Applicant blog competition runner-up: What can be changed within the legal system to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

The Black Lives Matter movement in the UK fights for social justice and equality for black people. In the past few weeks, there have been many protests taking place all over the country after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in the US. This death shocked many all over the world, and has sparked conversations globally about racism, but it is not a new problem. The UK is not innocent of institutional racism. There are still racial inequalities in our “modern and progressive” society, making it difficult for people of ethnic minorities to have the same opportunities as white people. Everyday citizens of the UK face racial slurs, unjust treatment and ‘casual’ racism. Things need to change. But how?

Shane Alderndorff, pexels.com

The Equality Act 2010 safeguards against racism to a degree, but this doesn’t stop police abusing their stop and search powers. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), the police have the power to stop and search in a public place if there is reasonable suspicion to suspect they will find stolen or prohibited articles. However, there has been a lot of debate around the phrase “reasonable suspicion”. Code A paragraph 2.2 gives guidance to “reasonable suspicion”, and makes it so the test cannot be supported by personal factors or with any regards to characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010. This means that generalisations or stereotypical images that certain groups are more likely to be involved in criminal activity will not give grounds to reasonable suspicion, rendering any stop and searches unlawful. Although this safeguard is in place, figures on people of ethnic backgrounds who are arrested show that black people are still disproportionately affected than their white counterpart. In the past week, Neomi Bennett, a nurse working on the ICU wards with victims of COVID-19 who was awarded the British Empire Medal for her work, has brought a civil case against the Metropolitan Police after she was wrongfully arrested whilst driving home. Neomi has brought her case against the Met. Police for wrongful arrest, assault, battery, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. Bennett is just one of thousands of victims to fall at the racially biased hands of the Police, but one of the few to bring a claim against her unfair treatment.

 It will be a tough fight to stamp out racism in the police force entirely as the effects of institutional racism are deep rooted within history, but more can be done to educate officers about the effects of prejudice and that it is necessary for the forward movement of society that these prejudices need to be un-learnt. But it will need to be a collective effort from the people and the government to make this happen. Change requires social change and political change, but one cannot happen without the other. There must be more of an effort from the government to educate and deter officers who make assumptions based on the colour of someone’s skin. More actions should be taken against officers who make unlawful stop and searches based on protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, such as more disciplinary actions and stricter guidelines set out in regard to reasonable suspicion.

As well as this, there should be more people of colour employed by the police force. As it currently stands, the police force does not reflect the diversity that the UK strives for. 14% of the population is made up of minority groups, but when put into comparison of the 6.6% of non-white officers, the police force does not reflect the population that they serve. In more diverse cities such as London, where 40% of the population are minority groups, only 14% of officers are from that group. By employing more officers of ethnic minority backgrounds, this could help fight against racism and prejudice from the inside, and would promote diversity from within. This could help to embed the right values in the leadership and actions of all police officers.

The Criminal Justice System is not free from institutional racism either. In fact, people of colour are 1.2 times more likely to be given a custodial sentence than a white person for the same crime. This injustice is seen every day in the court rooms. It has also been found that white offenders were given the shortest custodial sentences from 2009 to 2017 whereas black people were detained under the Mental Health Act four times more often than white people. This is a complete betrayal of justice to people of ethnic minorities, and further reinforces white privilege. Discrimination operates at all stages of the Criminal Justice System in the UK, from being more likely to be arrested because of skin colour to the decision of the courts and juries and sentencing.

More needs to be done to stop overt racism in courts. New Zealand has had much success with deferring prosecutions and permitting suspects to enter into rehabilitation programmes without admitting guilt. Those who complete the programmes have their charges dropped, whereas those who don’t continue in criminal proceedings. This is a much fairer and more humane way to tackle racism within the court system, and it is a process the UK should consider incorporating into our legal system.

There is a grave and systematic error in our midst, pitting everyone against each other and continually destroying the lives and peace of those from ethnic minorities. Not only do we need systematic and political change, but social change too. We need to acknowledge the experiences and mistreatment of black people who share the same home as us before we can move forward as one. To reach a state of equality, we need to work together. The police- individually and as an institution- must be held accountable for how they operate, especially as they are given such power to intervene on people’s lives. These powers must be subjected to scrutiny more closely to move forward. However, bringing these institutions to account is only the first step, more needs to be done on a social scale. Society as a whole needs to do better. We need to stamp out racism when applying for jobs, in the workplace, and in education. We need to speak out against racism and continue to protest against it.

By Lauren Ring

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