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Study on Racism in Justice Systems Criticizes Britain

Europe: An Amnesty International report advises the nation, recently shaken by racial violence, to examine its institutions.

July 26, 2001|LAUREL ROSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The British government has failed to respond to widely documented cases of racial abuse in its police forces, prisons and judicial system, the human rights group Amnesty International said in a report issued here Wednesday.

Unless such institutional racism is eradicated, the report warned, Britain could see more of the kind of race-related violence that has shaken four cities in northern England this summer and led to clashes in the capital last week.

"Race riots do not come out of the blue," said Kate Gilmore, Amnesty's interim secretary-general.

"The government in the U.K., including its police force, in Amnesty International's view, falls below the standards that every citizen could reasonably expect of it," Gilmore said.

"Its response to reports of ill treatment by police, to deaths in custody and to the investigation of racism at the hands of police officials has been absolutely inadequate. And to the extent that it has failed to follow [up on] these reports of abuse, then it shares responsibility for their perpetration," she said.

Amnesty's assessment is included in a report on racism and the administration of justice around the world that was prepared for the U.N. World Conference Against Racism to be held in South Africa next month. The report also examines the situation in countries such as Rwanda, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Amnesty urged Britain, however, to look "closer to home" at disparities between the treatment of whites and nonwhites by police and the justice system. It says that minorities are subject to harsher treatment than whites, are targeted for stop-and-search operations and face more severe punishment than whites would for similar offenses.

British police have been negligent in investigating apparent racist attacks, the report said, citing the 1993 killing of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager stabbed to death in London, allegedly by a group of young white men yelling racial epithets. The original police investigation of the case was deemed fundamentally flawed, and no one has been convicted in the slaying.

A 1999 government inquiry into the mishandling of the Lawrence case blamed police "racism and incompetence" for failing to bring the killers to justice. But Amnesty said that progress in addressing police racism since then has been too slow and that in more recent cases police still "were not investigating violent deaths of black people with the same rigor as in cases involving white victims."

Police officials called Amnesty's report "seriously flawed" and "out of date."

David Westwood, head of race and community relations policy for the Assn. of Chief Police Officers, said Britain's police forces have made major improvements in the last two years, developing special manuals on handling hate crimes and involving community members in developing police policy.

"Things have moved on enormously," Westwood said.

But racial tensions have been running high on the streets of Britain this summer. Clashes between young whites and Asians--the term used here for people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian descent--in Oldham, Burnley, Leeds and Bradford have led to confrontations with the police over their handling of race-related incidents.

Whites in these cities have accused police of failing to investigate crimes by Asian gangs for fear of appearing to be racist. Asians counter that predominantly white police forces do not properly investigate attacks against them.

In the South London neighborhood of Brixton last weekend, more than 100 people turned out to protest against the police for the fatal shooting of a black man a few days earlier. Derek Bennett, 29, was brandishing a cigarette lighter shaped like a handgun when police shot him. That protest ended in clashes with the police and looting.

Problems of prejudice are not unique to Britain, Amnesty noted. The report said that, worldwide, there is a clear connection between racism and brutality by state officials.

To combat racism in justice systems, the report advised, state agencies should reflect the ethnic diversity of their societies, and police should respond to all allegedly racist attacks and bring those responsible to justice. It also urged a moratorium on the death penalty while governments investigate its disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities.

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