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World - Europe

British investigation finds police racist

Lawrence's death precipitated intense debate over racism in Britain

CNN's Margaret Lowrie examines the report and the repercussions that may follow
Windows Media 28K 80K

February 24, 1999
Web posted at: 7:45 p.m. EST (0045 GMT)

In this story:

Report blames incompetence, 'institutional racism'

Suspects never found guilty


LONDON (CNN) -- Britain's Labour Party government announced Wednesday a major overhaul of race laws after a report into the killing of a black teen-ager denounced London's police as institutionally racist. Officials said it shamed every Briton.

The 325-page report, a detailed examination of the botched police investigation into the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in 1993, called for major changes in policing, in the judicial system and in people's attitudes.

"We should confront as a nation honestly the racism that still exists within our society. We should find within ourselves, as a nation, the will to overcome it," Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament.

"This is about the whole of British society," Blair said, promising to implement the recommendations.

The long fight for justice by Lawrence's parents, after police failed to catch and successfully prosecute his killers, attracted massive public sympathy in Britain and led many to question whether racism is dying out.

Lawrence's mother, Doreen Lawrence, said the report merely "scratched the surface." She said racist police still patrolled inner-city streets, and blacks did not feel safe.

"This society has stood by and allowed my son's killers to make a mockery of the law.... What I want to know is how my son bled to death while police officers stood by and watched," she said at a news conference.

Report blames incompetence, 'institutional racism'

Lawrence and her husband, Neville, who emigrated from Jamaica 30 years ago, watched while Parliament heard the independent inquiry blame "professional incompetence, institutional racism and failure of leadership of senior officers" for the bungled investigation.

Accepting recommendations by retired judge Sir William Macpherson, Home Secretary Jack Straw said laws making racial discrimination an offense will be broadened to include police and all government departments.

Straw, the Cabinet official responsible for the police, ordered an inquiry into all unsolved murders in London and tighter disciplinary regulations for police.

In addition, appeal judges may for the first time permit suspects to be tried twice for the same offense if there is new evidence.

"I feel a sense of shame for the incompetence of the first investigation and for how the family was let down. We failed," said metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Condon.

He nevertheless resisted calls for his resignation and was supported by Straw.

Condon said he has launched a major initiative to combat racism in his police force, including use of undercover officers to root out racist police, minority recruitment and aggressive pursuit of racially motivated crime.

But campaigners for racial equality reacted with restraint.

"After the riots in 1981 we had ... many of the same recommendations that this report is making, and we've had very little progress," community activist Errol Harry said.

Suspects never found guilty

The suspects in Lawrence's death, never convicted, have been branded killers in British newspapers  

In the two days after Stephen's April 22, 1993, killing at a bus stop in southeast London, five white youths were identified as being involved. They were arrested, but none has been successfully prosecuted. A private prosecution brought by Lawrence's parents against three of the suspects failed in 1996. Charges against the two others had been dismissed.

The suspects, brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson, Luke Knight and David Norris, have been branded killers in British newspapers, and their faces are almost as well known as Stephen's.

Great Britain, whose population is 93 percent white, introduced anti-racist laws more than 30 years ago. But Straw said the Lawrence case has highlighted "uncomfortable truths" about what it is like to be black or Asian in Britain.

Most British minorities are descendants of post-World War II immigrants from former colonies.

"I want this report to serve as a watershed to our attitudes to racism, as a catalyst to permanent and irrevocable change ... across the whole of our society," Straw said.

Correspondent Margaret Lowrie and Reuters contributed to this report.

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London's Metropolitan Police
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (Text of the official report)
The Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign
The Labour Party
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