Dawn Butler’s police stop shows how urgently Cressida Dick needs to admit to the Met’s institutional racism

Diane Abbott
·6 min read

When I heard that my colleague Dawn Butler had been stopped by the Metropolitan Police while driving through Hackney with a friend on her way to Sunday lunch, I was startled but not surprised.

The Metropolitan Police have practiced relentless racial profiling for as long as anyone can remember. There is much research. For instance, in 2018, black people in England and Wales were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. To her credit, Theresa May recognised the problem when she was home secretary. She warned the police about the disproportionate use of stop and search on black communities and pressed for change, which resulted in a drop in overall levels.

But when May moved on, the police eagerly returned to their old ways. Nobody argues against evidence-based stop and search. The problem arises, and the disproportionality occurs, when the police are just stopping people randomly. This is what happened to Dawn.

Police like to argue that non-evidence-based stop and search is an important weapon against crime. But in 2018, Dr Krisztian Posch of the London School of Economics pointed out: “The data shows that the police are not just stopping people disproportionately, but are LESS likely to detect crime when they do compared to when they stop white people.”

Twenty years ago, the Macpherson report recommended that the police should keep proper data on traffic stops, which is the type of stop that happened to Dawn. In all these years the police have not done so. Presumably, because they know that such data would reveal the same disproportion as stopping and searching people moving around on foot. During this coronavirus lockdown, black men in London were stopped and searched more than 20,000 times. This is the equivalent of more than a quarter of all black men between 15 and 24 years old in the capital. There is no question that this level of stop and search is utterly destroying police-community relations.

But the issue is not just about traffic stops or stop and search. Given new powers and kit, the Met press on implementing searches relentlessly and disproportionately on black people. Black people are more likely to be tasered than white people, we are more likely to be handcuffed and, overall, the Metropolitan Police are four times more likely to use force against black people compared with white people. And, armed with new powers under the coronavirus legislation, police forces have issued disproportionate numbers of fixed penalty notices to black people.

If you racially profile citizens with the frequency that the Met and other forces do, you will inevitably stop someone who is a public figure like Dawn and who can voice their concerns in the media, which she has done with great eloquence. But for every MP or star athlete the Met stops and searches, there are literally hundreds of ordinary citizens treated just as unfairly but who will sadly get no media attention. I myself have never been stopped or stopped and searched by the police. But this may have something to do with the fact that I don’t drive and get around Hackney on foot, and via public transport and minicab.

Also, after 33 years as the member of parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, most police officers in Hackney have an idea of what I look like. But a close family member has experienced the Metropolitan Police’s penchant for racial profiling. He is an eminently respectable black professional man who drives a nice car. But black men in nice cars seem to be a red flag for the Met. My family member was actually a victim of crime. He was carjacked by two white youths. But the Met officers that he attempted to report the crime to, would not take it seriously.

As far as they were concerned, he was a black man in a lavish car, wearing (as it happens) an expensive watch, so in their mind, he must have been a perpetrator of some kind. Until I intervened, the police were trying to imply that he was engaged in some kind of insurance fraud. Only when I contacted the very top of the Met did they begin to investigate the actual crime properly.

As an MP, Dawn has received some answers from the police for the stop. Though they initially said they entered the registration number of the car she was a passenger in into their system and it seemed to be registered to someone in Yorkshire, it later transpired that they actually entered the registration number incorrectly. They have since apologised for the mistake. But what the police have yet to explain is why they felt the need to enter the registration number into the police computer in the first place. And, even if the car was registered to someone in Yorkshire, why was it a crime to drive it around in London.

I know plenty of MPs who live outside London but drive around the capital. However, the police apparently never see the need to enter those MPs’ registration numbers into police computers. The difference? Those MPs are all white.

There are several disturbing things about the current situation. One is that the racial profiling that led to Dawn and the man that she was driving with being stopped has been an issue for decades. But to me, worse is the apparent attitude of Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner. It seems to me that for Dick, it is as if the Macpherson report never happened. I have seen her questioned about these issues on a number of occasions recently and in my view, she seems clearly set against admitting that there is any institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police.

From what I have seen, there appear to be no statistics or incidents, however embarrassing for the Met, that will convince her. If black people are more likely to be stopped and searched, tasered or handcuffed, it is apparently because we are more criminal. And to me, Dick does not appear inclined to enquire any further.

If, as it seems to me, the Metropolitan Police commissioner does not accept that there is a problem, then it is unlikely to be solved. So the humiliation that Dawn experienced last Sunday will continue to happen to completely innocent people. And we will see, as this long hot summer wears on, just how damaging the refusal at the very top of the Metropolitan Police force to address institutional racism has been.

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