LONDON — In an action that prompted charges of racism Friday, London's police commissioner asserted that most muggings in the British capital are committed by young black men.
Paul Condon, the head of Britain's largest police force, declared that street muggings have soared here in the last five years from 13,000 to 23,000. And in a letter to 40 black community leaders, he broke a taboo in which the police do not single out any ethnic group as being the chief perpetrators of crime.
His statement that community leaders must "grasp the nettle" and recognize the problem of street crime brought immediate condemnation from London's black members of Parliament.
"People will just think that every young black person is a mugger because the metropolitan police commissioner says it is so," said lawmaker Bernie Grant. Paul Boateng, another legislator who received Condon's letter, attacked its message as "unhelpful" and challenged police statistics.
But Home Secretary Michael Howard, the minister in charge of police, said: "I fully support Sir Paul Condon's initiative. He must be free to air all the issues he sees fit in the fight against crime."
Condon has a reputation as a liberal, conscious of good community relations, and in his letter to black leaders he invited them to a private briefing on his initiatives to fight crime.
"It is a fact that very many of the perpetrators of mugging are very young black people, who have been excluded from school and/or are unemployed," he wrote. "I am sure I do not need to spell out the sensitivity of dealing with this crime problem, which is of course more than just a police problem. My fear is that sensitivity can lead to inertia."
In a follow-up interview, Condon added: "For us to be oversensitive now would be negligent. It is a difficult course to steer, but we have to grasp the nettle and ask the rest of the community to help us and do their bit."
Condon cited a police study that indicated that 80% of London's muggings are committed by young blacks. He did not produce the study on which he based his statement. Blacks make up 7% of London's population.
Muggings have increased sharply in high-profile areas of London such as the theater and restaurant districts and such fashionable residential neighborhoods as Chelsea and Kensington.
"The criminals do not discriminate in any way," Howard said. "Every section of the community--black and white--suffers from street robbery. Political correctness is the great discriminator. It is the enemy of the victims of crime, and its supporters are the friends of the criminal."
But Jack Straw, a Labor Party spokesman on police issues, differed, saying, "One of the purposes of good policing should be to dilute racial tensions rather than potentially inflame them."
Labor Party sources provided statistics showing that young black men are three times more likely to be jobless in London than their white counterparts. Relations between the black community and the police have been strained by charges that officers recently have used excessive force in subduing criminal suspects, leading to two deaths.
Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said Friday, "The risk is that all black people could feel targeted as potential criminals as a result of the response to the initiative taken by the [police] commissioner."