Institutional Racism and Police Reform: An Empirical Critique

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Institutional racism became a potent mobilising concept in police reform in the UK following the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999. Yet while it continues to be used to highlight problematic police/community relationships, little attention has been paid to whether it actually works as a conceptual instrument for change. The explanatory value of the concept has long been contested due to its inherent ambiguities. However, reflecting the noted lack of empirical research in this area, there has been little exploration of how the concept is interpreted and applied by those charged with responding. Drawing on ethnographic research in the aftermath of the Inquiry, this paper puts in question the continuing use of the concept as a lever for reform. Empirical exploration reveals that the conceptual limitations of the term have important operational implications. While the concept provoked an urgent reaction, its central ambiguities confronted police services with profound difficulties in responding. At the same time, it inadvertently focused attention on internal police culture. Consequently, despite the Inquiry's intention that the term would divert attention away from a preoccupation with overt racism among police staff, this is precisely where reform activity was directed. Moreover, the concept not only failed to direct attention to the dynamics of institutional discrimination but, through the activity it elicited, in fact sustained them. However, despite these limitations, the mobilising power of the concept may have instigated a more subtle and pervasive series of shifts in organisational norms. A new approach grounded in practice and giving primacy to conceptual accuracy is now needed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages22
JournalPolicing and Society
Issue number1
Early online date16 Jul 2012
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Institutional racism
  • Stephen Lawrence Inquiry
  • police culture
  • police reform


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