Problems of a black police officer

The Guardian, July 30 1997

Police Constable Richie Clarke had always loved his work. It didn’t matter to him that he was black. In fact, he wanted to believe that it helped him – that some black people might show him a little extra trust and that some white officers would be less likely to get out of order if he was around.

He had volunteered to work in Brixton where there was only one other black officer in the whole division and sometimes he felt that simply by being there, he made a difference. When black lads on the street gave him a hard time and called him a traitor, he shrugged it off. So when the trouble came, he was taken by surprise.

It started in November 1995 when one of his brothers, Winston, called him in tears from Gatwick Airport to say that he had been arrested for trying to smuggle 66 grammes of cocaine from Jamaica. Clarke did what he could for him and then called his superintendent at Sutton in south London, where he had moved from Brixton, to tell him what had happened and to say that he didn’t want to be held accountable for his brother’s actions. The superintendent said he understood, offered him some time off if he needed it and reassured him that there was no problem.

All was well until four months later, in March 1996, when Clarke discovered that somebody had circulated an intelligence report about him. It was headed “Drugs Information – Clark”. It read: “Goldfinger, aka Richie Clark, ex of Brixton division, now at Croydon, has a brother called Winston arrested trying to import cocaine into the UK from Jamaica.” It had been sent to Brixton, where he had once worked; to Croydon, where the author evidently thought he now worked; to two area intelligence units and to the central intelligence department, SO11.

Clarke was appalled. He had spent eight years earning his reputation as a police officer. Now, suddenly, he felt he was portrayed as a black man with a raunchy street name and a family interest in drugs. The report was wrong. He had never called himself Goldfinger or used any street name at all. He had never worked in Croydon. They had even misspelled his name. It was inaccurate crap. But what really upset him was the innuendo. This was not a report about his brother, who had broken the law, but about him. It was not normal procedure to circulate reports about the relatives of law-breakers. And it had been circulated to his former and his current colleagues as well as the intelligence pools. To Clarke, the message was clear: they were warning his colleagues to keep an eye on him.

It was not long before Clarke began to see the effect. He met a police sergeant from Notting Hill who recalled that he had overheard a conversation in his canteen about an officer called PC Clarke from south London who was supposed to be dealing in drugs. He was told of a Brixton officer who had heard that Clarke was embarrassed by the report and who had replied: “What? Embarrassed because he didn’t get away with it?” Clarke worried that this could damage his career, that he might find it hard, for example, if he ever tried to join a specialist drugs unit.

He decided to sort things out. He would get the report withdrawn so that his name was no longer stained but, more important than that, he would ask the people who were responsible to acknowledge the truth. Because by now, PC Clarke had no doubt that this was all about the colour of his skin, about his fitting into the stereotype of a street-wise black guy with a pocket full of Class A drugs.

More than a year later, Clarke has still not succeeded. Every time he has reached out for the redress he wants, it has disappeared like a fistful of mist and now this model black officer is taking Scotland Yard to an industrial tribunal complaining of racial harassment. He will not discuss the case himself but friends have pieced together the story. They say it matters because it reveals a kind of cul-de-sac on the road out of racism in the police.

They say the Metropolitan Police have come a long way in the last 20 years; that senior officers genuinely want to wipe racism from the ranks and to win the trust of black communities; that junior officers know they can no longer afford to be openly racist. But, ironically, they say, the police are now so frightened of being accused of racism that the fear itself holds them back: they will not admit to any blemish on the subject for fear of the damage it may cause them.

They say Clarke never had any illusions about his position. He grew up on the edge of Brixton until he was eleven when his parents took him and his brothers to Jamaica. By the time he returned to the UK as an adult, he knew about black crime and about how white officers were capable of mishandling it. He had become a Christian. He thought he could bridge the gap between black and white. It would be a good thing to do. And in many ways, it was.

Working in Brixton, he was never once badly treated by his colleagues. There was one time when a sergeant who did not realise he was in the room referred to a black person as a nigger, but when Clarke spoke up, the sergeant apologised profusely. There were other times when he saw white officers stop black lads in the street for no reason other than the colour of their skin. He knew he could not change that culture overnight, but he tried to make sure that the lads were treated fairly and with respect.

He did well. He picked up five commendations – an outstanding record – and several Good Arrest Reports. He was recruited by CID where he used his colour to go into places where white officers would have been in trouble. He became a familiar figure on the streets of Brixton. Yet, the problem was always there in the background.

It came out, in part, in anger and suspicion from black people. Some of them said he was a Jamaican detective, that he was allowed to carry a gun and he had been sent over to clear up the area. When a shopkeeper shot a gangster who was running a protection racket on Coldharbour Lane, people started saying it was Clarke who had provided the gun. He picked up several warnings that there were plans to kill him, that a woman who had befriended him was trying to set him up to be murdered. His senior officer warned him not to go out on patrol on his own.

The problem came out, too, through his black friends. One of them – a successful professional man – was using a machete to chop back the hedge in his front garden in Brixton when he was confronted by white officers. According to the story which the friend later told, they ordered him to drop the machete and then cuffed his wrists so tight that they bled. They bundled him into their van and when he told them he was a friend of Richie Clarke, they gave him some racial abuse before carrying him headfirst into a cell at the police station.

When Clarke saw his friend in the cell and heard the story and saw the marks on the man’s wrists, he approached one of the officers to ask them what had happened. He was told it was none of his business. Clarke persisted. There was a row. Clarke told the other officer: “At the end of the day, people like you will always have trouble on the street.” His friend was convicted of possessing an offensive weapon. At court, the white officer smiled in Clarke’s face and told him he was lucky he still had his job.

It was because Richie Clarke knew that the problem was still there that he refused to turn a blind eye to the intelligence report about him. Within days, he had succeeded in having the report withdrawn. But he wanted more. He wanted the officers who had produced it to give him a written apology. He was not saying that they were racist or malicious. He just wanted them to acknowledge that without even realising it, they had been encouraging racial stereotypes. But they did not apologise.

During the last year, Clarke has tried every avenue he can find to win redress. He discovered that the intelligence report had been sent out by officers at Streatham where an informer had provided the tip. Clarke pointed to the intelligence handbook which declared: “The fact that an item of information is received does not mean that it has to be recorded in the system. All items of information must be evaluated.” The information was inaccurate and irrelevant, he argued. The fact that it had been withdrawn when he complained must mean that Scotland Yard agreed. So why had it been put out in the first place?

He was told that the Streatham officers had not realised that he was a police officer, nor that he was black. But when he went to Streatham police station and dug out the original paperwork, he found he was clearly described as a PC – and that the detective inspector was a former colleague from Brixton. When he complained that he had been lied to, he was told there had simply been a misunderstanding.

He went through the internal complaints system. They said there had been no breach of procedure. He applied to Scotland Yard’s own computer watchdog to see if the Data Protection Act had been broken. They said there was no breach of the act. He went to the Police Federation who took legal advice and told him he could not sue for libel. He went for more legal advice to Simons Muirhead and Burton, who specialise in civil liberties and whose barrister told him that he would be able to sue. But, the Federation would not fund the action.

His Federation lawyers wrote direct to the Detective Inspector at Streatham who had processed the report. They asked for an apology. Twice. The inspector never replied. His lawyers also wrote to the police constable who had distributed the report. She sent back an unsigned letter in which she said she had only done what she thought that her inspector wanted her to.

Along the way, a senior officer apologised on behalf of Streatham division and another apologised on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. Both admitted that there had been a mistake. But neither acknowledged that there was any racial cause or effect.

Now Clarke is taking his case to an industrial tribunal on the grounds of racial harassment. Scotland Yard have offered to pay him a small amount of compensation if he will drop the case. He has refused. Their lawyers have asked for the case to be struck out on the grounds that it has been brought more than three months after the original incident. Next month the tribunal will decide whether or not to proceed.

Clarke’s friends say that he knows he may damage his career but that the same powerful feelings which made him join the police in the first place now mean that he will not give up. One source close to Clarke said: “Richie’s not saying they are guilty of racial discrimination. He is saying that because of prejudice and stereotyping, things were done a certain way that caused embarrassment to him. He is saying ‘Let’s learn, but you have to recognise that you have caused me harm and embarrassment.’ But they don’t want to admit that for fear of looking like they are admitting racial discrimination.

“That is where they will always have trouble with ethnic minorities. He is not here to embarrass the Met, he is just trying to show them the dangers. We have a black community out there who don’t trust the Met police and they have to have the courage to stop waffling and show themselves to be honest. If they had apologised properly, he would never have pursued it.”