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Fear of Black Justice?

Although separated by almost two decades, the MacPherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and the Mitting Inquiry into undercover policing are beginning to cross in unexpected ways. A restriction order made pursuant to section 19 (3) of the Inquiries Act 2005 necessarily conveys limited information to the public as regards the justification for the restriction. Nevertheless, sufficient has emerged to indicate that there is a real risk that the institutionally racist culture which the MacPherson Inquiry found to have accounted for the “stereotyping of black people as potential criminals or troublemakers” (MacPherson: 1999: 6. 17) will re-emerge as the individuals who were serving officers then (and were presumably deeply embroiled in that culture) now provide evidence to the Mitting Inquiry about their fear of physical harm in the event that their real or cover identifies are revealed.

Former Special Demonstration Squad officers HN123, HN58, HN40, HN23, HN41 and HN333 have all been granted orders upon their applications to have their real and cover names withheld from the public. The Chair of the inquiry is minded to grant the same protection to HN83 and HN302. HN123 and HN58 are known to hold evidence relating to the deployment of “...officers into activist groups that then sought to attach themselves to the Lawrence family campaign for justice” (BBC report: 6,3,2014). Whilst HN123 was found by the undercover policing inquiry Chair to have played a “peripheral” role “in activities connected with the Stephen Lawrence campaign” (Ruling: 5.12.2017), HN58 held the appointment of Detective Chief Inspector in charge of the Special Demonstration Squad at a crucial period during the long investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder.

There is no similarly unequivocal evidence of the involvement in black justice campaigns of the other officers in the list (above) of those who received, or are likely to receive, full anonymity orders. However, the period in which most of the officers were active in the Special Demonstration Squad cover periods in which prominent black justice campaigns emerged, such as followed the death of Colin Roach in 1983 by gun shot wounds in Stoke Newington police station. HN83, whose mid-80s deployment is one in relation to which the inquiry Chair is “minded” not to release the real or cover name because of a risk of harm which “cannot be precisely estimated” is a potential case in point (Minded to Note: 7.3.2018). As regards, HN333, the potential risk arises from the fact that he “performed valuable duties in another police role” after his Special Demonstration Squad deployment ended in 1969 (Ruling: 5.12.2017). It would not be merely fanciful to conclude that HN333’s “valuable” duties stretched into the late seventies when, partly prompted by the death of Blair Peach in 1979, anti-racist groups became a dominant force in grass roots politics. A stronger inference of involvement in black justice campaigns – if not directly in the Stephen Lawrence campaign – can be drawn in respect to HN40, who was deployed between 1996 and 2006 “in the last decade of the existence of the Special Demonstration Squad” (Ruling: 20.2.2018). Since HN58 was identified as the manager of the Squad from 1997 to 2001, and is valuable to the Inquiry because of his knowledge of the Stephen Lawrence campaign infiltration, it is not unreasonable to suppose that HN40, who was active during the full period of HN58’s management, has identified black justice groups as, at least in part, the source of his fear of reprisals. Finally, HN40 is coupled with HN123 in the note accompanying HN40’s restriction order – a fact which may or may not be significant! Save for this last point, the findings in respect of HN23 are not unlike those related to HN40.

However, it is to HN123’s anonymity application that I return to support the central argument of this blog post. Underpinning HN123’s application is the following information which was placed in the public domain:

HN23 was deployed against a number of groups in the 1990s, at least one of which advocated and practised the use of violence. He retired from the Metropolitan Police Service on health grounds: he was diagnosed as suffering from significant mental health conditions resulting, at least in part, from the effects of his deployment. He has made a slow, but incomplete, recovery. He and his wife are concerned about the possibility that his true identity will be revealed during the Inquiry, both for reasons of safety and because of the potential impact on their health. Assessment of both has been made problematic by his refusal to cooperate with the risk assessor and the fact that, for a variety of reasons, no up to date psychiatric report has been obtained. Both he and his wife have, however, produced personal statements, which are and will remain closed, in which their concerns are expressed. I accept that they are genuine and not irrational. Overriding them would interfere with their right to respect for private and family life under article 8 ECHR.

First, it must be noted that HN123’s case rests upon health grounds and not simply fear of reprisals. However, neither ground appears to be objectively evidenced, for reasons which have little to do with the availability or otherwise of sources from which such evidence could be obtained. Ultimately, it seems that HN123’s extensive protection rests upon the “genuine and not irrational” personal statements of HN123 and his wife.

The MacPherson report readily comprehends that a perception might be sincere yet be unreliable because informed by an institutionally racist culture. Such was the report’s conclusion on the claim that Duwayne Brooks exhibited “unpleasant hostility” in the immediate aftermath of his friend’s murder (MacPherson, 1999: 5. 12; see also Tuitt, 2004). It was “unwitting….racism” which led an officer who dealt with Brooks to characterise his behaviour as “horrendous” (MacPherson, 1991: 5.31). Racial stereotypes can result in a “crescendo of criticism” against the racialised subject (MacPherson, 1999: 5. 31), which, if not held in check, can authorise all manner of undesirable outcomes – not least of which is the shielding of identities that ought to be revealed in the course of a public inquiry.

The public cannot know which of the former Special Demonstration Officers who have made restriction applications have done so on the basis of a claimed threat of harm from serving or former members of black justice campaigns. The Inquiry Chair does know, and we must trust to his vigilance to ensure that officers are guarded against real risks and not merely against their racially inscribed fear of “aggressive, anti-police” (MacPherson, 1999: 5. 31) conduct – fears which have followed black people to every corner of the criminal justice system.


BBC, Stephen Lawrence police ‘spy’ prompts public inquiry, 6.3.2014.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William MacPherson of Cluny, February 1999. Cm 4262-1.

Undercover Policing Inquiry, Rulings of 5.12.2017 & 20.2.2018.

Undercover Policing Inquiry, Minded to Note of 7.3.2018.

Tuitt, P (2004), Race, Law, Resistance, Glasshouse Press, chapter 3.

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