Home Secretary's Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust speech

Speech given by Home Secretary Theresa May at the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust's annual Criminal Justice Lecture

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

The relationship between the public and the police

Thank you. And thank you for inviting me here to deliver the Stephen Lawrence Memorial Lecture. It is an extraordinary privilege.

We are here to honour the life of a young man which almost 22 years ago was so senselessly and needlessly cut short. I am sure that most of us here can never truly comprehend what it is like to lose someone in such appalling circumstances. Nor do I imagine that any of us can truly know what it is like as we search for the truth and pursue justice only to meet difficulty after difficulty — year after year — and to find our path blocked every step of the way.

So this evening I want to pay tribute to Doreen Lawrence, Neville Lawrence and the many others who — over so many years — have fought so hard for Stephen — never giving up, but finding the spirit to keep on going even in the most difficult times. And doing so with immense dignity. Your courage, your strength, and your perseverance are an example to us all.

Tonight I want to talk about the relationship between the public and the police. I want to talk about what happens when things go wrong, when the system doesn’t work as well as it should, and when families and communities are let down. And what, working with the police themselves, we are doing to put it right.

And I want to begin by talking about one of the worst examples of when things go wrong. When young, vulnerable people suffering a mental health crisis die in the most tragic of circumstance inside a police cell. These people are not there because they have committed an offence; they are there because they are vulnerable. They have been detained under the Mental Heath Act and taken to a police station only because there is no health-based place of safety available for them to get the care they need.

In my time as Home Secretary, I have met families whose loved ones have died in circumstances like these — circumstances they quite understandably believe could have been avoided. And talking to these families, it is painfully apparent how much they continue to feel the loss of their relatives, and how desperate they are for answers.

And while I can’t talk about individual cases that are still before inquests and other investigations, an impression I regularly take away from meetings like these is how badly the families and victims feel they have been let down by the organisations that should have supported them.

Propelled innocently into contact with the criminal justice system instead of encountering compassion, justice and redress, they all too often encounter obstruction, bureaucracy and delay.

This can include attitudes from the authorities that are seemingly unsympathetic to their needs, unhelpful or evasive delay and sometimes obfuscation from official bodies whose mission is to help not hinder, frustrating procedures whose burden falls on the victims and their families, not the authorities and lengthy investigations which can go on for months and even years.

And all this at a time when families are feeling vulnerable and confused and in need of guidance not obstacles.

Imagine. These are grieving families — mourning the loss of a son, daughter, brother, sister. They have found themselves in this situation and desperately need help to find a way through it. They want and need to know the truth about what happened.

For such families, the search for truth can seem like a battle every step of the way.

Where things have gone wrong

Thankfully, deaths in police custody are rare. They are tragic incidents that no-one, least of all police officers, wants to happen. Events that everyone takes every step to avoid, but sadly they do still happen.

They represent untold pain and suffering which would be avoided if our systems worked better. And we should be clear; these are vulnerable people in need of care, not custody. Their needs are medical rather than criminal.

Chief constables, police and crime commissioners and front line police officers all tell me that the police do not want to have respond to incidents they are not trained to deal with. Because no police officer wants to have to take a vulnerable person to a police cell when there is no where else to go. To use police cars to transport vulnerable people because there is nothing else available. To use powers of restraint when trained healthcare is needed.

These are tragic incidents that, while they may be the first to respond, the police are not best placed to deal with. Together with the police, we are working to make sure these things happen as infrequently as possible, and I am glad to say we are making progress. But we are still seeing the use of police cells as a place of safety for people detained under Section 136 in far too many cases, including for children.

And on too many occasions police vehicles — rather than an ambulance or medical transport — are forced to take people to a police cell or a health-based place of safety, which can sometimes have such devastating consequences.

This is why when police officers do respond, and when they are the first on the scene, and when there is no alternative, I have been clear that they must do so not just with professionalism and integrity, but with care and compassion, as well as the requisite training and understanding, too.

But then there are aspects of policing that officers can control, and where the traditional police response could be improved. We have seen, in this Parliament, how police forces need to take the reports of women and children much more seriously in relation to domestic and sexual abuse.

And only a few weeks ago, Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner, set out concerns that the police and criminal justice agencies fail to demonstrate compassion, empathy or patience when victims report a concern.”It is shocking”— said Baroness Newlove — “How many victims told me how ignored, dismissed and confused they felt when they tried to raise concerns about their treatment.” Her report covers the entire criminal justice system, but shows the importance of fairness and decency alongside professionalism and integrity.

And we know that public perceptions of policing have been damaged when police powers have been used inappropriately, ineffectively or abused.

In my time as Home Secretary, I have heard accounts exposing the excessive and poorly targeted use of stop and search. Evidence that if you are black or from a minority ethnic background that you are up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than if you are white, and police data which shows that only about ten per cent of stops result in an arrest.

We have had evidence suggesting that if you are Black and Ethnic Minority you may be more likely to be Tasered, more likely to be referred to mental health services via the police and criminal justice system, more likely to receive medication, and more likely to be in high and medium secure units and prisons.

And we have seen public trust in policing undermined most of all when things have gone wrong and the police have responded with obstruction, neglect or cover-up. The conclusions of the Hillsborough independent panel. The ongoing inquiry by an independent panel into the murder of Daniel Morgan. The police investigation and then the collapsed trial into the murder of Lynnette White. The damning conclusions of the Ellison Review into the operations of the Special Demonstration Squad, including disturbing findings about the behaviour of an SDS officer in relation to an activist group concerned with the Lawrences’ fight for justice.

As I said, at the beginning of my speech, the Lawrences have fought for almost 22 years to know the truth about their son’s death and still the truth is emerging.

Nearly 200 hundred years ago, when Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police he declared that “the police are the public and the public are the police.” It was a declaration upon which our model of policing rests and it states very clearly that in this country we believe in policing by consent. And it is a principle which I know every constable, every PCSO and every staff member knows and believes by heart.

But as I said at the Police Federation Conference last year, it is a principle which risks being undermined if we do not repair the mistakes of the past and rebuild the relationship between the police and the very people they exist to serve.

Of course, opinion polls consistently show that the majority of people have confidence in the police — with polls showing that about two thirds of the public trust the police to tell the truth. And we should not underestimate that or the strength of admiration and respect for police officers in this country, or indeed around the world.

But we must also not forget that those same surveys show that a third of people do not trust the police. And for some communities, the proportion of people who do not trust the police is even higher. According to one survey carried out in 2010 only 42% of black people from a Caribbean background trust the police, meaning that a majority do not.

Furthermore, in 2012/13 nearly eight in ten people who complained about the police were not satisfied with the way their complaint was dealt with.

And it is deeply troubling that only a sixth of women who suffered a serious sexual assault reported it to the police, and of those who did, more than a third — 36% — felt that the police response was either fairly or very unhelpful.

These figures are disappointing, and they represent people who feel their interaction with the police was not conducted in the right way.

Moreover, as every officer, chief constable and police and crime commissioner knows, they are unsustainable for a policing model reliant on public confidence and mutual respect. And we must never accept a situation in which public trust and confidence in the police is at risk of being damaged.

Police reform is working

This is why, when I became Home Secretary, I initiated a radical programme of police reform. I abolished unaccountable and invisible police authorities and introduced directly elected police and crime commissioners. HMIC was made properly independent of the government and of the police so it could act directly in the public interest. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has been beefed up so that in future it can take on all serious and sensitive cases. I established the College of Policing to drive up professional standards and create the first ever Code of Ethics for policing. And it is why I have been determined to work with police leaders to take on the toughest and most intransigent issues.

You will remember that earlier I referred to the excessive and poorly targeted use of stop and search. Stop and search is an important police tool in fighting crime — particularly in combating gangs, knife crime and drug offences. But when this power is misapplied, and innocent people are stopped and searched for no good reason, it is an enormous waste of police time. It is bad for public trust and confidence in the police and it is unfair, particularly to young, black men.

So I have reformed the use of stop and search. Under the new voluntary Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme, the age, ethnicity and outcome of every person searched must be recorded and published. “No suspicion” stop and searches must now be recorded by a chief superintendent or higher rank. The public now have the right to apply to accompany police officers on patrol so that they can see how stop and search is being used. And a stop and search complaints “community trigger” is being introduced, ensuring that where a particular force receives a significant number of complaints about stop and search, they will have to explain how and why they are using their powers.

I have taken action where miscarriages of justices are perceived to have taken place, but systems of redress and accountability have proved insufficient. The Daniel Morgan Panel has been established to look into serious allegations of police corruption surrounding the investigations into the murder of Daniel Morgan. Following the Ellison Review revelations about the very real and substantial failings around the role and operations of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad, work is ongoing to investigate criminal wrongdoing and uncover any further miscarriages of justice if they exist.

As I announced to Parliament last year, I am setting up a statutory inquiry, to be led by a judge, to investigate undercover policing and the work of the SDS. I will be making a further announcement to Parliament about this in the near future. And I will also make an announcement to Parliament shortly on unresolved questions surrounding the wrongful imprisonment of five men for the murder of Lynette White nearly 25 years ago.

I have brought forward reforms to overhaul the police complaints system from start to finish in order to make it more independent, more responsive and easier to understand. These are changes supported by policing, and with forces’ and PCCs’ help I want to go further, by giving Police and Crime Commissioners a greater role in triaging and responding to complaints and by allowing organisations, like advocacy bodies and charities, to bring super complaints on behalf of a group of people or on the basis of a trend which may be harming the interests of the public.

I have also talked this evening about the police response to vulnerable people. It is imperative that people suffering from mental health problems receive the help and the support that they need, and deserve. That’s why the Home Office is working with the Department of Health to ensure that the right help is being sought and given. So we have introduced street triage pilots which ensure that a mental health practitioner — on the street, in a patrol car, in a call centre or over the phone — works closely with the police during incidents to help them deal with incidents which might result in a detention under Section 136. We are working to improve access to health-based places of safety. We have launched a trial scheme to test a new model of liaison and diversion.

And alongside reviews of Section 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act, I have commissioned HMIC to undertake a specific thematic inspection of the welfare of vulnerable people in police custody, including, but not limited to, those with mental health problems and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. And I am pleased to say that the Inspectorate is on track to publish its report in March.

In addition, I have asked my officials to work with the National Policing Lead on the use of force, Chief Constable David Shaw, to conduct an in-depth review of data on Taser and other use of force by police officers, to show how police officers are deploying these sensitive powers, who they are being used on and what the outcome was.

And I know that the Police Federation has recently called for all police officers to be armed with Tasers if they wish. I want to be clear that while individual chief constables and PCCs are responsible for the decisions on a force by force basis, I do not think this is a decision that should be taken lightly, especially given the extremely limited information we have on how Taser is used by the police at present.

Directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners, who hold chief constables to account, are working locally to ensure that policing is tailored to the needs of the local area. And we are seeing examples of Police and Crime Commissioners and forces responding to many of the issues I have talked about tonight. In Dorset, Martyn Underhill has commissioned a review of the use of Taser in police custody. In Sussex, Katy Bourne has led work to reduce the use of police cells as a place of safety. In Northumbria, Vera Baird has championed work to end violence against women and girls, including the creation of 165 Domestic and Sexual Violence Champions in workplaces, clubs and public spaces. And in Greater Manchester, Tony Lloyd took firm and decisive action by commissioning the Coffey Report into child abuse.

All of these reforms and measures will help to rebuild the relationship between the public and the police. They will ensure proper accountability of the use of sensitive powers, help forces improve the response to victims and the vulnerable, prevent miscarriages of justice from happening again, and where things have gone wrong they will help us to put them right.

And I am glad to say we are already seeing positive signs from these reforms and a real commitment from the police to change.

The number of stops and searches has fallen by over a quarter since 2010. But we must continue efforts to make sure stops are intelligence-led, fair and effective. I am pleased that every police force in England and Wales, including the British Transport Police, has voluntarily signed up to the Best Use Scheme. By the end of the Parliament, forty one police forces will be fully compliant, with the remainder joining by the summer. In the coming weeks, the College of Policing will publish new national training standards for stop and search and a revised Police and Criminal Evidence Act Code of Practice A, which governs the use of stop and search, will come into force. The revised code makes clear what constitutes “reasonable grounds for suspicion”, the legal basis on which most stop and search powers is based, and that those caught misusing their powers will be subject to disciplinary action on performance procedures.

It is my hope, expectation and objective that these steps will further reduce the number of stops and searches across England and Wales, as the use of these sensitive powers becomes properly targeted, based on reasonable grounds and accountable to citizens and communities.

But let me be absolutely clear: if stops and searches do not continue to fall, if the use of these powers does not become more targeted, and stop-to-arrests ratios do not improve, then a Conservative Government will not hesitate to bring in primary legislation to make it happen.

The police response to people with mental health needs is improving. The number of times police cells were used as a place of safety under Section 136 has been cut by 23% in the last year alone, and in some areas where our street triage pilots are operating police cells are no longer used at all. At the end of last year, along with the Department for Health, we published further proposals to improve the response to vulnerable people including putting an end to the practice of holding children with mental health problems in police cells.

We are seeing improvements elsewhere. In the last year, the proportion of women experiencing sexual violence has fallen from 4.2% in 2011/12 to 2.2% in 2013/14, according to the Independent Crime Survey for England and Wales, and there are positive signs that more women are willing to come forward to report these terrible crimes, in part due to the improvements that forces have made since being inspected by HMIC last year. And more of those who do come forward are receiving the support to ensure that justice is served. Recent figures from the Crown Prosecution Service show that prosecutions for domestic abuse have risen by over 10% this year and the conviction rate is at its highest ever level.

And overall crime is down and it continues to fall. Nearly five years since I became Home Secretary, crime has dropped by more than a fifth according to the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales. That is not just an abstract statistic. It means 962,000 fewer criminal damage incidents, 160,000 fewer domestic burglaries and 413,000 fewer violent incidents in England and Wales than when this Government came to office. This is good news for the safety of our streets and the security of our homes, and thanks in no small part to the hard work of our police officers day in and day out.


But we must go further.

We must continue to work to bring greater accountability to the use of sensitive powers and more transparency about how, where and on whom they are used. We must ensure better care for victims and survivors who have lived through appalling experiences, and seek better redress for those failed by the system.

In this Parliament it has been necessary to introduce significant reform of the police to reduce excessive bureaucracy, introduce proper accountability, reform ineffective institutions and put operational control back where it belongs — with the police. But the deal has always been clear. Operational control for the police. The power to hold the police to account for communities.

So we’ve achieved a great deal. But as I have set out this evening, substantial reform will still be needed in the next Parliament, working with the police themselves to continue to ensure that the police really are the public and the public really are the police. So that tragic incidents like the death of Stephen - and the terrible things that followed - are never repeated again. That is something which as Home Secretary I am determined to see delivered.

And it would be a fitting achievement for this remarkable campaigning family, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, as well as the best way we can pay tribute, all these years on, to Stephen.

Published 18 February 2015