On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old Black man, was stabbed to death at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London by a group of White youths in an unprovoked, racist attack. Stephen’s friend, Duwayne Brooks, was with him at the time and witnessed the attack.

Almost twenty years later, two of the group responsible for Stephen’s murder were convicted. For years following his murder, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Stephen Lawrence’s mother, campaigned for justice for her son. This prompted an inquiry into the police investigation of Stephen’s murder and led to the Macpherson report which was highly critical of the investigation and diagnosed the Metropolitan Police Service (‘the Met’) as “institutionally racist”. In 2012, a second independent review of the police investigation, the Ellison review, was conducted and also highly critical of the how the case was handled.  

In June 2023, details emerged of a sixth suspect, Matthew White, involved in Stephen’s murder. This reignited criticism of how the Met has handled this case and of apparent failures to follow this line of inquiry in the original investigation. In July 2023 it was announced that the officers involved in the original investigation will not face criminal charges for misconduct in public office.

Police response to Stephen’s murder

The actions of the Met at the scene and the force’s investigation of Stephen’s murder have been heavily criticised. Following Stephen’s murder, five White youths were identified as suspects and arrested. Only two were charged but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, and the charges were subsequently dropped.

Macpherson report

After years of campaigning for justice by Stephen’s parents, in 1997 former Home Secretary Jack Straw announced a judicial inquiry into the Met’s handling of the case to be led by Sir William Macpherson.

The inquiry uncovered major failings in the police investigation and in the way the police had treated Stephen Lawrence’s family and his friend Duwayne Brooks. The final Macpherson inquiry report, published in February 1999, said this was because the investigation had been “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.”

Ellison review

In July 2012, former Home Secretary Theresa May commissioned the Ellison review, an independent review into whether there was evidence of corruption in the original Met murder investigation. The review also considered whether there was evidence withheld from the Macpherson inquiry and whether the Met conducted inappropriate undercover activity directed at the Lawrence family.

The review concluded that the initial Met investigation was “seriously flawed and deserving of severe criticism”, but that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that “corruption or collusion had infected the initial murder investigation”.

Independent Office for Police Conduct investigation

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is responsible for investigating the most serious police misconduct matters.

In 2014, the IOPC began investigating some of the officers involved in the original investigation of Stephen’s murder, to establish whether corruption had played a part in the handling of the case. The investigation was undertaken by the National Crime Agency under the IOPC’s direction and control and took six years.

Following the investigation, in November 2020, the IOPC referred four former officers to the CPS to decide whether they should face criminal charges for misconduct in public office. Two and half years later, on 6 June 2023, the CPS announced that there was not enough evidence to charge the former officers.

Subsequent convictions for Stephen’s murder

Almost twenty years later, on 3 January 2012, two members of the group responsible for Stephen’s murder, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were found guilty of murder.

Gary Dobson had initially stood trial for the murder in 1996, where he was acquitted. The Macpherson report had recommended the partial repeal of the ‘double jeopardy rule’ in murder cases, which stopped people from being tried for the same crime twice, if “fresh and viable” new evidence was discovered. In May 2011, the Court of Appeal concluded there was enough new substantial evidence to allow Gary Dobson’s acquittal to be quashed, which allowed a retrial to take place.

The other three named suspects in Stephen’s murder have not been prosecuted. In 2020, the Met made the decision to stop investigating Stephen’s murder and closed the case.

Recent developments

A sixth suspect

On 26 June 2023, following a BBC investigation, details emerged that there was evidence of a sixth suspect involved in Stephen Lawrence’s murder but that this line of inquiry was mishandled at the time by police.

In response to this information, the Met acknowledged there was evidence of a sixth suspect and has named them as Matthew White (who has now passed away) and released details of his interactions with the police throughout the investigations.

Duwayne Brooks had originally described an attacker who resembled Matthew White to the police, but he was initially treated as a witness rather than a suspect (publicly known as Witness K). Matthew White was later considered as a suspect in 2000, and again in 2013, where he was interviewed by the Met and charged. The charges were later dropped when the CPS decided there was not enough evidence for prosecution.

Handlings of the inquiries related to Matthew White are under criticism, as is the Met’s decision in 2020 to close the case. Following the naming of Matthew White as a suspect, Duwayne Brooks said he would have been able to identify himas the same person he had described to the police, had images of Matthew White been shared with him.

Responses and reactions

In response to the BBC investigation, the Met shared a statement by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Ward who acknowledged that mistakes were made in the way the original investigation was handled and apologised:

Unfortunately, too many mistakes were made in the initial investigation and the impact of them continues to be seen.

… On the 30th anniversary of Stephen’s murder, Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley apologised for our failings and I repeat that apology today.

Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Stephen Lawrence’s mother, said the information of the Met knowing about a sixth suspect was “shocking but unsurprising”.

Baroness Lawrence has raised concerns that no police officer has received sanctions in relation to the handling of the case and that it was journalists that investigated the possibility of a sixth suspect instead of the Met.

Debate over accepting institutional racism in the police

In 1999, the Macpherson report concluded “institutional racism affects the Met, and police services elsewhere.” In 2021, the Home Affairs Select Committee looked at progress from the Macpherson report and found:

… improvements in the policing of racist crimes, in the commitments made to promoting equality and diversity and in good examples of local community policing. But our inquiry has also identified persistent, deep rooted and unjustified racial disparities in key areas including a confidence gap for BME [Black and minority ethnic] communities, lack of progress on BME recruitment, problems in misconduct proceedings and unjustified racial disparities in stop and search. In those areas, we propose urgent action.

In 2023, Baroness Louise Casey also concluded the Met was institutionally racist after a review into the standards of behaviour and internal culture. The Casey Review was commissioned by former Met Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, after Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman, was raped and murdered by a serving officer, as well as other incidents involving Met officers and staff.

The Casey Review reached this conclusion having found issues with the Met’s internal structures, resulting in a systemically biased misconduct system and underrepresentation of Black, Asian and other officers from minority ethnic backgrounds as well as practices that were found to be disproportionate in its service to Black Londoners:

Black Londoners are under-protected – disproportionately the victims of homicides and domestic abuse; and over-policed – facing disproportionate use of stop and search and use of force by the Met. 

Current Met Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, has not accepted the label of institutionally racist for the Met. He acknowledged to the Home Affairs Committee that “I have a minority of officers who are racist who should not be in the service”, but prefers to describe the Met as having systemic issues as the word ‘institutional’ “has so many definitions and interpretations”.

Several groups have criticised this stance, arguing that progress cannot be made between the Met Police and Black communities without acknowledging institutional racism. Written evidence the Home Affairs Committee received in December 2022 for its Policing Priorities inquiry from StopWatch, a coalition campaigning against the over-policing of marginalised communities, stated:

For the police service to realise its vision of becoming an anti-racist organisation, public admission of institutional racism is a necessary precondition for the proper implementation of policies seeking to rebuild the confidence of marginalised groups.

StopWatch has said that failure to recognise institutional racism perpetuates the idea that “racism, discrimination and bias” are “solely attributable to the conduct of individual officers rather than a systemic issue.”

After commissioning a public survey on the National Police Race Action Plan in 2022, setting out the ambition of police chiefs in England and Wales to build an anti-racist police service, the National Police Chief’s Council and College of Policing have recommended that “the Police acknowledge and apologise for institutional racism”.

Further Reading

Crown Prosecution Service, No charges for ex-police officers in original Stephen Lawrence investigation, 7 July 2023

BBC News, Stephen Lawrence murder: Friend ‘could have identified sixth suspect’ [online], 3 July 2023

BBC News, Stephen Lawrence: Anger at police failings after BBC names sixth suspect [online], 26 June 2023

BBC News, Stephen Lawrence: BBC names new suspect in UK’s most notorious racist murder [online], 26 June 2023

Sky News, Met Police chief Sir Mark Rowley again rejects use of term ‘institutional’ to describe force’s problems after damning report [online], 22 March 2023

Metropolitan Police, Baroness Casey Review Final Report: An independent review into the standards of behaviour and internal culture of the Metropolitan Police Service, March 2023

National Police Chiefs’ Council, We are listening to improve policing for Black people, 10 February 2023

Home Affairs Committee, The Macpherson Report: Twenty-two years on, 21 July 2021, HC 139-III 2021-22

Metropolitan Police, Stephen Lawrence murder: Response to BBC investigation, 26 June 2023

National Police Chiefs’ Council, Police Race Action Plan: Improving Policing for Black People, May 2022

Home Affairs Committee, Policing priorities written evidence, 14 December 2022, HC 635 2022-23, POP0050

Home Affairs Committee, Policing priorities oral evidence, 14 December 2022, HC 635 2022-23, Qq42-103 

Independent Office for Police Conduct, File of evidence being sent to CPS following conclusion of Stephen Lawrence corruption investigation, 3 November 2020

Sky News, Stephen Lawrence’s parents ‘sad’ and ‘disappointed’ as murder investigation shelved [online], 11 August 2020

The Home Office, Stephen Lawrence independent review, GOV.UK, 6 March 2014

BBC News, Stephen Lawrence’s killers Gary Dobson and David Norris [online], 3 January 2012

R v Dobson [2011] EWCA Crim 1256, 18 May 2011

The Home Office, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, GOV.UK, 24 February 1999

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