30 years on from Stephen Lawrence: what now?

Pavan Dhaliwal, Chief Executive of Revolving Doors, looks back at the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence 30 years ago and the failures in the investigation that followed and asks, where do we go from here?

“Whilst progress may have been made, the Met remains institutionally racist” 

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

This weekend, the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet were conspicuous by their absence at the memorial to mark the 30 year anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence. Stephen was an 18-year-old Black student who was brutally murdered in a racist attack in Eltham, South East London in 1993. 

The case became a turning point in British race relations. The tireless campaign for justice by Stephen’s family exposed the institutional racism in the police and wider criminal justice system. 

In the immediate aftermath of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, it became clear that the police investigation was grossly mishandled. The Lawrence family were met with blatant institutional indifference and hostility, with the Metropolitan Police failing to adequately investigate the murder. A public inquiry led by Sir William Macpherson in 1999 found that the police investigation was “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers.” As a result, the Macpherson Report made over 70 recommendations for reform of the police and criminal justice system.

Driven by their commitment to justice, the Lawrence family decided to privately prosecute the suspects, which was ultimately unsuccessful. It would take 18 years after the murder of Stephen and the scrapping of the centuries old double jeopardy rule – which then barred charging the suspects for Stephen’s murder a second time – for two of the five known perpetrators to be brought to justice. The mishandling of the original investigation means the other three will never face justice. 

Five years ago at the last memorial service, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced a national day to honour Stephen’s life and to raise awareness of the work that still needs to be done to end systemic racism. Reflecting on how far we’ve come – or rather, how far we haven’t – what really struck me was the stark lack of representation from this Government at the 2023 memorial. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was scheduled for a reading, but failed to show up. Instead, the inimitable Imran Khan, the lawyer for the Lawrence family for the past 30 years, stood in and delivered the reading, an extract from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela famously publicly supported the Lawrence family in the face of significant adversity and indifference, giving Stephen’s death and bungled investigation a national platform.

The Mayor of London was unequivocal in stating that 30 years on, we are still grappling with the same issues that were exposed by Macpherson. The 2016 Casey Review, which examined the state of integration and opportunity in the UK (not to be confused with the more recent, 2023 Casey Review), found that institutional racism remains prevalent in British institutions, including the police. The review found that Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the UK face significant disparities in access to employment, education, and healthcare, with racism and discrimination a pervasive issue. In the case of the police, the review found that institutional racism remains a significant problem, with BAME officers facing discrimination, harassment, and exclusion from senior positions. Then, last month, the review Casey led into the standards of behaviour and internal culture of the Metropolitan Police Service found the service infected with institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia. Casey recommended a complete overhaul of the institution. 

A major difference between the fallout of the publication of Macpherson compared to this latest review is the reaction from policing quarters and Government. While it is of course true that not all recommendations from Macpherson were taken on and those that were did not all have the intended impact, at least there was a state acknowledgment of the existence of institutional racism. This time round the mood is markedly more defensive. This is unacceptable. 

Through our work with lived experience members at Revolving Doors, we know that the issues outlined in these reports are not exclusive to the Met. They exist in forces across England. Where we can, we are working directly with some forces under our procedural fairness programme of work, in an attempt to counter some of the more egregious practices of frontline policing and how those interactions shape the experiences of those who are over-policed. As our internal ethos is centred around assuming good intent we will continue to build upon and develop this work. 

The inevitable focus on greater representation and diversity targets, which is the one area that the police are always quick to form policies and recruitment initiatives around, is not the silver bullet they hope for. For too long visible diversity has been conflated with justice. Tackling institutional racism and discrimination requires a multi-faceted approach that involves addressing policies, practices, and attitudes that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. But before we can move forward, the first step that needs to be taken is for the police to acknowledge and confront the existence of institutional racism and wider discrimination and its impact on communities. This requires an honest assessment of the existence of structural issues within institutions that contribute to discrimination. 

That the simple acknowledgement of institutional discrimination is not forthcoming exposes not only how far the police have closed ranks, retreating into denial, but just how far we have to go forward before we achieve justice. 

30 years ago, the Lawrence family were thrown into the spotlight and instead of being able to grieve the senseless death of their son they had to spend decades upon decades fighting for what is a simple fundamental right: access to justice. It should not have to fall upon bereaved families to advocate for rights which should be universal. This further erodes trust between the police and Black communities – an issue our members know all too well.

So what do we do this time round that hasn’t been tried before? Given how far we have to go it feels like nothing short of a policing focussed truth and reconciliation commission is needed to provide a catalyst for systemic change. On its own it is not a solution but at the very least it could serve to confront and address past injustices, promote healing and reconciliation, and lay the groundwork for a more just and equitable future. 

What we can’t do is repeat reviews every decade or so which only serve to demonstrate how little progress has been made. This should not be a party-political issue: it was a Labour Government that commissioned the Macpherson Inquiry and a Conservative Government that launched Stephen Lawrence Day. However, the absence of the current Prime Minister this weekend spoke volumes about the current lack of political will to drive this agenda forward at the highest levels. However, let us remember the challenges that Baroness Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, and her family have faced at every turn over the past 30 years and remain steadfast in the belief that this should not deter us  in pushing for and driving change, however long that takes.