Bijan Ebrahimi and the 'institutionally racist' Bristol police


Almost 19 years after the publication of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report the Bristol police force stands accused of institutional racism in failing a murder victim.

Bijan Ebrahimi was punched and kicked to death by his neighbour Lee James, but his complaints of abuse spanning several years were sidelined by Avon and Somerset police, who treated him as a troublemaker rather than a victim and sided with his white abusers.

An investigation by the Safer Bristol Partnership (SBP) found a "collective failure" by Avon and Somerset Police and Bristol City Council, and that both authorities were guilty of institutional racism. The case is from the same city where police shot their own race advisor, Judah Adunbiwith, a powerful taser after cops claimed he matched the description of a suspect.

While Bristol has issues of racism to deal with – a report earlier this year by the Runnymede Trust branded the city the most racially unequal in the country – such problems are not confined to the south-west. Cleveland police, in the north-east, faced accusations that they mounted a covert operation into all its’ Asian officers, a claim the force deny.

In other news this month, a review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found that white suspects are more likely to be found with drugs during police stop and searches, yet black people remain eight times more likely to be targeted. The cases prove that institutional racism remains a live issue today. The question is how much have police officers learnt in the past two decades since the Macpherson report?

The former Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said  that claims of institutional racism have “some justification”, and that his force should take such accusations “on the chin.” However, it is not the chin where change is needed, but in the practices and culture of the force.

Hogan-Howe’s successor, Cressida Dick, has been reluctant to admit that disparities in stop and search outcomes are the result of racial biases. Figures on use of physical force by police officers show that, in London, black people were on receiving end in 36% of cases despite making up only 13% of the capital’s population

Over half of all people arrested in London are non-white. Disproportionality in stop and search is reducing since 2008, as the government’s race audit showed, but while it persists every police force has a duty to own the reasons why it exists. Public confidence in police remains far too low, especially among Black communities. It needs to rise for the sake of protecting the victims of crime – and BME people are more likely to suffer crime, as well as improve flows of intelligence to catch criminals.

Cases like that of Rashan Charles, who died in controversial circumstances after being arrested in Hackney earlier this year, further undermines faith in the police.

The tragedy of Bijan Ebrahimi’s murder, and the institutional issues that led up to it, is a reminder that senior police officers and all public officials need to get to grips with systemic failings in their organisations and not write them off as being caused by ‘bad apples.

Black communities have heard the phrase ‘lessons must be learnt’ too many times. It is incumbent on every chief constable to demonstrate that tackling institutional racism remains a key priority.

Lester Holloway