Racial Disparities in Law Enforcement in the United Kingdom

The British state is hostile towards ethnic minorities through racial discrimination in the law enforcement branch of the Home Office. This problem is particularly pervasive within the Metropolitan Police Service, which oversees the country’s most ethnically diverse city – London – where almost half of the population identify as Asian, Black, Mixed, or Other.1 The London Metropolitan Police disproportionately targets members of these ethnic groups, especially Black people, when enforcing inextricably intertwined drug-related and violent crimes.

Drug prohibition in the United Kingdom is rooted in the explicit state oppression of minority ethnic groups, across the Atlantic Ocean, in the United States. Between 1890 and 1920, race relations in the United States reached their lowest point, as Black people moved to the North to take factory jobs, the U.S. army fought Native Americans in the West, Chinese immigrants came to perform gruelling manual labour, and Mexican immigrants came to the South and Southwest to work in the fields. Such dramatic social upheaval in such a short time generated fear, and concerns about drug misuse came to be associated with ethnic minorities. These fears eventually lead to the 1914 Harrison Act regulating opioids, which were thought to provoke “Chinamen’s wiles”, and cocaine, to control the “Negro cocaine fiend”.2, 3 “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races”, said Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics.4

The United States then looked to export this racist prohibition of drugs around the world. The Treaty of Versailles brought guaranteed peace between Germany and the Allied Powers. It also contained the subtle stipulation, introduced by the United States, that “[signatory nations] will entrust the League [of Nations] with the general supervision over [...] illegal drugs”.5 The League of Nations became the United Nations after World War II, and passed the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Ten years later, the British Parliament introduced the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which was the first major national prohibition legislation, and the foundation of Britain’s war on drugs. The penalties depend on the type of drug, which are categorised into ‘classes’, and the quantity, which determines possession, intent to supply, or production. As such, Britain’s modern drug policies are shaped by hundred-year-old racist policies in the United States. A lot has changed since drug policies were instituted, especially attitudes towards race, yet impermissible patterns of racial injustice in law enforcement persist in Britain today.

In an official report on strategies to police violent crime, the Home Office explicitly stated that drug-selling gangs “have strong links to serious violence”.6 According to the former headteacher of a school in a low-income part of East London, “although the majority of Black boys in London achieve well in school and thereafter … poverty and deprivation (of life chances and opportunity) can drive boys and young men into violent criminal activity”, especially as “the age of recruitment and grooming of young people for gang activity is dropping to primary school levels”.7 There have been about 4,000 knife crimes with injury in London every year for the past decade.8 Violence is unquestionably undesirable in any society, and should be policed and punished. However, the strategies adopted by the London Metropolitan Police in recent years are beyond problematic, and do more harm than good by targeting and demonising members of minority ethnic groups.

In the same report, the Home Office blamed violent crime, in part, on “a small minority … using social media to glamorise gang or drug‑selling life, taunt rivals and normalise weapons carrying.” Specifically, the police identified UK drill music as a culprit. Typically produced by Black Britons, UK drill music expresses “the harsh reality of life in deprived South London social housing estates, and the artists’ loyalties to their immediate locale. This often involves taunting rivals in vividly shocking terms, describing the harm that awaits them, and keeping a tally of stabbings in YouTube ‘scoreboards’ as a sign of each collective’s transgressive capital”. In order to combat this perceived source of violence, the police introduced “a series of bans against drill music videos” and “Criminal Behaviour Orders and gang injunctions against drill artists”.9 Regardless of whether or not a song can really inspire someone to commit murder, this strategy is quite evidently racially motivated, and exemplifies the racial discrimination in British law enforcement.

As part of another egregiously racist strategy, the Home Office introduced a public information campaign that they believed would “help emphasise the dangers of carrying a knife and challenge the idea that it makes you safer”. Earlier this year, advertisements featuring stories about young people who benefitted from deciding to not to carry a knife began to appear on billboards, bus stops…and chicken boxes in fried chicken shops. Seriously. In total, more than 321,000 boxes were sent to 210 fried chicken shops around the country. Speaking to the Guardian, Labour MP David Lammy put it well that “the Home Office is using taxpayers’ money to sponsor an age-old trope. … This ridiculous stunt is either explicitly racist or, at best, unfathomably stupid”.10

But perhaps the most persistent and pernicious form of racial injustice in law enforcement is stop and search. “The police have the power to stop and search you if an officer has reasonable grounds to believe that you have been involved in a crime, or think that you are in possession of a prohibited item”, such as “drugs, weapons and stolen property”.11 This strategy is supposedly an investigative tool to prevent violent and drug-related crimes. But in practice, its application does not fulfil its purpose. According to a 2019 report on drug policy enforcement, conducted by the London School of Economics and Release, “Black people were stopped and searched at more than eight times the rate of White people in 2016/17”; however, “repeated self-report studies have indicated that Black and minority ethnic groups tend to use drugs at a lower rate than White people” in the United Kingdom, and “the ‘find’ rate for drugs is lower for Black than White people”.12 This racially unequal pattern of enforcement challenges the legitimacy of the ‘grounds’ upon which stop and searches are executed. Perhaps, then, these strategies have less to do with preventing crime, and more to do with preserving some spurious conception of social order in Britain, and perhaps this social order is predicated on ‘Whiteness’. To the police, members of ethnic minorities are seen as a threat to this order, hence the racial disparities in law enforcement.

Drug policy in the United Kingdom is in urgent need of reform: the Home Office said itself that illicit drug-selling is strongly linked to violent crime; legalising drugs would sever this link. Failing this measure, the role of law enforcement in drug policy should be reformed: stop and search should be banned, or – at the very least – reflect the actual offense rates of different demographics. The British government is dutybound to serve all British citizens, not just those belonging to a certain ethnic group. It is time for law enforcement to fulfil its duty.