Time for some soul searching


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 08 Oct 98

I begin with a conclusion. The police in any country are not a breed apart. They are ordinary men and women, dressed in uniform, but essentially representative of the people of the country. So, if Trinidad is now gripped by allegations of police corruption concerning the escape of convicted drug dealer Deochand Ramdhanie, it is because corruption exists in Trinidad on many levels.


Coincidentally, in Britain there have been calls for the resignation of the head of the Metropolitan Police, Commissioner Sir Paul Condon, following the failure by the police to bring to justice the racist killers of Stephen Lawrence. The incident has heightened racial tension in London since he was the fourth black or Asian youth murdered in racial attacks during the last two years. The public inquiry into the police’s handling of the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence began in March this year, with the Metropolitan Police accused of incompetence, insensitivity and racism in their response to the stabbing incident, to Lawrence’s parents and to the survivor of the attack, Duwayne Brooks.


The police have responded to the allegations by attacking the grieving parents of Stephen Lawrence, their legal team, and even questioning whether the murder was in fact racially motivated. Although it was not in dispute that the gang who murdered Lawrence started the  attack by calling out “What, what nigger?” the police claimed at various points during the inquiry that the attack on Lawrence was not racist. CS Matt Baggott (who heads the police team at the inquiry) stated, in contradiction to police guidelines, “Words are not sufficient evidence of racial motivation.”


Other police officers, some of whom referred to Lawrence as coloured, said that they felt let down by the Lawrence family and were being treated with distrust and suspicion. Sir Paul Condon chipped in to complain that the police were being pilloried. He said the questioning of his officers was too vigorous, unfair and might harm relations between the police and black people.


The following is a full account of the attack, and reveals much about the state of Britain’s race relations today. Duwayne Brooks, who survived the attack, said that he had met Lawrence after school and they went to visit a girl in Lewisham, but could not find her. He went on: “Then we went to Stephen’s uncle’s house and were playing Super Nintendo, eating and chatting. We left about 9.50 pm and went to Eltham. I said we shouldn’t have gone that way, there are too many white gangs.”

He said as they waited for a bus in Well Hall Road, five boys walked towards them from the Eltham railway station. “They ran across the road shouting, “What, what nigger?”” recalls Brooks. He said one of the youths hit Stephen on the head with what looked like a rounders bat and then the others attacked him, but he cannot remember seeing a knife. Brooks recalled that the boys ran away laughing, and he said when he looked at him Lawrence was bleeding through his clothes and was saying, “Look at me!” The pair ran from the scene until Lawrence collapsed.


Brooks claimed that when the police arrived one officer threatened to handcuff him because he was “getting hysterical,” and another officer later asked him if he or Lawrence had a criminal record and then said, “Are you sure they called you niggers?” Brooks gave evidence at the Old Bailey trial in April 1996, but the judge decided his eyewitness account had been “contaminated and flawed” and he ordered the jury to return a not guilty verdict on the defendants.


Detective Sergeant Chris Crowley told the judge that Brooks had admitted to him he had not seen the attackers’ faces, and although he picked them out in an identity parade, he had already heard the names of the suspects through the grapevine.


This is the most controversial case involving alleged institutional police racism. It has galvanised huge sections of the black community in Britain who are convinced that the forces of law are not on their side in Britain. The police’s behaviour on the night of the attack has shocked many and electrified a coalition of campaigners, including the London Chapter of the Nation of Islam, Labour Party MPs, civil rights lawyers, church leaders. It has also led to protests from many minority communities in Britain.


Matters came to a head this year with the eventual hearing of an inquiry into the murder. The obvious question is why didn’t it come to trial. The police claimed there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict these five boys. The Lawrence family says the police were deliberately dragging their feet and made legal history by bringing the first private prosecution for murder in Britain.


But the chilling point is that the Stephen Lawrence case has only highlighted what must be going on on the streets every day in Britain.

On the night of the attack:

Two sisters who lived opposite the murder scene had no statements taken by police. Their offer of medical assistance was also refused.

The police failed to conduct immediate house to house investigations in the street along which Lawrence’s killers fled.

Duwayne Brooks told the inquiry that the police seemed repulsed by the blood.

Police didn’t ask Brooks if he had been attacked, but asked if he had any weapons on him. Police pressed him on what he and Lawrence had done to provoke the attack. They would not let Brooks go in the ambulance with Lawrence.

DS John Bean asked Brooks if they had been harassing some white girls in a local McDonalds since they had reports of black boys doing that on the night of the murder.

Thirty minutes after the attack a cheering carload of white youths twice drove past the murder scene. No attempt was made to pursue them.

Two of the people in the car, David Copley and Jason Goatley, were involved in the attack that led to another racist death earlier that year. The third, Kieran Highland, was a leading member of local fascist gang, Nazi Turn Out. Evidence which pointed to collaboration between organised racist gangs in the area was therefore never pursued.

At the hospital police showed little concern for Lawrence’s parents, merely telling them to identify Lawrence’s body.


In summary, the police were accused of incompetence, insensitivity and racism in their response to the stabbing and to Lawrence’s parents and the survivor of the attack, Duwayne Brooks.


Returning to my original point, I’m by no means suggesting that everyone in Trinidad is corrupt and all people in Britain are racists. But I do believe that there is a rotten layer in society that cuts across the board and that we cannot view these incidents in isolation but need to use them to do some soul searching as individuals and as a country.


In this context it is almost absurd to ask who’s guarding the guards? The relationship between the police and the public is one of trust. There is an unwritten moral contract between the police and society. When the police use their position of power to help the other side, they have not only effectively broken the contract but also left us with no demarcations on how to treat one another. Anything goes.


Britain is undergoing its own soul searching about the honesty of its police force over this watershed case which points to institutional racism in its police force. In doing so the people of Trinidad have been forced to examine their own attitudes towards other races in a very private way. They have in effect been forced to take sides.


Police corruption in Trinidad and Britain is not news. It’s old stuff. But finally we have some kind of transparency, concrete proof of what we suspected all along. The Ramdhanie and Stephen Lawrence cases have provided both Britain and Trinidad the opportunity to examine the corruption and racism in all of us. Because a corrupt police force does not exist despite a society; it exists because of it.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur