In April 2014 I was asked to represent a man called Gurpal Virdi. The last time I had heard that name was ten years earlier at a memorial service for my father, Paul Foot, at the Hackney Empire. There, Virdi had immediately stood out, as a serving police officer addressing a largely Marxist audience. In 1998 he had been suspended from the Metropolitan Police for ‘sending racist hate mail’ to the police. He was also alleged to have sent such letters to himself. My father wrote about his case in Private Eye and the Guardian. Eventually the allegations were dismissed; Virdi won record damages from the Met for racial discrimination. The allegations against him had emerged shortly after Virdi, a detective sergeant, complained to his superiors at the Met that an arrest he had made, for a racist assault, hadn’t been treated as a hate crime. Soon afterwards he decided to make a submission to Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It was this inquiry that led to the charge that there was ‘institutional racism’ in the Met. After Virdi’s reinstatement in 2000, he was unsurprisingly overlooked for promotion until finally he retired from the police in 2012.
In 2014, a new allegation was made against him. He was accused of indecent assault of a minor during the arrest of a black teenager nearly thirty years previously. Given that my father had worked on Virdi’s previous case, I felt a duty to do all I could to prevent what appeared to me to be another witch hunt. Gurpal came into the office and was exactly the way I remembered him at the Hackney Empire, warm and straightforward. The timing of the decision to investigate him was suspicious: Virdi was at this point seeking election as a local councillor for the Labour Party in Hounslow, a degree of prominence that his former colleagues in the police seemed keen to deny him. Following the allegation the party suspended him, though he went on to be successfully elected as an independent.
From the outset it was clear that the Met wanted to see Virdi convicted. Before his first appearance at Westminster Magistrates’ Court they issued a press release salacious enough to ensure that newspaper journalists and photographers attended the hearing. ‘Former detective accused of sexually assaulting teenage boy with his truncheon,’ the Mirror reported. After months of litigation and repeated requests for disclosure the prosecution revealed that the police had been aware for some years that the complainant was not, as he claimed, a minor at the time of the alleged incident. The Met had nevertheless charged Virdi with the more serious offence of assaulting a minor, and issued a false press release. The assault was supposed to have been committed with a collapsible baton, but no such baton was used by the Met at the time. The more we analysed the prosecution case the less credible it appeared.
I found it fascinating to represent a police officer, and I think he and I each gained an insight into the other’s side of the profession. Virdi’s skills proved invaluable as the case was being prepared for trial. While giving evidence the complainant bizarrely denied being married. Virdi tracked down his marriage certificate, which he was presented with during cross-examination. Virdi turned up evidence of the complainant’s bankruptcy proceedings too. I have never seen a witness give evidence that contained quite so many lies.
One of the difficulties of the case was that little of the original documentation survived. Virdi’s analysis helped identify what information was missing. We made endless disclosure requests, which were met with obfuscation. But we did obtain one document that contained some important information. In the record of the complainant’s conviction, another policeman was named as the arresting officer. Virdi tracked down the officer’s address and we visited him. I am always a little apprehensive when approaching a witness out of the blue, especially when the events in question took place three decades ago. In Behind the Blue Line, Virdi recalls that visit:
We got no answer when we knocked on the door. I began to worry that the entire trip was going to prove fruitless.
Then, thankfully, Graham appeared at a side door. He was dressed for gardening and his hands were covered in soil, but although he was older now, I still recognised him. We stared at each other for a few seconds, before I said: ‘Hello Graham, how are you?’
‘Oh my God … How are you, my old friend?’
Graham came forward and we hugged and he kissed me on the cheek.
It’s rare for a criminal defence solicitor to ask a police officer to be a defence witness, but Graham’s evidence proved vital. At trial, Virdi was represented by Henry Blaxland QC, who in his closing speech to the jury laid out the absurdity of the case. We barely had time to sit down in the canteen before the jury came back with its verdict. Virdi was acquitted of both charges. The question remained as to how the case had ever come to court.
The Macpherson Report resulting from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was supposed to curb institutional racism in the police. In 1999, the year the report was published, black people were six times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched. In 2008, they were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched, and in 2017 eight times more likely. Despite these statistics the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, recently defended a fourfold increase in the use of stop and search in the year to March 2018, arguing that rising arrest rates justified its use.
Here’s one example, from my own recent practice, of what lies behind these statistics. In March 2014, the same month the police arranged for Virdi to be interviewed, Awate Suleiman, a community worker and rap artist of Eritrean descent, was listening to a podcast during a cigarette break on the Maiden Lane Estate in Camden, where he lived. Some Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) confronted him and insisted on carrying out a ‘welfare check’. Suleiman ignored them and walked off. The community support officers pursued him across the estate, having called in support from colleagues: one van, two cars, a motorcycle rider and a cyclist responded. Suleiman was arrested for assaulting two PCSOs and taken to the police station. He was interviewed and charged. I took on his case. A woman who was unhappy about police activity on the estate had filmed his arrest. Horrified when she discovered he had been charged with assault, she provided me with the footage she had recorded, which showed Awate complaining to the police that he had done nothing wrong. (It was also helpful when Jeremy Corbyn, who knew Awate because he was a close schoolfriend of one of his sons, provided a lovely character reference.) The week before the trial began Suleiman unexpectedly received a donation from the comedian Frankie Boyle: some smart trousers for his court appearance. On the day the trial was set to begin, the prosecutor dropped the charges. The Camden New Journal put the decision down to the ‘magic trousers’, but the trousers didn’t stop Suleiman being arrested three more times by the Met. He was cleared on all three occasions, two of which went to trial (and one of those to appeal).
Example two. Following publication in August 2014 of the Jay Report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, racists and fascists headed to the town seeking to take advantage of the situation. Among them were members of National Action, an extreme right-wing group soon to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation. Over the following 14 months the police allowed 14 demonstrations called by far-right groups to take place and told the local Asian community to stay at home. In August 2015 Mushin Ahmed, an 81-year-old imam, was viciously attacked by racists; one kick left the imprint of the sole of a trainer on his face. A few weeks after his death yet another racist demonstration was called. The police allowed the march to reach the centre of town, this time allowing a group of demonstrators through police lines, where they congregated outside the William Fry pub, a far-right haunt located at the heart of a largely Asian area. The local community had called a counter-demonstration, and the police – in their wisdom – dispersed the counter-demonstrators towards the William Fry. The racists, predictably, attacked the Asians. On this occasion the community defended itself. Asif Zaman, a former chef, was walking home when he heard a volley of racist abuse, and saw bottles being thrown. He tried to keep the racists at bay while shepherding the Asian youths back. An effort to force the racists back into the pub was underway when the police finally turned up.
Five weeks later, the police carried out dawn raids, arresting 12 Asian men, including Zaman, and charging them with violent disorder. They became known as the Rotherham 12. Ten of the 12 stood trial, and after three weeks – during which the activities of the far-right groups were examined, the tactics and strategy of the South Yorkshire Police were heavily criticised, and all the defendants gave evidence – the jury found all the men not guilty. (A subsequent trial found four of the racists guilty; the remaining two Asian men who had originally pleaded guilty were able to reopen their pleas and were acquitted.)
It isn’t just the police, of course. The day before the verdict in the Rotherham 12 case, Lord Justice Leveson, at the Court of Appeal, quashed the conviction of David Sellu, a colorectal surgeon with an exemplary record stretching back more than thirty years. In 2013 he had been convicted of gross negligent manslaughter, blamed for the delay in operating on a patient with a perforated bowel who died of sepsis a day later. He was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment. By the time his conviction was overturned – on the basis that the jury was given inadequate guidance on the law – he had served 15 months. A subsequent hearing in March last year at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service found that the allegations against him, which the General Medical Council had continued to pursue after his acquittal, were ‘not proved’. But why were the allegations pursued in a criminal court in the first place, and why did the GMC continue to question Sellu’s fitness to practise after his acquittal? This treatment resembles that of Hadiza Bawa-Garba, described by Lana Spawls in the LRB of 21 June 2018. A review in the British Medical Journal in 1994 reported that ethnic minority doctors like Sellu and Bawa-Garba were six times more likely than white doctors to be charged with offences. This figure seems unlikely to have altered much: black doctors and nurses continue to be disproportionately prosecuted, and concerns have been voiced in the BMJ that they are being blamed for group or systemic failures.
The cases I have described provide a snapshot of the way our criminal justice system deals with race. Richard Stone, an adviser to Macpherson during the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, provided character evidence at Gurpal Virdi’s trial. The court was told that Virdi’s submission to the inquiry was one of the first that pointed it in the direction of its final conclusion, that ‘institutional racism’ was not confined to the Lawrence case, and not ‘just locally present in the South-East London murder squad’. In his book Hidden Stories of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (2013), Stone described the battles that had taken place behind the scenes and claimed that the elimination of institutional racism from the Met was still unfinished business. Virdi’s book confirms Stone’s fears.
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