Literature Review ‘Stephen Lawrence MacPherson Report’

In 1993, Stephen Lawrence, a young black A-Level student was beaten to death by a gang of white youths in London. The subsequent police investigation into Lawrence’s death was criticised to the extent that it launched an influential enquiry into police procedure. In this essay, I will present a review of three articles examining the impact of the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry and the Macpherson Report.

Holdaway’s Understanding the Police Investigation of the Murder of Stephen Lawrence: A “Mundane Sociological Analysis” (1999) focuses on the Macpherson Report’s accusation that the Metropolitan Police were guilty of “institutional racism.” (Macpherson 1999.) Holdaway is particularly concerned about definitions – not least of all, the word “race” itself, which is placed in inverted commas to signify its position as a social construct. Holdaway also investigates the definition of “institutional racism.” One problem associated with this term is that it may suggest “all officers are racists,” which Holdaway suggests has been put forward by “some sociologists,” although no specific names are mentioned. (Holdaway 1999.)

Holdaway highlights Richard Jenkins definition of institutions as “an integral part of the social construction of reality, with reference to which, and in terms of which, individuals make decisions and orient behaviour.” (Jenkins 1996, p.127) However, Holdaway argues that institutions are more complex than this straightforward definition, as they are subject to change, and develop over time. This may be problematic when defining an institution such as the Metropolitan Police, as “racist”.

Regarding the case of Stephen Lawrence, Holdaway argues that there is no doubt that the incident was racially motivated, and criticises the police’s failure to identify this fact. Holdaway contributed personally to the enquiry, writing that “The officers were “colour blind,” denying the relevance of the racial status of the victims” (Holdaway 1998). Holdaway blames this failure on negative racial stereotyping, which casts young black people as “troublesome” and “potentially criminal”. Therefore, the victims, Stephen Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks, were assumed to be in some way responsible for their unprovoked attack.

Like Holdaway, Chahal (1999) is interested in the problematic definitions associated with the Macpherson Report. Chahal’s paper, The Stephen Lawrence Enquiry Report, Racist Harassment and Racist Incidents: Changing Definitions, Clarifying Meaning? highlights the report’s definition of a racist incident as, “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” Chahal argues that this definition, which is a simplified version of the existing Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) definition, “continues to imply that white people are just as likely to be victims of racist harassment as black people.” In Chahal’s view, this ignores the fact that minority ethnic people are the “prime target for such incidents.” Chahal argues that white people are incapable of experiencing the kind of racism experienced by minority ethnic groups, because they are in a position of power which is not shared by minorities. There is no equivalent to the terms of racial abuse directed at ethnic minorities because “there is no context of power.”

The central question in Chahal’s paper is what effect will this new definition have on police procedure? Chahal suggests that as the definition has hardly changed, the police will be unlikely to change the way they deal with racist incidents:


“The consequence is that Macpherson’s recommendation that “this definition be universally adopted by the police, local government and other relevant agencies (my emphasis) is politically naïve and doomed to failure…” (Chahal 1999.)


Chahal’s implication is that without an adequate definition of what a racist incident is, and an identification of which groups are the most likely victims of racism, the failures of the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence will be in danger of being repeated in the future.

While Holdaway and Chahal examine the implications of the Macpherson Report from the public’s perspective, Nigel Fielding’s paper, Policing’s Dark Secret: The Career Paths of Ethnic Minority Officers (1999), examines the impact on the police force itself, particularly with regards to the recruitment of ethnic minority officers, and the way in which officers from minority groups are treated. Fielding draws our attention to a training scheme run by the London Metropolitan Police called “Human Awareness Training,” which was focussed on “self-awareness, interpersonal skills and community relations”.   A piece of evaluation research following on from this training scheme found that trained officers received 17% fewer complaints per officer per month of service. (Bull 1986.) Fielding describes this as, “a positive but rather modest achievement,” because this was the only tangible difference between experimental and control groups.


“The evaluation research revealed that fewer recruits thought they would try to understand minority viewpoints at the end of training, the importance they attached to community relations decreased, and most came to think that racial prejudice came from minority people themselves.” (Fielding 1999.)


Fielding argues that the reason for the training scheme’s lack of success lies in the culture of the police force, which new recruits learn more from than formal training. Because novice officers are often not directly supervised, they will be more likely to learn about the job from their fellow officers than from their superiors. Therefore, as Fielding suggests, “This presents police management with particular difficulty in implementing change via policy.” Although Fielding does not focus extensively on the details of the Macpherson Report, his implication is that the report fails to take this problem into account.

These three papers welcome the Macpherson Report by unanimously condemning the actions of the Metropolitan Police following the death of Stephen Lawrence. However, they are critical of some of the implications of the report. Holdaway is concerned that the definition of “institutional racism” may be misinterpreted by the police and others as an unfair criticism, rather than drawing attention to a genuine problem that exists within the police force. Chahal’s paper criticises the definition of “racist incident,” which Chahal sees as misleading, and could therefore lead to the mishandling of more cases such as that of Stephen Lawrence. By contrast, Fielding does not directly criticise the Macpherson Report, but his paper can be seen as highlighting the failure of the report to take the influence of the culture of the police force into account.

The articles do not contradict each other in any way. They focus on different aspects of the issues surrounding the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry. In each case, the writers argue that there is more work to be done to develop an understanding between the police and ethnic minority communities.