Drugs Arrest Study Sparks Racism Claim
Black people are more likely to face criminal charges when caught carrying cannabis than white people committing the same offence, according to a Scotland Yard study of new drugs laws. They are also far more likely to be caught in possession in the first place, at least in part because there is a greater likelihood of them being stopped and searched in the street, the report concludes.
Despite the findings of the study, the Yard says “no remedial action is planned” until it has carried out further research to discover the reasons for the disproportionate number of black cannabis users being arrested and charged.
In an apparent sign of the continuing sensitivity within the capital’s police service, more than seven years after Sir William Macpherson levelled charges of institutional racism in his report into the Stephen Lawrence failings, the Yard refused to say whether it accepted that racism may be to blame.
Last night that stance was heavily criticised by Dr Richard Stone, one of the panel responsible for the Lawrence inquiry.
A Met spokeswoman said: “We are undertaking further research of these figures in order to understand what the reason for the over-representation is. It is not possible to reach a conclusion without this further work being conducted.”
But George Rhoden, chair of the Yard’s Black Police Association (BPA) said: “It has got to be about racism. These figures show that racism plays a significant part in the way police deal with people of colour.” He said the police had been aware of the problem of disproportionality for many years. “So why are we still at this stage?”
Dr Stone said he had “great sympathy” with the BPA. “Where there is a disproportion of any kind you try to exclude any other possible reasons but none justify the continuing disproportion. You have to think the colour of the suspect’s skin is a significant factor. But the word racism has dropped off the agenda.”
He said the police have made progress on the Lawrence agenda. “But it has not been embedded as if should have.”
The findings are contained in an analysis of the enforcement of drugs laws since cannabis was downgraded from a Class B to Class C controlled drug in January 2004. The study covers only the Metropolitan police area, and no nationwide figures are yet available.
Since that reclassification, police have kept their powers of arrest for cannabis possession, but can also offer offenders a formal caution, or release them after a”street warning”, which does not result in a criminal record.
The study shows that around 40% of those caught in possession of cannabis are classified as African/Caribbean, while an almost identical percentage are described as white European. This is despite the proportion of white residents in the capital far exceeding the number of black residents. Figures compiled by the Office for National Statistics suggest that around 70% of Londoners would be described as white European, while around 11-12% would be African/Caribbean, as defined by the Yard.
Figures showing that a far greater proportion of black people are caught with cannabis do not appear to surprise the authors of the report. “Similar figures feature in the Criminal Justice System, in prisons and in Stop and Account/Search data,” they note.
However, the authors say they can see no clear reason for a greater proportion of black people being arrested and charged when found in possession of the drug. They say that because the decision to reclassify cannabis was expected to give police more time to target Class A drug offenders – and ease a cause of friction between officers and young people – fewer people should be facing charges. Nevertheless, 19% of black people are being arrested and charged, compared with 14% of white offenders. The overwhelming majority of offenders – almost 95% – are male. More than two-thirds are under 26, and 14% are aged 10-17.
The Yard spokeswoman added: “The decision to arrest and charge will vary on a case by case basis and is often dependent on a complex variety of factors.” These include the amount of the drug involved, whether it is being smoked in a public place and the offender’s previous criminal record.
“We recognise there is disproportionality within the wider criminal justice system and there are complex reasons for this. Since the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report, the MPS [Metropolitan police service] has made significant progress in working to minimise the impact policies and procedures may disproportionately have.”
The report says, however: “Further in-depth analysis is necessary before the apparent disproportionality is used to suggest anything untoward in implementation of policy.”