Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


P.A.J. Waddington (1999) 'Discretion, 'Respectability' and Institutional Police Racism'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 24/03/99      Accepted: 25/03/99      Published: 31/3/99

Discrimination; Police Discretion; Police-Race Relations; Police Sub-Culture; Race And Ethnicity; Violence

Introduction: Macpherson and 'Institutional Racism'

Sir William Macpherson's report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence (Macpherson 1999) is a damning indictment of the conduct of this murder investigation from the moment that the first officers appeared at the scene to the management of the whole operation by officers of very senior rank. Its general impact arises from the Inquiry's acceptance and promulgation of a more thorough-going definition of the term 'institutional racism' which caused enormous controversy during the course of the Inquiry and became the focus of attention after its publication. Whether or not the Inquiry was logically entitled to infer the existence of institutional racism from the details of a single case, however horrific, and whether that term was appropriately applied to individual instances of police conduct, is largely irrelevant. The inescapable political fact is that the routine actions of police officers have been authoritatively branded as racist.

It is worth reminding ourselves of how the Macpherson Inquiry define this elusive term:

'Institutional Racism' consists of 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. (¶46.34)

As the body of the report made plain, this was expressed during the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry mainly through 'unwitting racism', such as the patronising attitude adopted towards the Lawrence family and the failure to treat Duwayne Brooks as a victim in his own right (¶46.28). Again, it is worth reciting the definition of this term:

Unwitting racism can arise because of lack of understanding, ignorance or mistaken beliefs. It can arise from well intentioned but patronising words or actions. It can arise from unfamiliarity with the behaviour or cultural traditions of people or families from minority ethnic communities. It can arise from racist stereotyping of black people as potential criminals or troublemakers. Often this arises out of uncritical self-understanding born out of an inflexible police ethos of the 'traditional' way of doing things. Furthermore such attitudes can thrive in a tightly knit community, so that there can be a collective failure to detect and outlaw this breed of racism. The police canteen can too easily be its breeding ground. (¶6.17)

This re-definition for social scientists represents an acknowledgement of what has long been established: policing bears down more heavily on ethnic minorities. If social science is now to advance this appreciation of the racist character of policing then attention must focus on how and why policing acquires its racism. It is towards this end that the rest of my discussion is a contribution.

Universal Racism

In one respect the Macpherson Inquiry Report in fact represents an impediment to the social scientific understanding of police racism. The focus of this inquiry was explicitly and necessarily parochial: how did members of the Metropolitan Police conduct an inquiry into a racist murder in south London? The danger is that racism comes to be seen as a parochial problem for the London Metropolitan Police in particular, and the British police in general. It in no way mitigates responsibility for racism at either level to note the obvious and well-established fact that racism is endemic in policing across a broad spectrum of jurisdictions.

Thus in the United States police have antagonistic relations with African-Americans and to a lesser extent Latinos; in Canada eastern Europeans occupy a similar niche; in Holland police come into conflict with Surinamers; Australian police have a long history of oppressing Aborginals; the Japanese enjoy poor relations with Koreans, Germany has long experienced conflict between the police and Turkish migrant labour, in France Algerians are the despised minority, in Finland the gypsies are discriminated against and in the Soviet Union it was the non-Russian population that felt the full weight of militia oppression. Perhaps one of the most bizarre observations was made by Brewer (1990), who found that officers in Northern Ireland (where racial minorities are uncommon) were nonetheless hostile to black people.

It seems clear that whatever it is that encourages racism in the police it is not epiphenomenal, but arises from the fundamental character of policing itself. It transcends geography, culture, and political, economic and social structure.

Canteen Racism

The tendency of most research and commentary has been to locate the origins of police racism in the sub-culture of the lower ranks. There is little doubt that in the privacy of the canteen and other 'backstage' areas police officers in many jurisdictions voice racist beliefs and stereotypes. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Waddington 1999a), this is an unconvincing argument because it simply fails to explain the gap between what officers say in the canteen and do on the streets.

Systematic observation repeatedly re-affirms that police actions are dictated by contextual factors rather than individual predisposition (Coates and Miller 1974; Locke 1996; Smith et al 1984; Sherman 1980; Sykes and Brent 1983; Cruse and Rubin 1973; Worden 1989, 1996). Qualitative studies frequently observe that there is a no necessary continuity between opinion and behaviour (see, for example, Smith and Gray 1983). This gulf between talk and action has recently been confirmed by Hoyle (1998) in the not dissimilar arena of the policing of domestic violence. When she asked officers generally about 'domestics' they retailed the usually litany of misogynistic stereotyping. However, when asked specifically about a recent incident of domestic violence in which they had become involved and when observed dealing with such incidents, a quite different picture emerged; one characterised by compassion for the victim that is notably absent in sub-cultural generalisations.

Concentration on the oral culture of the police canteen tells us little about how and why the police perform their duties as they do, but it does serve a normative function: it offers the opportunity to condemn the police. If policing is racist, then it is because police officers are racist as people. As Wilson pointed out long ago,

Explanations vary, but commonly they are some variation on the 'bad men' theme. Unqualified, unintelligent, rude, brutal, intolerant, or insensitive men, so this theory goes, find their way (or are selectively recruited into) police work where they express their prejudices and crudeness under color of the law (Wilson 1968)

The danger here is that scholarly understanding of the police falls into the same error that earlier studies of delinquency suffered, namely pathologising the deviant. Our understanding of any form of deviancy (be it juvenile gangs or police racism) is not advance by simply attributing it to some inner pathology, be it individual or sub-cultural.

The canteen is a distinct arena in which officers, who normally work in isolation from each other, have the opportunity to restore common values. In many respects it is an exercise in collective self-delusion, since the reality of police work is frequently the negation of those values rather than their fulfilment (Waddington 1999a). Whatever its purpose, there is no doubt that canteen banter is indecorous at best and deplorable at worst, encouraging the appearance of brutishness rather than professionalism that is damaging to the institution. The condemnation of such 'institutional racism' by the Macpherson Inquiry will hopefully prompt senior officers to eliminate such unproductive banter and find alternative means of affirming acceptable professional standards. Meanwhile, social scientists should seek to identify the origins of police racism on the streets.


The reason why the concept of 'police sub-culture' resonates so loudly in explanations of police racism is that when officers encounter the public on the streets they exercise enormous discretion. Reiner has observed that the 'original impulse' of research into the psychological traits and sub-culture of the police 'was a civil libertarian concern about the extent and sources of police deviation from due process of law' (Reiner 1985b: p. 85). When a police officer decides to stop and search a member of the public, the decision is not determined by law or policy, but by 'situationally-justified' reasons (Manning and van Maanen 1977). It is recourse to the often-unarticulated reasons for these discretionary decisions that lead researchers to refer back to the beliefs, stereotypes and norms that are voiced in the canteen and apparently expressed on the streets. In the words of the Macpherson Inquiry, racism may be 'unwitting', as when officers responding to the attack on Stephen Lawrence seemed to assume that there had been some kind of brawl rather than an unprovoked racist murder.

However, just because officers employ informal 'recipe knowledge' on the street and express equally informal views in the canteen, does not mean that one can be inferred from the other. Much of the 'street wisdom' upon which officers rely is not the stuff of which canteen banter is composed. For instance, a working rule observed in both America and Britain is the avoidance of 'trouble' (van Maanen 1974, 1975; Chatterton 1979, 1983; Norris 1989; Waddington 1994), about which little is said in canteen talk.

On the night that Stephen Lawrence was murdered the lack of command and direction displayed by the senior officers on the scene can be attributed to the normal street of practice in which the first officers in attendance claim informal proprietorship of the incident which their superiors are expected to respect. Inspector Groves was certainly guilty of the lack of leadership of which the Macpherson Inquiry accused him, but he remained innocent of the informal 'sin' of 'sticking his oar in' (Chatterton 1981). Likewise, the assumption that Stephen Lawrence had been involved in a brawl was undoubtedly the product of a process of 'normalisation' that is common throughout the criminal justice system (Sudnow 1965) and probably many comparable professions, but which is so taken for granted that it needs little reinforcement through canteen banter.

Discretion: An Ethical Theory

It is in the distribution of coercive power that the exercise of discretion commands most academic attention. Why do the police stop and search some sections of the population more frequently than others? Why are some suspects arrested and others not? Why do decisions to divert offenders from the criminal justice system favour some groups and not others? It is in this connection, of course, that the taint of racism is most apparent, since in most jurisdictions ethnic minorities suffer more adverse treatment at the hands of the police than do their counterparts in the majority population. Is this simply racism, or does it have a more subtle, 'unwitting' and 'institutional' basis?

In his analysis of the Ethics of Policing, Kleinig (1996) advocates a normative basis for such discretionary decision-making. Noting that law does not act as an exhaustive or even satisfactory guide for police action, he argues that any supplementary guidance must be sought from values superior to law. These he finds in 'basic community values', because if transitory or particular they would not offer guidance in novel settings and the values in question must be universal in order to command general assent. Philosophically, the police officer is both the servant and the arbiter of the 'general will'.

The reason for commencing this analysis from a normative standpoint is two-fold: first, if an explanation of human conduct is capable of explanation in such terms then it is to be preferred over alternative explanations because it maintains or enhances human dignity. Apart from its purely explanatory failure, explanations of police behaviour that rest on pathologised versions of the police sub-culture gratuitously disparage police officers in much the same way that racism denigrates ethnic minorities. Secondly, the unethical consequences of ethical prescriptions represents an acute challenge to social scientific explanation. It is temptingly easy to attribute 'bad' outcomes to 'bad men', as Wilson noted (see above).

Kleinig's unexceptionable prescription poses a sociological conundrum: from where does the ethical police officer obtain 'basic community values'? This is a conundrum that police officers routinely resolve without a moment's reflection, for the values to which they appeal are those that prevail, that is, 'respectability' (Waddington 1999b). This is, perhaps, illustrated more readily in the arena of the policing of domestic disputes, than in the policing ethnic minorities. In a penetrating analysis of police discretion, Chatterton (1983) contrasts the policing of two 'domestics': in the first the husband, who admits to having struck his wife and threatens to do so again, is not arrested; while in the second the husband is arrested despite the unwillingness of his wife to make a formal complaint. Why the difference? In the first case, the husband explains to the officer how he had returned home to find the house dishevelled (breakfast crockery unwashed), the coal fire unlit, the two young children left alone and unfed after returning from school, and then how his wife had returned home apparently in the company of another man. During the course of the ensuing quarrel he had struck her and said that would do so again unless his wife changed her behaviour. Chatterton describes how throughout the period when the husband his giving his version of events, the children stood either side of him forming a group, whereas the wife sat in the opposite corner made frequent hostile interjections.

The status of the woman as a 'good mother' was undermined by the contextual features of the stage on which she made her pitch to be seen as a person legitimately claiming victim status. (Chatterton (1983))

In the second case, the abused wife and her father plainly live in fear of her brutal husband, so much so that they are too intimidated to make a formal complaint, despite the persuasion of the officer. Upon leaving the house, the officer encounters the drunken husband by chance and contrives to find grounds for his arrest.

Of course, the feminist critique of this example of what Chatterton regards as 'good coppering' is that these contrasting discretionary decisions incorporate patriarchy (Edwards 1989). The first victim fails to conform to the 'good mother' and her victimisation is ignored, whereas the second victim represents innocence that demands protection. This is true, but the example illustrates more than just patriarchy, for the decision to arrest the husband in the second case is also influenced by his drunken violence, which contrasts with the 'hardworking father' in the first case. In other words, whilst patriarchy is powerfully embedded in the decisions, so too are other components of respectability. The contrast illustrates how, when deciding who deserves coercive treatment, police officers reach not for the nostrums of the canteen, but prevailing standards of respectable behaviour.

The Social Distribution of Respectability

Is this to say that members of ethnic minority populations are incapable of behaving respectability? Of course not, but respectability is a valued social attribute that is unequally distributed in a social structure that is increasingly divided by race, rather than social class. This distribution is determined by material and cultural influences.

Racial disadvantage is felt in access to respectable opportunities. For example, 'unemployment rates for Black Caribbeans are approximately double the British national average, for Black Africans three times as high, and higher still for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis' (Morgan and Newburn 1997). Racial minorities are also concentrated in areas of severe urban decline, manifested not only in the rotting housing, but also disproportionate numbers of single-parent families and, of course, criminal victimisation (Morgan and Newburn 1997). Educational achievement and exclusion from school is distributed very unevenly amongst ethnic groups, albeit not along simple white/non-white lines, so too is homelessness and mental illness. In other words, racial inequality translates into the disproportionate burden of disreputable attributes being borne by members of ethnic minority populations.

Thus, even the ethical police officer who patrols the boundaries of respectability will find that his discretion favours those ethnic groups who have greater access to the resources that confer respectable status. This receives support from the much quoted official stop and search figures that show that black people are more than five times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts (Home Office 1998). However, it also shows that they are no less, and in fact marginally more, likely to be arrested as a result of having been stopped. This echoes much earlier and far more thorough analysis of stop and search in London by the Policy Studies Institute. They found that:

Some population groups are many times more likely to be stopped than others. This shows that, by and large, police officers do not make stops randomly, and to the extent that the groups that are likely to be stopped are ones that contain a high proportion of offenders it shows that they are using their powers intelligently. (Smith 1983)

Moreover, they also found that variables such as unemployment were more predictive of who was stopped and searched than was race.

Even if race is only marginally related to indices of disrepute then, as Banton (1983) demonstrated, gross differences would arise from the process of 'statistical discrimination'. The racism that encourages the disproportionate stopping and searching of young black men is not necessarily mindless, but a reflection (perhaps an exploitation) of aggregate differences in exposure to crime-inducing conditions amongst sections of the population. Suspicious behaviour is anomalous and hence relies on a general background understanding of what is 'normal'. Hence, when people are 'out of place' or in possession of goods (such as expensive cars) that are uncommon amongst disadvantaged sections of the population, they are vulnerable to coercive police activity. Suspicion can only rarely, if ever, be individualised, for even a masked man wearing a striped jumper and carrying a bag marked 'swag', must be appraised against the possibility that he is fancy-dress party-goer!

Evidence that discretionary powers are used in a more targeted fashion than even this explanation allows is contained in a strangely ignored small-scale study by Jock Young (1994a). Rejecting the implicit racism that is incorporated into gross categorisations of ethnic populations as white, black and Asian, he employed a much finer mesh ethnic typology. This revealed that in the area of north London that he studied, it was the Irish who were most over-represented and black Africans who were most under-represented. It is unnecessary to suggest that this pattern is replicated beyond the confines of this geographical area to establish the general point that 'whatever the basis of the accusation of police racism, it is obviously not a matter of a knee-jerk reaction to the colour of a person's skin' (Young 1994).

Ad Hominem Respectability

Respectability is more than the possession of particular attributes or engaging in certain types of activity. As working class people who traditionally distinguished the 'respectables' from the 'rough' knew well enough, 'respectability' is an ad hominem status. Indeed, this distinction between 'respectable' and 'rough' members of the working class was one that generations of British police officers eagerly exploited (Brogden 1982). Again, the policing of domestic violence illustrates the influence of such ad hominem categories, for, as Buzawa and Buzawa (1993) note, whilst domestic violence is suffered by women throughout all social classes and races, middle class white women have access to much wider array of coping mechanisms than do their lower class counterparts. This means that the police are called upon to intervene selectively to resolve disputes in the most disadvantaged households. Such selectivity is further reinforced by the fact that police are often called to exactly the same households repeatedly (Horton and Smith 1988). It is this kind of experience that encourages the denigration of many victims of domestic violence as 'slag' (however, for a contrary view see Hoyle 1998). But there is more to it than this, for the involvement of the police in an essentially private matter is itself a token of disrepute.

This distinction (and many others) is crystallised into what Lee (1981) calls 'police property' and Choongh (1997, 1998) describes as 'the dross'. As Reiner (1985a) notes, police the world over have a rich derogatory lexicon to refer to this section of the population - 'scrotes', 'scumbags', 'pukers', 'toe-rags', 'sprigs', and many more besides. While this is clearly not racist in itself (since these terms have been applied to minorities defined by other than ethnicity), it is division into which race can easily be fitted.

How such a fit is achieved was prophetically described in the mid-1960s by John Lambert (1970) who drew attention to the 'ecological fallacy' that connected race, disorder and crime in the multi-racial district of Birmingham that he studied. Newly-arrived Commonwealth immigrants found affordable accommodation in those areas of Britain's cities that also suffered relatively high levels of crime, although his evidence showed that they were not responsible for it. Nevertheless, the equation between high levels of ethnic minority settlement and high levels of crime and disorder became established in the collective consciousness of the police. Moreover, it was reinforced by the fact that multi-occupation of rented accommodation proved conducive to disputes amongst tenants and between them and their landlords in which police frequently became involved and is precisely the kind of 'order maintenance' task that they value least - 'rubbish'. Thus, early police experience of Commonwealth immigration was one characterised by conflict with ethnic minorities.

However, this ecological fallacy was not a curiosity of the police, but had instead much wider currency. From the mid-1960s immigration (meaning of course 'non-white immigration') and race relations were politically defined as a 'problem' (Keith 1991; Solomos 1993; Fisher and Joshua 1982). Discriminatory laws designed to restrict non-white immigration (Gordon 1983) and recent attempts to curb the perceived abuse of the asylum laws, have helped to define black and Asian people as less than full citizens. Passport raids (Gordon 1981) and similar enforcement activities by agencies other than the police (such as social security fraud investigators and immigration officers) have reinforced the perception that these ethnic minorities are less than truly 'British'. Racial minorities are also politically marginalized in a party contest still dominated by traditional class divisions (Lea and Young 1982; see also Crewe 1983).

The widespread perception of black and Asian people as members of problematic marginal sections of the population amounts to a denial of their 'respectability'. In exercising their discretionary powers, ethical police officers who apply prevailing values would be mindful of ethnic minority status. Like youth (Anderson et al 1994; Loader 1996; Bittner 1976), ethnic minorities are a section of the population that is seen as being in need of discipline (Choongh 1997, 1998).


How is such 'discipline' imposed? As Choongh points out (Choongh 1997, 1998), it is not through the process of criminalisation. The law is the servant of ethical discretion, not its master; it is a tool for the maintenance of respectable values. Arrests are often made for expedient reasons (Bittner 1967, 1976) and when they are made police rely on 'resource charges' (Chatterton 1976) that are often not pursued to prosecution (Choongh 1997, 1998). More often than not, police maintain the respectable order through the mere assertion of their authority: their conspicuous presence at certain times and places, 'moving on' the disreputable, stopping and searching those who attract their attention not in the expectation of detecting crime, but intimidating the recipients of such coercive powers. It is noteworthy that the currently fashionable prescription for 'zero tolerance' policing, prescribes precisely this kind of harassment for the maintenance of 'civility' (another name for 'respectability').

Police-Race Relations

To regard ethnic minorities as merely the passive recipients of the institutional racism of others is a form of racism in its own right. Whilst the assertion of police authority is targeted on certain sections of the population defined by age, sex, class and race, it is equally clear that that authority is often contested by those upon whom it is imposed. Although there are various strategies that are employed, resistance and 'rejecting the rejectors' are prominent, especially in police-race relations. From the 'tough guys' of American ghettos (Piliavin and Briar 1964; Werthman and Piliavin 1967) to Rastafarians (Cashmore and Troyna 1982) and 'rude boys', many young black men have adopted a style of 'resistance through ritual'. However, ritualistic such resistance may be, it can also engender reciprocated hostility.

Some accusations of hostility and aggression by police officers towards minorities may be well-founded, but it must be asked whether they are guilty of approaching people aggressively, or whether they are provoked into aggression. If West Indians yell 'Babylon' or spit at an officer as he passes it is difficult for him to be friendly in response. If he chases a youth who runs off when he sees him only to find he is taunting him, then friendliness cannot be expected. If someone is questioned on the street but refuses to give his name and address then friendliness is difficult and possibly not even desirable. (Southgate 1982)

The racialisation of policing (Holdaway 1996) is not a simple one-way process, but is instead a product of interaction in which both police and young black and Asian people (especially men) engage in mutually hostile stereotyping. Challenging police authority encourages recourse to coercive powers in order to secure compliance (Brown and Ellis 1994) which thereby serves to further reinforce the hostility that provoked the challenge in the first place and the intolerance with which it, in turn, was met.


Pointing to the reciprocal basis of the racialisation of policing does not excuse institutional racism within the police. After all, in encounters with members of the public it is the police who are the professionals and normatively one is entitled to expect that they will maintain discipline however sorely it is tested. As the Macpherson Inquiry report pointed out when discussing the effective breakdown in family liaison between the police and Mr and Mrs Lawrence:

The family of Stephen Lawrence had to be taken as they were found, and as they chose to behave. They were entitled to demand to be dealt with as they were and according to their own needs. (¶ 26.25)

The presence of a large number of people in the house following the murder, the use of a solicitor to represent them and making legitimate (albeit possibly irksome) demands for information, may have made the task of family liaison officers more difficult than it might otherwise have been, but it is when situations become difficult that professionalism is most in need of being demonstrated.

However, recognition of the complexities of police-race relations are necessary if the policy debate is to progress beyond mere 'police blaming' (Hoyle 1998). Recognising that police exercise their discretion not simply with reference to their own sub-cultural values, but through the application of prevailing notions of respectability, should not lead to defeatism. Respectability is a negotiable construct and the conception of groups and categories is capable of change through political action. Although still far from ideal, there is no doubt that the treatment of women victims has been transformed in recent years (Edwards 1994). This has arisen from the campaigning of the feminist movement that highlighted both the scale of the problem of domestic violence and the inadequacy of the police response to it (Jones et al 1994). The recognition of victimhood is a powerful instrument in achieving such re-definition.

The publication of the Macpherson Inquiry Report should represent a defining moment in the re-definition of ethnic minorities as fully respectable citizens. If his death achieves at least some movement towards that goal, then the loss of Stephen's life may not have been entirely a tragic waste.


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