British criminal justice is racially biased like America


Last week saw news of cop in Georgia who was caught on camera bragging that police “only kill black people.” The official figures from America certainly show huge disproportionality in shootings by ethnicity.

Black citizens are two and a half times more likely to be fatally shot. If you add in the ‘unknown race’ victims and those marked as ‘other’ non-white you can double that.

Historic and generational racism, especially in the Deep South, and the fear and suspicion it breeds, comes together to cause disproportionality in the shooting statistics. A toxic mix of gun culture; a segregated police workforce; and a ‘shoot first’ emphasis in police training also play a part.

In Britain we cannot afford to be complacent despite the relative lack of firearms. The IPCC have revealed that one third of people shot by cops were of a BAME background, despite those communities making up just 14% of the national population.

This means that people of colour are twice as likely to be on the receiving end of a police bullet. The picture gets more alarming when you look at tasering. In London, black people are almost three times more likely to experience 50,000 volts.

This level of disproportionality hints at what the police shootings might like be if guns were more widely available in the UK, and if more police were routinely armed. Even though overall numbers of police firearm fatalities are significantly lower than the United States, shockingly the likelihood of getting shot is roughly the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is all the more incredible because Britain has not had the same experience of enslavement as the US, nor the same civil rights struggle. Later this week, the government-commissioned report into race and criminal justice, led by Labour MP David Lammy, is to be released. His interim findings last November found that black defendants were more likely to receive custodial sentences, more likely to have their case tried at crown court as opposed to magistrates, and five times more likely to be remanded in high security complexes.

We have known of these biases within the criminal justice for some time. Previous studies have found black and Asian people receive longer sentences for the same crime. The proportion of black people in jail is seven times their share of the population. The Guardian compared data from the Equality and Human Rights Commission between the UK and US, and found that although four times as many African-American men are behind bars, as a proportion of the population there are actually more black people languishing in prison in England and Wales.

This is further proof, if proof were needed, of the existence of systemic and institutional racial biases in Britain’s criminal justice system. The key question is what the government’s response to the Lammy review will be?

The choice is between yet more hand-wringing or concrete action to address the disparities. There is also much more that can be done to support BAME former inmates on their release, given they face additional barriers to reintegration into society.

Although the British history and experience differs from the US, there are many unfortunate parallels in terms of racial biases. There is also much we can learn from each other about tackling the problem. We certainly cannot afford to be complacent when we observe stories like that of the policeman caught on camera in Georgia, because that situation could transfer to Britain if we are not vigilant.

Lester Holloway