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Police Chiefs’ Blog: CC Jon Boutcher - The legacy of race relations in policing means we need to work doubly hard to gain trust

22 Apr 2018

Police Chiefs’ Blog: CC Jon Boutcher - The legacy of race relations in policing means we need to work doubly hard to gain trust: 36752-2

On the anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, we should reflect on the legacy of what that tragedy taught us about the relationship between police and black and ethnic minority communities and look critically at the present to help us move to a better future.

 When I first walked the streets of London, I did so in the shadow of terrible tragedy and the aftermath of widespread disorder. The awful Deptford fire in 1981 had claimed the lives of 13 young people. Suggestions that the fire was a racially motivated attack, and the subsequent handling of the police investigation, was one of the triggers of the Brixton riots - as was a sense of heavy handed, discriminatory policing of black communities. Lord Scarman’s report into the riots found a mistrust in police that needed to be addressed and recommended changes to police training and more recruitment of ethnic minorities.

Some 12 years later, I was serving in Brixton when Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist attack. The Macpherson report catalogued how the Metropolitan Police investigation failed the Lawrence family and named the force institutionally racist.

These events and their legacy in terms of the relationship between the police and black and ethnic minority communities have stayed with me throughout my career, and still concern me now. Because, while each of these events led to significant changes in attitudes, behaviour and tactics within policing, I still have fundamental questions about how we contribute to addressing racial disparity, how representative we are of our communities and how well we understand the issues that concern minority communities.

The Metropolitan Police has lived through the entire experience of Stephen’s murder and not enough credit is given to the passion, commitment and hard work of so many to ensure that the lessons were identified and significant improvements made.  Although I celebrate that work, we need to use it as the platform to build on and not see it as complete.

Sir Robert Peel’s assertion that the police are the public and the public are the police is hugely important principle in policing. In my 34 years of policing, this service has never truly represented the public. This fantastic job should be open to everyone in equal measure but for a whole host of complex reasons people from diverse communities have seen the police service as unwelcoming. This should concern us all; if we are not representative of the communities we serve it undermines legitimacy, threatens policing by consent and compromises confidence in the execution of police powers such as stop and search.

In March 2017 6 per cent police officers were black, Asian or from an ethnic minority (BAME) – an increase of just over two per cent on 2005.  This is an improvement but when the 14 per cent of the population is from an ethnic minority it is not fast or far enough. 

It is really positive then that 11 per cent of new recruits were BAME last year but we must seek to not just sustain this rate but build on it. We need to pay more attention to increasing representation in senior roles – at the moment only four per cent of chief inspectors and above identify as BAME - so again it is good news that this year’s Strategic Command Course, which prepares officers and staff for chief officer roles, is the most diverse yet.

In my force of Bedfordshire, we had the third lowest number of BAME police officers nationally in 2015, when compared to the population of the area we serve. Bedfordshire Police is now one of the most representative forces as regards BAME officers. Overall, almost 11 per cent of our workforce are now BAME, compared to 23 per cent of our local communities and the gap continues to close.

Community roadshows, engagement events and mentoring have increased the number of BAME applications we have received. We recently interviewed a young black candidate for a police officer role. He told the panel he wanted to help people and make his family proud, yet his biggest concern was that he would be successful based solely on the colour of his skin, not because of merit. Our process is fair and robust and we could confidently assure him that is not the case.

Once we have attracted BAME people to join us, we must ensure we help them stay and progress. At Chief Constables Council last week we agreed a toolkit that aims to help forces to do that, and it will be published soon.

Diversity in the workforce, in itself, is not enough to improve public confidence or overcome wider disparity. Some of the most diverse and representative police forces in the world still face significant issues relating to race disparity. The New York Police Department for example has a workforce which is 27 per cent Hispanic, 15 per cent black and seven per cent Asian, but still faces many challenges in relation to their stop protocols, arrest rates and general use of powers in respect of ethnic and minority groups.

I am advised by some extremely experienced, passionate and committed individuals. including MPs, community leaders, academics, diverse staff associations, think tanks and officers who want to support us in addressing matters of race inequality across the service. There is a clear and consistent message from them that we must show strong leadership and prioritise addressing the policing issues that concern BAME groups – our response to hate crime, how policing tactics can or are seen to disproportionately affect some communities, our use of force and the way we interact with communities. I am committed to leading our response to these issues as well as the addressing our internal culture and representation.

This doesn’t mean policing cowed by political correctness. Our officers should be confident and feel supported in properly exercising their powers against people from all backgrounds where the grounds justify, and indeed necessitate, interventions. I don’t need to remind anyone about the tragic increase in knife crime, youth violence and the continuing scourge of firearms and drugs in society. Body worn video and community-led scrutiny panels are making sure we perform stop and search better than ever before.

Because of the legacy of the past, we must accept some still view policing as institutionally racist and we need to work doubly hard to gain trust. I am optimistic about the future and believe the green shoots of progress around recruitment and workforce representation will grow into forces rich in diversity so that we can serve the public with complete legitimacy. This will help us tackle complex matters such as knife crime in a more effective, legitimate and sustainable way. But there is a lot still to do and I have called on all chief constables asking for their support.

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, NPCC Lead for Race and Religion