Mr Whitelaw acted with commendable speed in appointing an official inquiry into the terrifying violence in Brixton last weekend. And Lord Scarman has the experience and temperament to produce recommendations that may help to prevent similar riots in Brixton and elsewhere. Mr Hattersley and others have criticised the terms of reference as too restricted and would prefer a wide ranging enquiry by a commission rather than a single judge.

Mr Whitelaw has made the right choice. Lord Scarman's brief will allow him to range as widely as he finds necessary, and we should be surprised as well as disappointed if he did not look well below the surface in his search for the causes of what happened last week, and for the possible remedies.

But surely it is sensible to take the problem of policing racially mixed areas of our inner cities as his starting point. As Lord Scarman himself put it: '... it is the relationship between the police and the local young of the area that I am most concerned to examine. Something appears to have gone wrong there, and I have got to find out.'

It would be foolish to pretend that there was a single cause for the disaster, in such a manifestly deprived area as Brixton. But there is a mountain of evidence that a major was breakdown of trust between the police and the people of Brixton. This was not a sudden occurrence. The deterioration has happened over a period of years and there have been ample warnings from many sources that there has been trouble building up.

One of the most striking is the report produced in January by a working party set up by Lambeth Borough Council to investigate relations between the police and the local community. The group has been accused of bias, and given the refusal of the police to co-operate in any way with the inquiry, its report could hardly have been a model of balance. Another weakness is that the working party cannot vouch for the accuracy of the evidence submitted to it. Even so, its report can be dismissed only if one assumes it was systematically lied to, and that all concerned acted in bad faith.

If only a fraction of the allegations are true, some police officers in Brixton have recklessly jeopardised good relations with the local community by abusing the powers entrusted to them. The allegations range from impoliteness in everyday dealings with black people to breaking down the door of private homes in unauthorised searches, physical violence against suspects, and disregard of Judge's rules when dealing with young suspects, especially minors. These charges may be exaggerated, but it must be obvious to anyone who cared to listen that the people of Brixton, black and white, believe them to be true. Even white middle-class parents in other parts of south London have discovered with alarm that their own children distrust the police.

To deplore this development, one does not have to take up what Sir Robert Mark, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, last week called the 'black is innocent' theme of sentimental reverse prejudice. Of course, the police have a duty to reduce Brixton's high crime rate. Of course, rioting and no-go areas must not be tolerated. Fighting crime is a difficult, complex and sometimes dangerous job, and we do expect a lot from our policemen. But above all we must insist that they themselves respect the law.

It is worth repeating one sentence from the final report of the American National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence: 'The justice and decency of the law and its enforcement are not simply desirable embellishments, but rather the indispensable condition of respect for law and civil peace in a free society.'

That condition is clearly not fulfilled in Brixton, and we need to know why. It is reassuring that Lord Scarman is asking the same question, and depressing that police spokesmen have spent so much of the past week assuring us that there is no police problem, and that the riot was provoked by outsiders. If Sir David McNee, the Commissioner, persists in denying that something has gone wrong, he is hardly likely to put it right, if left to himself.

Mr Whitelaw ought to exercise his authority over the Metropolitan Police to ensure that they co-operate with open minds in the Scarman enquiry. This should certainly deal with the recruitment and training of London's police and compare their methods with those used with greater success in other cities, such as Birmingham. Brixton's black leaders ought also to work closely with Lord Scarman and resist the self-defeating impulse to boycott this investigation.

Assuming the judge does produce convincing proposals, does the political will exist to implement them? Mrs Thatcher's angry, scolding display on ITN was not encouraging. In defending law and order (what party in its right mind advocates lawlessness and disorder?) she came close to 'my police force right or wrong.' She came out with the cliche of throwing money at problems - which conveniently fits a policy of slashing public expenditure - and refused to see a connection between the Brixton explosion and the high black unemployment there. She also conspicuously walked away from the chance to dissociate herself from Mr Enoch Powell's view of Britain's racial future.

In a national (rather than a Lambeth) context our racial problems are small compared to those of the United States, where in the 1960's ghettoes burned and people died in riots in almost every major city. If the British government decides to use its muscle, for instance, against racial discrimination in jobs, as the US federal government have done, this could have made a sharp impact. But it could be that the political will is absent here because our black population is too small to have political clout in elections?

The government should make it clear that this is not so. We cannot afford to let British citizens conclude that riots aer the only hope of improving their lives.

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