often than any other social division and was frequently brought up in other contexts.

Although some chiefs discussed ethnicity without invoking negative stereotypes, most spoke prejudicially. The predominant view was to regard the presence of black people as problematic for the police.

They tended to be seen as crime-prone, disorderly, argumentative, irrational, ‘likely to be carrying drugs or dangerous implements, noisy, and responsible for the antipathy held towards them’

Research in the 1990s suggested that overt targeting was ongoing; though police officers were more reluctant to admit it.

A Home Office funded study conducted by Janet Foster and colleagues found that explicit racist language was no longer tolerated and reached the view that it is gradually disappearing. Feeling under greater scrutiny after the Lawrence Inquiry, the authors argued that, in general, officers felt less able to carry out unjustified stop and search or ‘fishing trips’ without proper grounds for searching. However, the authors point to the possibility that racist attitudes and behaviour may simply have gone ‘underground’.

Although the links are complex, racially prejudiced attitudes do affect the way in which people behave. Hall et al argue that while there is no automatic or straightforward link between racially prejudiced attitudes and language and discriminatory or differential behaviour . . . there is a consistency in the pervasive nature and expression of racial stereotypes and their influence on police expectations and behaviours.

There is clear evidence that police officers routinely use skin colour as a criterion for ‘stop and search’ based on stereotyping and over-generalisations about the involvement of black people in crime. Evidence of this was apparent even when being observed by Home Office researchers. Furthermore, the use of colour as a criterion is particularly marked in relation to ‘stop and search’ for drug offences.


2011 –  Court room observations of sentencing following the London Riots
Lee Jasper argues that in this instance, there was clear evidence of racial bias in sentencing. A summary of his blog post

The London riots have attracted exceptional media and political coverage, but as the rebuilding work gets underway and the media coverage dies down… the rancid stench of judicial racism begins to fill the air.

I have witnessed this first hand having spent three days at inner London Crown Court observing case after case being tried in the immediate aftermath of the riots. What I saw shocked me to the core: it reminded me of the chaotic ad hoc justice of the Wild West. Black offenders rights were dismissed, bail applications routinely refused for first time offenders and disproportionate sentences handed out down by an almost all white judiciary. It was carnage.

The Guardian reports that “the difference in racial sentencing between courts was considerable. Haringey magistrates court, which dealt with many of the Tottenham riot cases, sentenced – before the summer disturbances – 11 of the 54 black defendants it dealt with for public disorder or weapons offences to prison, as compared to 5 of 73 white defendants. While West London magistrates court sentenced 17 of 107 black defendants to jail, versus 21 of 237 who were white – meaning at that court black defendants were 79% more likely to be jailed.”



2013 – A review of Stop and Search stats by The Equality and Human Rights Commission has argued that the Police use their powers disproportionately…
According to this BBC summary (2013) The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. The commission said the disproportion between different ethnic groups remained “stubbornly high”.

The highest “disproportionality” ratios were found in the following places:

·         In Dorset black people were 11.7 times more likely than white people to be stopped

·         In West Mercia, Asian people were 3.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped

·         In Warwickshire, people of mixed race were 4.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.

The report also looked at the use of Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act under which police can stop and search someone for weapons, without suspicion that the individual is involved in wrongdoing, providing that a senior officer has a reasonable belief that violence had or is about to occur.

Under section 60, In the West Midlands, black people were 29 times more likely than white people to be targeted and Asian people were six times more likely than white people to be targeted

EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond said “the overall disproportionality in the use of the powers against black, Asian and mixed race people remains stubbornly high.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: