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Stephen Lawrence - Learning the hard lessons of the past

18 Apr 2019

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher reflects on the legacy left by Stephen Lawrence, 26 years on from his murder.

I’ve sadly noticed that today’s younger generation often respond with incredulity when I mention to them the renowned name of Stephen Lawrence.


Probationary constables often haven’t heard of the story which to me, marked a seismic shift in the history of British policing. Of course, to address this, we ensure new police officers in training get an input on this landmark case which has had such dramatic ripple effects for the past 26 years.


This Monday 22 April marks 26 years since 18-year-old Stephen’s murder, brutally attacked while waiting for a bus. A racially motivated attack, which as well as causing fear, anger and hurt for all those who knew and loved Stephen, also held up a mirror to the police service. The reflection was something no serving officer at the time would be proud of.


This year we also mark two decades since the publication of the Macpherson report, which pointed towards institutional racism in the police service – a body which exists to protect everyone and fight crime irrespective of race, religion, belief or otherwise.


It’s for this reason I am often shocked by some of the millennials’ lack of knowledge of Stephen’s case, and why I am motivated to ensure that everyone – police or not – is aware of his incredible legacy, which is carried on by his family. Some millennials will, of course, know of Stephen’s tragic murder however, too many of our younger generation do not and it's our responsibility to address that, and ensure we never forget that tragic day or the learning that has come from it.


Stephen’s memory – and the recollection of the senseless attack he fell victim to – should live on in all our efforts to detect, address and wipe out any traces of institutional racism, across all disciplines and organisations. The Macpherson report has recently been reviewed by the Home Affairs Select Committee and debated in the Commons, to see how far we have come in implementing its entirely just recommendations.


I’m proud to say that as Chief Constable of Bedfordshire Police, the force has become one of the top performing forces in relation to recruiting from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.


One of Stephen’s many legacies is that policing should be ‘open’ to people from all communities and must represent the people we serve.


Yet there is still a serious amount of work to do.


Shockingly there remain some police forces with no black representation among their ranks whatsoever. Senior leadership posts held by those from BAME backgrounds is also much lower than we should expect to see in order to be truly representative.


As I prepare to step down as Chief Constable in Bedfordshire, I also leave my post as national policing lead for Race, Religion and Belief. This group has made excellent strides in holding police forces and fellow Chief Officers to account, driving forward race and diversity as a priority across the entire policing family.


Part of our remit is to challenge others to address issues such as representation, equality of opportunity and discrepancy in dismissals data. It is also a focus of the group to learn from the mistakes of the past and gain a better overall understanding of the subject of race within policing.


The subject is very much alive in mainstream debate, where the issue of knife crime has been convoluted with the issue of race. Again, this is something only a whole-society approach can remedy, and we must all look to ourselves to see past such important issues on the basis of colour alone.


I hark back again to Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement, 1829, that the police are the public and the public are the police. If we don’t get this very basic principle right, how can we hope to ensure Stephen’s death was not in vain? To be sure that we will one day have learned the hard lessons of the past?


I vividly remember working as a Detective Sergeant in Brixton when the shockwaves of the racist attack on 22 April 1993 were felt through the force, the police service and the entire country. It has shaped my service ever since.


As I come towards retirement as a Chief Constable after 35 years in policing, it remains one of my proudest achievements to have made some small difference in this important arena. It only needs every other to do the same for a significant change to take effect.


I hope that the police chiefs of the future, starting from the bottom up, continue this vital duty and that we will one day truly see Peel’s mantra in action.




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