Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Simon Holdaway (1999) 'Understanding the Police Investigation of the Murder of Stephen Lawrence: A 'Mundane Sociological Analysis''
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 22/03/99      Accepted: 23/03/99      Published: 31/3/99


'Race' is a litmus test for understanding relationships within institutions. Conflicts between ethnic majorities and minorities (and other minorities too) have a capacity to not only bring particular features of racialised relations to view but to also lay bare generic, institutional relationships.

In this paper, I argue that the Lawrence Inquiry report directs us to mundane features of policing. Crucially we need to understand the complex ways in which the occupational culture of policing constructs and sustains particular forms of racialised relations. There are two key features of this culture. One is a tendency to use stereotypical thinking generally and in relation to ethnic minorities in particular. The other is to neglect the pertinence of race to rouitne police work. The presence and absence of 'race' is woven into the routines of the occupational culture. Police action can, as the Lawrence Inquiry report suggests be 'unwitting'. To argue the existence of 'unwitting' action, however, it is necessary to demonstrate that police officers could have acted differently. The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the police investigation into it have to be placed within this context if an adequate sociological analysis is to be undertaken.

Culture; Institutions; Lawrence; Occupations; Police; Race

Introduction - A Mundane Perspective on the Lawrence Inquiry

Public inquiries, like the police investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, can be dramatic, poignant and exceptional. The Lawrence Inquiry had all of these features but we would be unwise to allow them to draw our attention away from a key focus for comment and research. Stephen Lawrence's murder, and the subsequent police investigation into it, should direct our sociological attention to mundane aspects of policing and the life of black people in contemporary Britain. Sociology is on our side here. There are strong traditions of theory and analysis that are concerned precisely with understanding the mundane world the Lawrence case draws us to so tragically.

The tragedy of the Stephen Lawrence's murder, however, also binds us to strong sociological traditions. Sociologists must stand a sufficient distance from what Mills called 'public issues' and from 'personal problems' (Mills 1959). Moral concern can nevertheless be and, I would argue, is often a precursor of strong social analysis. The murder of Stephen Lawrence can and should drive us to a sensitive and, hopefully, deeper analysis of the social world, by which I mean the mundane world, the 'life-world' as Schutz put it (Schutz 1967).

Too much sociology about race and about policing has turned our gaze away from this mundane world. It has focussed upon the political state and moral panics, so called, or considered the outcomes of police action when using arrest and other powers, weighing racial discrimination in the balance of statistical probabilities (Hall, Critcher et al. 1978; Smith 1997, for example). The social processes that have led to measured, discriminatory outcomes, and the long march of analysis from the political state to the action of police and black youths, are absent from this and so much other sociological work (see here Holdaway 1998 &182;1492).

My concern here is to analyse the ways in which the culture of the police rank and file, and of senior ranks involved in the Lawrence murder investigation, articulated particular, racialised relations. The processes I identify sustained police action at the scene of the murder and throughout its investigation. They were central to the subsequent, independent inquiry into it, forming what the Inquiry team called 'institutional racism'.

Institutional Racism

The notion of institutional racism is central to the Lawrence Inquiry Report and, using evidence submitted to them, including evidence from academics, the inquiry included a definition of it in their final report.

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour; culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people (Macpherson 1999, p. 28.)

This was the second time that a major national report about the police and race relations had attempted to define the concept of institutional racism. In 1981, Lord Scarman, in his report about the Brixton disturbances, argued that,

It was alleged to me by some of those who made representations to me that Britain is an institutionally racist society. If by that is meant that it is a society which knowing, as a matter of policy, discriminates against black people, I reject the allegation.

'Institutional racism' does not exist in Britain: but racial disadvantage and its nasty associate racial discrimination have not yet been eliminated. They poison minds and attitudes: they are, and so long as they remain, will continue to be, a potent factor of unrest (Scarman OBE 1981 pp. 11 and 135).

During the inquiry hearings, Scarman's definition was put to but rejected by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon. He insisted that it implied that all his officers discriminated deliberately against black and other ethnic minority people. His preferred view of institutional racism, however, was less than clear. It moved back and forth between the analysis of racism as an individual and as a collective phenomenon, without any appreciation of how they might be related to police work and officers working in his constabulary or any other institution.

I recognise that individual officers can be, and are, overtly racist. I acknowledge that officers stereotype, and differential outcomes occur for Londoners. Racism in the police is much more than 'bad apples'. Racism, as you have pointed out, can occur through a lack of care and lack of understanding. The debate about defining this evil, promoted by the Inquiry, is cathartic in leading us to recognise that is can occur almost unknowingly, as a matter of neglect, in an institution. I acknowledge the danger of institutionalisation of racism. However, labels can cause more problems than they solve (Macpherson 1999: p. 24).

This answer exasperated the Inquiry team and they stated in their final report that the Commissioner failed to understand and accept that 'institutional racism' was a concept of direct relevance to his organisation. It was not a label, a tag of convenience but institutionalised, and often unwittingly so (Macpherson 1999: p. 24).

The Commissioner's refusal to accept the 'all officers are racists' version of institutional racism is reasonable. It is a version of the institutional racism thesis that has been implied by some sociologists who posit racialised inequalities at the societal and/or political state levels and then, usually by implication, infer all individuals are racists.

This and other related macro analyses of institutional racism were reviewed and criticised by David Mason, in a paper written soon after Lord Scarman published his report into the disturbances in Brixton in 1981 (Mason 1982). Mason noted the implicit individualism of much structural sociology about race relations and went on to make a point that is as pertinent today as it was when he wrote his paper over a decade ago. He concluded with a suggestion that two remaining subjects for research, one being, 'the development of more adequate theoretical tools capable of comprehending the interplay of social structures and human action, material conditions and ideas, in human social life which we call 'race relations' (Mason 1982: p. 44).

One important response to the problem David Mason identified should be sociological research about how cultures, especially occupational cultures within the police, mediate race relations, which then bear upon police action in particular contexts of police work. Such an analysis would dwell on the mundane reality of policing; on the ways in which racialised relations are constructed and sustained in everyday work (Holdaway 1996). Our sociological attention should be turned to the mundane world of police, race relations, which is what the Macpherson report also begs us to do.

Grounding Institutional Life in Occupational Cultures

Institutions are patterns of behaviour in any particular context which have become established over time as 'the way things are'. An institution has relevance and meaning in the social situation concerned; people will recognise it - will know it - if only in the normative specification of 'how things are done'. Institutions are an integral part of the social construction of reality, with reference to which, and in terms of which, individuals make decisions and orient their behaviour (Jenkins 1996, p. 127)

Richard Jenkins' very matter of fact description of an institution orientates us perfectly to the analysis of institutions and institutional racism I have in mind. It requires a sociologist to describe and analyse 'how things are done', made common sense within what, from a more distanced, sociological standpoint can be seen as partial and particular. Jenkins goes on to make the point, and here he draws on Schutz and Berger and Luckmann, that the study of institutions is concerned with the social processes that create them, 'institutions ... are emergent products of what people do as much as they are constitutive of what people do' (Jenkins 1996, p. 127: p.128).

Institutions emerge, they are not static, do not wholly transcend and are not finally determinant of action. They emerge from taken for granted ways of working together; from related, taken for granted ways of thinking; and from taken for granted categorisations and self-definitions of identity. Institutions are objectified but they should be conceptualised and researched as social processes that construct, sustain and objectify them (Berger and Luckmann 1967).

This is where the concept of racialised relations is germane (Hughes 1994; (Holdaway 1996). The notion of 'racialisation' is concerned precisely with the study of mundane relationships that lead to the attribution of 'race' to particular phenomena which could, of course, be defined in different ways. The primary context within which these processes are articulated is the occupational culture of the police rank and file. It is within this context that the day to day work of policing is undertaken; within which relationships between officers and members of ethnic minorities are moulded; and within which processes of racialisation should be apparent (Holdaway 1996).

Considerable research now informs us about the contours and power of the rank and file occupational culture (Chan 1997). It is pervasive, reaching across all ethnic groups, within and outside of the police workforce. This is what the Black Police Association said about the occupational culture to the Macpherson inquiry.

... we should not underestimate the occupational culture within the police service as being a primary source of institutional racism is the way that we differentially treat black people.

Interestingly I say we because there is a marked difference between black and white in the force essentially. We are all consumed by this occupational culture. Some of us may think we rise above it on some occasions, but, generally speaking, we tend to conform, to the norms of this occupational culture, which we say is all powerful in shaping our views and perceptions of a particular community. (Macpherson 1999: p. 25)

The occupational culture, then, mediates wider racial categorisations, stereotypes of black youth as criminal, for example. It moulds these categorisations within the context of routine police work. Categorisation is close to what Mead called 'Me' (Mead 1934). Group membership, however, here, membership of the police as an occupational group, is also relevant. This idea brings us closer to what Mead called the 'I' as one process of 'self.

This, latter aspect of racialisation is more concerned with specific police meanings of incidents which are, or are not defined as 'racial' than it is meanings drawn from the wider, societal sphere. To understand why a police officer defines an assault, even a murderous assault, as a racial attack requires sensitivity to all the contingencies he or she has perceived and taken into account. These may well extend beyond the relevance of whether or not 'race' is viewed as directly relevant to the incident. Indeed, I will argue that in the Lawrence case it was the neglect of racialised meanings about black people, and the acceptance of a view that race was not relevant to it, that led to the negative racial connotations and denotations that subsequently dominated the case. Once we admit the idea that a police failure to take into account the racialised nature of an incident is central to understanding processes of racialisation, the Macpherson notion of 'unwitting' discrimination as institutionalised becomes more viable.[1]

In the rest of this discussion I will use data from the Lawrence case, to demonstrate how race and its neglect were directly relevant to the racialisation of relationships between the police and the Lawrence family.

The Lawrence Case: Awareness of the Seriousness of Racial Attacks and Harassment[2]

In successive presentations to various public bodies, the Association of Chief Police Officers has recognised the serious nature of racial attacks on ethnic minorities. Although there is some evidence to the contrary, the commitment to dealing with racial incidents expressed by chief officers on behalf of the whole police service is sufficient to expect officers of all ranks to be aware of their effects on victims, their relatives and their friends.

In their 1986 report about race relations, the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs described racial attacks as, 'the most shameful and dispiriting aspect of race relations in Britain' (Home Affairs Committee 1986). In evidence to an earlier enquiry by the Committee, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) described racial attacks as 'the most wicked additional burden faced by ethnic groups resident within already high crime areas' (Home Affairs Committee 1982). The Committee returned to the subject in 1994 but were unable to report real progress to curb attacks and harassment,

'Racism, in whatever form, is an evil and destructive force in our undeniably multi-racial society. We are in no doubt that racial attacks and racial harassment, and the spread of literature that preaches racial hatred, are increasing and must be stopped'. They ended their report on a note of urgency, 'As racism is spreading so rapidly, time is short' (House of Commons 1994).

The seriousness of racial attacks and harassment, therefore, cannot be denied or neglected by the police and, in their 1986 report, many years before the Lawrence murder, the Home Affairs Select Committee advised all constabularies to make them a priority, a view endorsed by the Home Office. This was a message repeated by subsequent Home Affairs Committees and an inter-departmental working party reporting in 1989.

Definitions of Racial Attack

The definition of racial attack to be used by the police has been the subject of controversy for many years. It was discovered by research during the 1980s that the vast bulk of such attacks were either not reported to or recorded by the police, in part because the definition gave officers too much discretion to ignore allegations of a racial motive for an attack. The Home Office and The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) acknowledged the shortcomings of the definition and agreed a revision.

Since 1985, at the suggestion of ACPO, the following definition should be operationalised by all police forces, 'any incident in which it appears to the reporting or investigating officer that involves an element of racial motivation; or any incident which includes an allegation of racial motivation made by any person.' The intention was to introduce a number of checks and balances into the definition, to ensure the adequate reporting and recording of racial incidents. The reporting and investigating officer and any person making an allegation has an opportunity - in theory if not in practice - to define an incident as racially motivated. Further, it is possible for any person, irrespective of ethnic origin, to be the victim or perpetrator of an attack. The agreed definition should capture the vast majority of racial attacks and acts of harassment and it remains official policy to this day.

If arguments about responses to racial attacks are based solely on the adequacy of written definitions, a crucial feature of the process of policy making and implementation will be neglected. No distinction will be made between written policy and practice (Holdaway 1978). The inconsistent translation of policy, including definitions of racial attack and harassment, into the routine, operational practice of the ranks has persistently dogged policing. An officer recording an incident may abide by the agreed definition if a clearly articulated and persistent expression of racial motivation is conveyed by 'any other person'. The difficulty comes when the person alleging that a racial motivation informed an incident puts the allegation in muted or uncertain terms. For many different reasons - wanting to avoid 'paper work', a lack of interest, the effects of negative ideas about ethnic minorities, racial prejudice and discrimination, a failure to realise how a racial motive can enter into an offence - an officer might fail to record an incident as racially motivated. A central aspect of this problem as far as racial attacks are concerned is that officers may well underestimate the nature and extent of racial attacks, which is a view related to their colour-blind approach to policing. In a Home Office, 1991 evaluation of the Newham Racial Harassment Project it was stated that,

Police officers were asked what they thought were the barriers to an effective police response. The relief officers spoken to seemed to be unaware of the scale and extent of racial attacks and harassment, or of what patterns if victimisation existed. As a consequence there was a tendency to deny that there was a problem or that there were shortcomings in the existing police response. Home-beat and Newham Organised Racial Incident Squad officers in particular felt that the reliefs were unaware of the scale of the problem. Mid-managers, reliefs and the racial incidents squad officers each commented that there was sometimes insufficient exchange of information between sections of the organisation (Saulsbury and Bowling 1991: p.125).

Formal definitions of racial attack, then, are important but not necessarily the primary, guiding principle for rank and file officers dealing with an allegation of racial attack. There may be a gap between police policy and practice, between the formal and working rules guiding police action. The success of the ACPO definition depends ultimately on officers' acceptance of their policy guidelines and other peoples' accusations of racial motivations. Once we talk about officers' acceptance of definitions of racial attack we have to consider how the occupational culture mediates written policy as it is put to work on the streets.

Police Immediate Response: Racial Categorisations

The initial question to ask when considering the police response to the Lawrence murder is, 'When did it become apparent to officers that the assailant could have committed the crime with a racial motive?'

This issue of definition and subsequent police action is especially pertinent because it was reported to the officers attending the scene of the murder that Stephen Lawrence had been 'attacked by a gang of white youths who had made off on foot along Dickson Road'. Such information should have raised in their minds the local knowledge about such a gang committing serious assaults, some of them racially motivated.

In his statement to the Police Complaints Authority, Duwayne Brooks, Stephen Lawrence's friend who was with him when he was killed, stated that the assailants called him 'nigger'. Officers were reluctant to accept his statement, which suggests that they were unaware of or unwilling to abide by the policy guidelines about the identification of a racial attack within which they should have been working. Further, it suggests that officers employed negative stereotypes of black youths when dealing with Brooks, refusing to believe his statement from the outset. If the murder had been defined as a racial attack from this early point, a different framework for the subsequent investigation would have been set in place.

Other officers arrived at the murder scene later, including Acting Inspector Little, Chief Superintendent Benn and Chief Superintendent Philpot. Only Superintendent Philpot seems to have considered the implications of there being a racial motive for the murder. According to the Police Complaints Authority report, Philpot's concern, however, was on longer-term issues of 'community relations extending to the possibilities of public disorder'. In their 1997, Policing Plural Communities Her Majesty's Inspectorate state that, 'The need for good community relations goes beyond concerns about maintaining public order. It is an integral part of the core function of policing' (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary 1997: p.14), suggesting clearly that Philpot's view was a limited one. A consequence of this situation was that the centrality of race relations to the police investigation was not considered adequately, if at all.

From this very early point of the police investigation we find both the categorical and group based aspects of processes of racialisation. Categorisations of black people as troublesome, as potentially criminal and as presenting a problem of public order were evident in the treatment of Duwayne Brookes and the advice given by Chief Superintendent Philpot. Brookes was later regarded as a possible suspect when officers at the hospital to which Stephen Lawrence's body had been taken questioned him.

These are widely based ideas about black youth and black people more widely. They are racial categorisations that had an impact on immediate and subsequent police action. They are negative, racialising categorisations which have become institutionalised within policing. We have found them to be relevant to police action when dealing with the Lawrence case.

The murder, however, was not defined as a racial attack by officers and, if we are to understand why this was so, it is necessary to understand the group identification of police officers as they worked within the occupational culture. Within the occupational culture, the meaning of 'irrelevance' is prescribed to many events that could be defined as racial attacks within the inclusive, official definition available to officers. Given the local context within which the allegation of a racialised murder occurred it is difficult to see how the officers at the scene of the crime and subsequently investigating it could have not defined it as a racial attack. From their perspective, however, the Lawrence murder was not the result of a racial attack. And in my evidence to the inquiry on behalf of The Commission for Racial Equality I argued that,

At virtually every stage of the investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder, an inadequate understanding of action to be taken when a crime is thought to have been committed by a person or persons with a racial motive was apparent. To understand why officers acted in this way it is necessary to place them within the wider context of police culture. The officers were 'colour blind', denying the relevance of the racial status of the victims, the racial motive of the assailant and, therefore, the need for a particular approach to the investigation of the Lawrence murder. The failure of police officers dealing with the Lawrence case to recognise and accept 'race' as a central feature of their investigation is in my view central to the deficiencies in policing identified by Kent Police.

11.3. The sustaining of negative relationships with the Lawrence family and Duwayne Brooks; a failure to undertake an adequate investigation; a lack of competent management; and a lack of a particular approach to the investigation of a racial attack were compounded precisely because the officers in charge of the inquiry did not place race at the centre of their understanding of the Lawrence murder and its investigation. Race relations were consistently under-played or ignored. Adequate police action was never considered (Holdaway 1998).

The Local Context

An explanation of police action when investigating the Lawrence murder should therefore be as concerned with the absence as much as the presence of racialised categorisations. This is a testing argument because it requires us to demonstrate reasonably that officers could have acted differently; that they had the available information and knowledge to do so; and that sociological analysis is not engaged in some kind of pretentious mind-reading. Is there any evidence to support the argument?

First, the London Borough of Greenwich has a sizeable, recognisable black British population. All officers working there should have been aware of the ways in which good relationships between the police and the local black population could be damaged by an actual or perceived inadequate level of police service.

Secondly, before Stephen Lawrence met his death, it was well known that in Greenwich a number of racial murders and other serious racial attacks had occurred over a preceding number of years and months.

Thirdly, the right wing, British National Party had opened a 'bookshop' in the area and was known to be active there.

Fourthly, the special racial incidents unit at Plumstead police station, which was nearby the scene of the murder, had been established some time earlier, employing officers to deal with racial attacks and to work with their victims. The mere existence of this unit should have signalled to all officers working in the Eltham area the seriousness of such attacks and the need to be particularly aware of the requirement to deal with them appropriately, and precisely as racial attacks.

Officers, however, failed to define and investigate the murder as a racial attack. It was defined as a murder, an assault on any person, not a murder on a black person, perpetrated by a racial motive and therefore one which could and should have called out particular meanings in officers' minds. Their ideas and related actions created negative rather than positive relationships between the police and the Lawrence family and Duwayne Brooks, with wider repercussions for police race relations generally.

If officers had been aware of the need to take a distinct approach to the investigation of the Lawrence case, special steps would have been taken by senior and other officers to check and balance any negative consequences of their decisions and related actions. The fact that this approach was not taken, however, suggests strongly that the officers were unaware of, ignorant of or unwilling to admit the presence of a racial motive for the murder. Even a rudimentary knowledge of the Metropolitan Police Service policy for dealing with racial attacks would have led them to work in a different way (Metropolitan Police Service 1997).


This analysis of the police investigation of the Lawrence murder has dwelt on the mundane world of policing. It has been argued that racialised categorisations of black people, and an absence of the attribution of 'race' as meaningful to the events preceding and following Stephen Lawrence's death, played a role in racialising the murder and its investigation with negative overtones. By doing nothing the officers involved in the case did something, which was to construct sustain negative, racialised relations. They were, as the Lawrence Inquiry definition of institutional racism suggests, 'unwittingly' discriminating against the Lawrence family and others involved in the events.

Both negative racial categorisations of black youth and the apparent irrelevance of race to incidents that require its recognition are features of the occupational culture. They mediate, construct and sustain the articulation of race within the police workforce and within relationships between officers and ethnic minorities. Once placed within the context of pertinent evidence to verify that there was sufficient information and opportunity to act otherwise, it is possible to argue that the absence of police action is of central relevance to the Lawrence case. Absence is as central to an understanding the police investigation as the presence of deliberate, racially prejudicial or discriminatory features that can be discovered by research. Institutionalised within what, as Jenkins so tellingly calls 'how things are done', the murder of Stephen Lawrence was understood by officers as no more than 'a murder', not a 'racial, murderous attack'. I conclude, therefore, with a brief quote from my evidence to the Inquiry, which directs our sociological attention to the mundane world of policing that I have placed in the ascendancy for a sociological analysis of the Lawrence case.

The sustaining of negative relationships with the Lawrence family and Duwayne Brooks; a failure to undertake an adequate investigation; a lack of competent management; and a lack of a particular approach to the investigation of a racial attack were compounded precisely because the officers in charge of the inquiry did not place race at the centre of their understanding of the Lawrence murder and its investigation. Race relations were consistently under-played or ignored. Adequate police action was never considered (Macpherson 1999: p. 28).


1 This is arguing that a failure to take 'race' into account, doing nothing, is sustaining racialised relations. We will tackle later the difficult question of how one can substantiate how a person who did nothing had the information that would have allowed them to do something appropriate.

2 In this section of the paper I draw closely on the evidence I submitted to the Lawrence Inquiry. It is based on a reading of official papers made available by the inquiry team, including the papers of the Police Complaints Authority, which had previously carried out an inquiry into the police investigation of the Lawrence murder. My evidence was written for and submitted by The Commission for Racial Equality.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999