Yesterday David Norris and Gary Dobson were found guilty of Stephen Lawrence’s racially motivated murder in Eltham in 1993. Today they have been sentenced to life imprisonment – Norris for a minimum of fourteen years and three months, Dobson for a minimum of fifteen years and two months,
I wanted to use this post to reflect on both what the case has meant for me as a police officer about to end my first two years in the job and also a little on what the legacy of the trial ought to mean.
In the wake of the murder, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, led by Sir Macpherson, branded the Metropolitan Police to be ‘institutionally racist’.
The damning conclusions reached by Macpherson suggested that because of racist attitudes within the Met, they had been unable to conduct an effective investigation appropriate to Stephen’s murder and that justice had suffered as a result.
A major change in attitudes was clearly needed.
As a direct result of Stephen’s death and the campaigning of his family, changes for the better have been achieved and continue to be achieved.
In legal terms visible examples include the overturning of the double jeopardy rule and the passing into law of the Race Relations Amendment Act which places upon public bodies a duty to eliminate discrimination and promote equality.
In terms of police training, much of the legislation we are taught when we first join the job is set against a background of how in the past errors have been made and what the lessons are.
Showing how importantly this consideration – the desire to learn from history so to avoid its repetition – is taken, the first week of the eighteen week course is dedicated to looking at issues surrounding diversity and discrimination.
Past cases are discussed – the Brixton Riots, Toxteth, Lawrence, Climbie, Baby P to name a few – and the learning points discussed so that new officers understand the consequences of previous failings.
One of the most important things I’d taken away from looking at such tragic examples was a stark reminder that when I applied to be a police officer, I didn’t apply to offer protection to only some members of society. I didn’t apply join a service in which public confidence in ability to do our job varied according to the colour of someone’s skin, their background or where they come from.
Appreciations about racist and hate crime of course don’t end with the finish of training school and actively permeate throughout the police force, be it in the regular training inputs available or in the practical way in which we tackle crimes involving a hate element.
Hate crimes in particular attract specific attention from specialist evidence review teams whilst cases are still with the police to ensure the highest quality of investigation and then once they reach the courts, a perception of a hate motivation qualifies for the passing of tougher sentences.
As for the legacy of the trial, it’s taken eighteen years to bring those responsible to justice. The strain on Stephen’s family who had campaigned tirelessly ever since his death is unimaginable and it may be tempting to see the conviction of Norris and Dobson as ‘case closed’.
This I think would be the worse possible outcome – Stephen’s legacy is something that lives on, that continues as a force for positive change and that is, and always will be, an important lesson on how we police.
As Mark Easton writes on the BBC News website, “Problems still exist but Britain is much more at ease with its racial diversity than it was two decades ago. And that tolerance, in no small part, is the legacy of a teenage boy: Stephen Lawrence.”