The Stephen Lawrence murder case and Croydon’s connection

Stephen Lawrence: murdered in south London 18 years ago

Gary Dobson and David Norris were today found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, 18 years after the black teenager was stabbed to death near a south London bus stop. The judge will pass sentence at the Old Bailey tomorrow morning.

The conviction, finally, may represent some sort of closure for the long-suffering and long-campaigning Lawrence family.

But after last year’s riots, can we say that in south London in 2012 that the lessons from Stephen Lawrence’s murder really have been learned?

Stephen Lawrence was just 18 when he was brutally stabbed to death in a racially inspired attack in Eltham in April 1993. Police identified five men who were later named in a damning public inquiry as the “prime suspects”. Even the Daily Mail was able to run a famous front page declaiming the suspects as “Murderers”.

Yet the police’s original investigation failed to get a conviction, and the case eventually led to a high-profile public inquiry, chaired by Sir William McPherson.

The inquiry’s findings were extremely critical of the Met’s handling of the murder inquiry and infamously accused the Metopolitan Police of being “institutionally racist”.

One of the witnesses at the inquiry was David Osland, who had been a Deputy Assistant Commissioner for south-east London, including Eltham, at the time of the murder. Osland’s two days of evidence to the McPherson Inquiry saw him given an entire chapter in the final report.

The report was highly critical of Osland for allowing the breakdown in the police’s relationship with Stephen Lawrence’s family and lawyer, stating: “Mr Osland should not be surprised that some who heard his evidence might regard this as another example of institutional racism at work”.

David Osland retired from the Met in 1994.

Today, David Osland is a Conservative councillor for Coulsdon West in Croydon, chairing the council’s planning and strategic planning committees.

  • The McPherson Inquiry report can be read in full by clicking here.
  • To access the chapter on David Osland’s evidence, click here.

Here, for ease of reference, are some passages from Chapter 29 of the McPherson Report. The paragraphs in bold correspond with the highlighting of the report’s authors:


29.1 Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Osland gave evidence for nearly two days before this Inquiry. He joined the police force in 1957 and became Deputy Assistant Commissioner for 3 Area in 1989. Mr Osland retired from the police service in March 1994. It is of some significance that Mr Osland had throughout his service been a uniformed officer. He said more than once that he had little experience of detective work, and he had never served in the CID…

… 29.3 There is some doubt about the exact nature of the relevant chain of command in 3 Area at the relevant time. Mr Osland appears to suggest that the relevant hierarchy would have been himself at the top, then Mr Gibson/Mr Blenkin, then Detective Chief Superintendent Ilsley, then Detective Superintendent Weeden…  There is a strange confusion between the witnesses. The chain and line of command and control must always be clearly established otherwise confusion may reign…

29.4 When asked what his own role and responsibility was as Deputy Assistant Commissioner in 3 Area Mr Osland said, “The totality of my role really was this was where the buck stopped. My role was total responsibility for all operational and administrative activities that took place on the Area”…

… 29.6 As to the staffing of the Stephen Lawrence team Mr Osland’s general view was that he did not believe, in the circumstances prevailing, that the investigation was understaffed…

29.7 Mr Osland agreed that there was constant complaint across the Area about the shortage of manpower in general terms, but he said that nobody came to him and asked for more manpower for the Stephen Lawrence investigation. By the same token Mr Osland agreed that he had not himself asked the senior officers actually conducting the investigation whether they were satisfied with the manpower provided. Everybody simply accepted that there was little point in asking for more officers, since the general experience was that even in terms of the AMIP guidelines for the various categories of crime staffing would be uncomfortably low, but that this was in tune with the general situation as to the supply of manpower in the MPS. This was a complacent attitude. If more officers were truly needed Mr Ilsley should have asked for them, and the Commanders should have tried to obtain them.

Former senior police officer David Osland, now a Croydon councillor

29.9 Mr Osland told us that he was in reasonably close touch with the Stephen Lawrence investigation after the first weekend following the murder. He would visit the Incident Room regularly, and he was closely in touch with Mr Ilsley.

29.10 Mr Osland had full responsibility for the whole of the MPS activity in south east London. Although he indicated that he kept fairly closely in touch with the Stephen Lawrence investigation, because it was of course a very high profile case from the start, Mr Osland also stressed on many occasions that he was not directly responsible for what happened in terms of the investigation itself. He rightly indicated that the relevant decisions as to arrest, and any other tactical matters, were exclusively for the SIO acting either on his own or in consultation with his Detective Chief Superintendent.

29.11 It would be unrealistic to suggest that the Deputy Assistant Commissioner could be expected to bear responsibility for decisions on the ground in respect of the various investigations in progress, otherwise than as the person ultimately responsible for everything that took place in 3 Area. In this connection Mr Osland was asked, by Mr Lawson, whether there were major decisions made in connection with the Stephen Lawrence investigation with which he now disagreed. He said that he did not disagree with any of the decisions made, but he did indicate that “On the decision to charge …… to arrest and charge on the first occasion I felt that the evidence was weak”. Mr Lawson pointed out that Mr Osland seemed perhaps to be confusing considerations of arrest with considerations of charge.

29.12 Mr Osland said, when interviewed by Kent, that he was told that “certain evidence was available that possibly indicated some suspects, but at that stage the evidence was by no means sufficient to justify an arrest”. Later still, in a sustained cross-examination, Mr Osland was taken to task about his views as to grounds upon which an arrest can be made. It is plain that on several occasions Mr Osland confused evidence with information, and he accepted that he was at least guilty of careless wording in answers that he had given to Kent and indeed in answers given before this Inquiry. At one stage Mr Osland said “My view is that if you are moving towards the position where reasonable suspicion exists there had to be something to support the suspicion and what supports the suspicion is evidence or facts”. Furthermore Mr Osland had in his answers to Kent said that the matter was one of fine judgment to be made by those involved and that the question was, “Do you make an arrest without the power to do so in order to secure evidence”.

29.14 Mr Osland was at pains to stress that he was not himself involved in the decision as to arrest. On the other hand it is vital that every police officer of whatever rank fully understands the grounds upon which an arrest can be made. It must be a matter of concern and criticism that such senior officers as Mr Osland and Mr Weeden seemed to lack a clear knowledge of basic police powers. It is difficult to see how they could make rational judgments on whether an early arrest should have taken place or not if they were possessed of such muddled thinking in relation to police powers in that context.

Doreen Lawrence, Stephen's mother, pictured today before the jury's verdict at the Old Bailey. David Osland never met the Lawrence family during the investigation

29.15 Mr Osland never met Mr & Mrs Lawrence. It is a feature of this case that so many senior officers seem to have stood aloof from Mr & Mrs Lawrence, for various reasons. Mr Osland realised that the relationship between the police and Mr & Mrs Lawrence “was deteriorating from the outset”. By November 1993 he said that the relationship was so bad that if he had seen the Lawrence family there would have been little that he could have said that they would have believed. Furthermore shortly before the Inquest was to start in 1993 Mr Osland held off because he said that he had advice from solicitors which suggested that some “legal consequences” might develop from a meeting which would be unfortunate. The solicitors’ advice in fact clearly states “I do not think there is any legal objection to your meeting the Lawrence family before or after the Inquest.” His distancing himself from the family was simply a matter of his own choice.

29.16 Mr Osland said that normally family liaison was successful, in his experience. He said that he had never known a family liaison which had deteriorated as this one did. When asked what he believed was the problem Mr Osland said that when the media reporting indicated that there were cracks beginning to appear in the family liaison he started to ask questions. He was told by his officers that the liaison was extremely difficult and that it was not working out because of the problems which the officers were having with the Lawrence family and their advisers and friends. He never heard the other side of the story.

29.17 On 8 September 1993 Mr Osland wrote an internal note for the Commissioner which indicated that he was “totally satisfied that the Lawrence family have received a professional, sensitive and sympathetic service from police”. He explained this by saying that it seemed to him that things were going wrong predominantly because of what was happening in the Lawrence household. Much later on, after Mr Osland retired, it is evident that he allowed his views about Mr & Mrs Lawrence and in particular Mr Khan, to develop. He wrote letters to newspapers, and provided information for public dissemination, which were highly critical of Mr & Mrs Lawrence and those around them. Such views were necessarily unbalanced, given his lack of contact with the Lawrence family.

29.18 Mr Osland has clearly accepted what he was told by officers involved in the investigation about the activities in the Lawrence household without exercising necessary objectivity. He has simply adopted the adverse views of officers involved in the investigation as to the attitude of Mr & Mrs Lawrence’s supporters and of their solicitor without question and without the necessary balance that would have been provided had he chosen to speak directly to the family in order both to obtain their views and to seek to address the overall problem. He now accepts that some of the problems of the family liaison were attributable to the police themselves, but he is not prepared to accept total blame in this respect. This is another example of a senior officer seeing a problem but failing to address it, and of failure of all those involved with Mr & Mrs Lawrence properly to deal with family liaison. Because of his unquestioning acceptance and repetition, even in the public arena, of the myths about family liaison, Mr Osland should not be surprised that some who heard his evidence might regard this as another example of institutional racism at work. Collectively the officers involved failed to treat the family and their solicitor appropriately and sensitively. The evidence that this is so is plain.

29.19 It is a feature of the family liaison debacle in this case that senior officers do not appear to have got to grips with the matter thoroughly and satisfactorily from early on when the relationship was obviously deteriorating. It does appear that in common with others Mr Osland was too ready simply to allow the matter to drift and to accept what was passed on to him and to take no personal initiative in order to see that matters were corrected. The problem was not insoluble. Mr Nove demonstrated during the second investigation that appropriate and professional liaison resulted in open dialogue.

29.21 In connection with the vital decision whether or not an arrest should have been made in the first two or three days after the murder Mr Osland’s evidence was unsatisfactory. He said that he did discuss the matter with Mr Ilsley and he said that he “listened to the advice of Ilsley on this”. But he said to Kent that “one thing that sticks in my mind is that there was just not sufficient evidence to arrest. If an arrest was made it would be one that was made because the case was highly political, highly sensitive, and it would placate public opinion at an early stage if the arrests were made”. When it was pointed out by Kent that the grounds for arrest on 7 May were much the same as had in fact existed early on, Mr Osland said that the conclusion that he would draw was that it might well be that pressure to arrest became so intolerable that it was decided to arrest on the same grounds as had existed during the first weekend. When Mr Osland was asked whether he appreciated that there were really from within the first 48 hours quite sufficient grounds to justify arrest his answer was that “his involvement in those early times was not close enough to offer an opinion”.

29.22 The difficulty which faces us is that Mr Osland was at pains to say that he was involved in almost daily visits to the Incident Room and conversation with Mr Ilsley in particular, yet he distanced himself from any decision made on the ground by the SIO, indicating that any tactical decision in connection with arrest and other steps to be taken in the investigation were not for him to make.

… 29.24 We accept that the responsibility for making a decision as to arrest lies with the SIO and the officers close to the investigation. Mr Osland’s problem seems to us to be that he indicates close contact with the investigation, and yet he distances himself from the decisions made. In his own words, “Because I had a hands on approach it does not mean that I was involved in the decision making. It was not my function, not my role to make decisions on arrest. I did express the view at the time when I was told that arrests were going to be made that I thought the evidence was weak.” …

29.26 An important part of Mr Osland’s evidence concerned the Barker Review. That Review was commissioned by Mr Osland himself. The primary reason for the Review was, said Mr Osland, to progress the investigation… He also pointed out to Mr Barker how important family liaison was; and because that appeared to have broken down the Review must help to find out why that situation had developed in order to try to improve matters. Mr Osland said to us that it was possible that Mr Barker came to the conclusion that family liaison was as important or maybe even more important than progressing the investigation. In one sense that conclusion is echoed in the nature of the ultimate Review produced by Mr Barker.

29.27 … To the Kent officers he said that his main concern was to “try and reassure myself first that there were no errors, no mistakes, because of the fact that ……. I had no detective experience. I needed somebody to reassure me that this lack of experience, lack of knowledge on my part was not hiding problems for us for the future”…

… 29.31 Mr Osland denied that any instructions had ever been given to Mr Barker to pull his punches in the Review, and he says that Mr Barker did not, as Mr Barker alleges, communicate to him criticisms which had not been included in the report. Mr Osland roundly denied that his interest was otherwise than to get to the truth. He says that he would not have tolerated any sort of cover up or whitewash, and if in fact Mr Barker had told him that there were criticisms which were not disclosed to him he would have insisted that they were contained in the report.

29.32 Mr Osland said that he overheard conversations between officers in which it was made quite clear that they did not think highly of the Review, but he appears simply to have accepted Mr Barker’s conclusions, as did everybody else involved, without any truly critical appraisal of the Review itself.

29.35 Mr Osland accepts now that the Review was deficient and that the reassurance given to him and to others by the Review was unjustified. Mainly perhaps this is a criticism of Mr Barker, but uncritical acceptance of the Review does have to be laid at the door of senior officers. Mr Osland seems to have been unprepared to grasp the nettle and to question the conclusions or to seek further details. Through Mr Osland the Commissioner saw the Review and they personally discussed it, again without any specific questions being raised. Furthermore Mr Osland expressly reported to the Commissioner that the SIO routinely visited the family and advisers until the family’s demands became so great that the SIO was “eventually insulated from them”. This is palpably not a true picture, as we know from the evidence of the SIO himself.

29.36 There is no doubt, as Mr Kamlish elicited early in his cross-examination, that Mr Osland’s position was that as far as he was concerned things were going well, even before the Review reassured him, except that he had to accept that no satisfactory result had been achieved by the investigation team.

29.38 Mr Osland’s reaction to statements made by or on behalf of Mr & Mrs Lawrence in connection with the police have been most unfortunate and wounding to them. As early as 8 September 1993 Mr Osland wrote a note to the Commissioner indicating that he and others felt that their patience was “wearing thin” on 3 Area not only with the Lawrence family and their representatives, but also with self-appointed public and media commentators. The note continued, “I am totally satisfied that the Lawrence family have received a professional, sensitive and sympathetic service from the police”.

Nevile Lawrence, Stephen's father, broke down when the jury announced its verdict today

29.39 When Mr Osland retired he wrote letters to the newspapers and gave an interview to The Croydon Advertiser in which he roundly criticised claims said to have been made by Mr & Mrs Lawrence that the murder investigation had been hampered by racism amongst the police officers involved. Mr Osland referred to the PCA report, which was published in December 1997, which made stinging criticism of the police investigation, but which did say that the murder investigation had not been affected by racism. Mr Osland apparently said to the newspaper that his advice to the officers concerned would be that they should consider legal action. “The Lawrences seem happy to accept the findings of the report where it suits them but not where it does not”.

29.40 These expressions made by Mr Osland, compounded by other letters to the press in 1997, are most regrettable. Mr Osland is of course entitled as a private citizen to say what he wishes, but his later attitude does reflect uncomfortably upon his approach and reaction to the activities of the representatives of Mr & Mrs Lawrence in 1993. He said positively then that the Lawrence family had received a professional, sensitive and sympathetic service from the police, although he was fully conscious that the family liaison had broken down early on. In evidence before us Mr Osland did say that he accepted that Mr & Mrs Lawrence had grounds for criticising the police, and that his 1997 reaction was simply because of public statements by Mr & Mrs Lawrence alleging that his police officers had been guilty of racism.

29.41 Mr Osland accepted in evidence that there had been errors and omissions and mistakes made by the MPS. He added that Mr & Mrs Lawrence were entitled to an apology from the MPS. Mr Osland says that from the start he had total sympathy and compassion for the Lawrence family, but he could not bring himself latterly to condone the comments which were being made by Mr & Mrs Lawrence after the PCA report had been made. It is difficult to reconcile this assertion with his avowal of his “patience wearing thin” as early as September 1993 and the fact that he never met Mr & Mrs Lawrence. Mr Osland did say before this Inquiry that he made it clear that he accepted that Mr & Mrs Lawrence had been let down by 3 Area, and he apologised certainly on behalf of his own command to Mr & Mrs Lawrence.

29.42 It is regrettable that Mr Osland’s later pronouncements and attitude have understandably exacerbated the feelings of Mr & Mrs Lawrence towards the police which are expressed so pungently and so repeatedly by them and those who surround them.

29.45 Certainly some of the information given to Mr Osland about the nature of the relationship between the police and Mr & Mrs Lawrence was inaccurate or misinterpreted. As we have stressed more than once in this Report it is in any event the responsibility of the police to overcome problems such as those which were perceived by some of the officers involved. Any family is entitled to be represented by a solicitor and to have in their home anybody they wish. The police have to accept this, and if those involved are not capable at once of reaching a healthy relationship then steps must be taken positively and quickly to ensure that this is achieved.

29.46 In summary it must be said that the result of questioning by Mr Lawson and Mr Kamlish was that this Inquiry is satisfied that Mr Osland should bear no direct personal responsibility for the mistaken decisions made in the early days after Stephen Lawrence’s murder. Furthermore any flaws in the processing of information and the investigation of potential witnesses cannot be laid at the door of Mr Osland directly. Nor indeed was he himself immediately responsible for the breakdown in the family liaison arrangements.

29.47 On the other hand it can and must be said that Mr Osland was much too ready to accept that things were going satisfactorily, both in respect of the investigation of the crime and in connection with the arrangements for family liaison. Also once the Barker Review was established Mr Osland was too ready uncritically to accept what Mr Barker reported, and to examine Mr Barker’s conclusions and his factual findings without penetrating criticism.

29.48 In answer to Mr Doyle, on behalf of the SIOs, Mr Osland indicated that his main regret, while reflecting upon the past, is that he “did not look as deeply into things” as he would now…

29.54 Part of Mr Panton’s questioning concerned the lack of intelligence available to the police in connection with the activities of people such as the suspects living on the Brook Estate. The valid suggestion was made that liaison with the local organisations and improvement of intelligence gathering might well have assisted in the early stages of the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder.

29.55 Mr Osland accepted, both in answer to Mr Panton and Mr Yearwood, that there did exist in 1993, and today, a perception that black people are worse treated and more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. He stressed however, on more than one occasion, that it was necessary to look at the “totality of interactions between police officers and members of the public”. He said that there was undoubtedly room for dissatisfaction in a minority of cases.

29.56 Mr Osland readily accepted that there existed and still exist clear differences of perception in the black community which make that community distrustful of the police in their investigation of racist incidents and attacks. He conceded that people could see what the police do often in a different light than that observed by the police themselves. Mr Osland accepted that it was part of the job of the police to try to inform people and to listen to what they have to say and to bring the two sides closer together without misapprehension and misperception.

29.57 In connection with “stop and search” Mr Osland accepted, from Mr Yearwood, that the figures show an unhappy situation and state of affairs both in Plumstead and elsewhere. He accepted that this was a serious issue which needed to be investigated and it was his memory that during his service an inquiry was set up to look into the whole matter.

29.58 It has not been suggested that Mr Osland was in any way involved in any collusion or corruption to hold back in connection with the advancement of the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. There would without doubt be no justification for any such suggestion against Mr Osland. He had faults in connection with the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation and in particular the relationship with the family which were attributable to his readiness to accept without qualification or inquiry that which was told to him by his own officers, and by Mr Barker in connection with the unfortunate and flawed Review. A more critical examination of that Review would have revealed its failure. Whether that would have led to any different result in the end is of course doubtful. But at least the situation would not have been accepted as satisfactory when plainly it was not.

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1 Response to The Stephen Lawrence murder case and Croydon’s connection

  1. Arfur Towcrate says:

    “his readiness to accept without qualification or inquiry that which was told to him by his own officers”

    Not exactly the sort of attribute you would want from someone who is paid to Chair the Council’s Planning Committee and Strategic Planning Committee.

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