Yesterday’s decision by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to refuse a demand for a public inquiry into police misconduct and spying on the Lawrence family and its campaign is more than simply disappointing. It raises fundamental issues of police accountability and transparency for British society today as also issues of a Government that is unwilling to properly scruntise its own detrimental actions. The public will be deeply concerned about recent allegations of the use of undercover surveillance on innocent law-abiding groups and individuals and that these claims will not be properly investigated. They would be wholly justified in losing faith and confidence in the Government’s ability to maintain a programme of police reforms as envisaged by the Macpherson Report.
Both the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner should be aware that, by fudging the issue in this way, the ramifications of the failures in Stephen Lawrence case would not simply go away. Since Stephen’s murder in 1993 there have ben repeated investigations of the police by police themselves. These have consistently resulted in policemen covering for each other. The Lawrence family is adamant that only a judge-led public inquiry, one that has the power to compel witnesses to attend and hold hearings in public, can effectively address these allegations of police spying and corruption. Since yesterday’s decision, the family’s position seems to have hardened. Doreen Lawrence’s lawyer, Imran Khan, has now hinted at a possible boycott by the family of the two internal inquiries, the Ellison Review (the review by Barrister Mark Elision into claims of police corruption in the original Stephen Lawrence investigation) and Operation Herne (the police-led investigation into the use of undercover officers) as they lack credibility.
There are other significant factors that make the case for a Public Inquiry even stronger, factors that the Home Secretary has chosen to ignore in reaching her decision.
Last week John Grieve, the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner and head of the Race and Violent Crime Task Force, admitted to taping privileged conversations between the key witness to Stephen’s murder, Dwayne Brookes, and his solicitor. This admission stunned many bereaved families and groups working to dismantle race inequality that had been won over by his knowledge of intelligence-led policing and systematic collation of evidence against suspects, practices perfected by him during his tenure as the former head of the Anti-Terrorist Squad in Northern Ireland. Aside from the ethics of and legal basis for taping privileged information, this raises broader questions about the surveillance operations during the Stephen Lawrence cases. Were the Lawrence legal meetings also bugged? And were its campaign meetings, meetings with Members of Parliament or even the Home Secretary also bugged?
There is now strong circumstantial evidence that undercover officers linked to the Special Demonstration Unit were acting beyond acceptable legal definitions of investigating crimes. Some of the criminal allegations include joint enterprise in planning attacks, arson and co-authorship of many defamatory publications. Whilst the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign operated within the law, it is now clear that the Metropolitan Police did not always do the same. Detective Sergeant John Davidson, a key investigator in the original botched investigation, who interviewed suspects and witnesses within days of the stabbing, was a “major player in a ring of bent detectives operating as a professional crime syndicate”, according to previously unpublished intelligence reports.
I first became involved in supporting the Lawrence family in late 1993, and coordinated its family campaign during two critical periods – the private prosecution action in 1994 and then during the Public Inquiry in 1998. In the initial period our aim was seemingly simple: to collectively ensure a thorough police investigation into the murder. Even this proved extremely difficult. The discussions on possible police reforms only came during the public inquiry revelations. For the most part we were too busy galavanising public support and our focus never changed, despite suffering unusual burglaries at the office and adverse whispering campaigns by police and local authority officers in West London not to support the family. At the time Stephen Lawrence was being investigated we were also supporting a number of other families, including that of Ricky Reel and Michael Menson, who too were campaigning for a thorough police investigation. These families and many more will also have to be assured by the Metropolitan Police Service that they too were not subject to covert surveillance.
Over the coming months, the determination for a public inquiry will gather pace. This comes at a time when surveys indicate that public confidence in the Metropolitan police is at an all-time low, particularly among London’s black and minority ethnic communities. And today’s report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which reveals severe shortcomings in the way Scotland Yard handles complaints of racism against its officers – a decade after it promised to stamp out prejudice in its ranks – will only add to public concerns. Neither the home secretary nor the Metropolitan police commissioner can wish the problem away. And if they compound this by digging in and rejecting the justified calls for a public inquiry into the Lawrence smears, the damage to public trust may be beyond repair.
Suresh Grover (London 17 July 2013)