That’s the question that is all over the media this week as the 20th anniversary review of what has changed since Sir William Macpherson reported on policing in the wake of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. It was the subject of a hour long discussion on LBC this evening with Tom Swarbrick which I had the benefit of listening to as I drove home around the North Circular Road. Despite several efforts, I didn’t manage to get to share my thoughts on air, so here I am at stupid o’clock getting them down in this blog before they dissipate.
Before making the points I wanted to make on air, lets answer some basic questions. PLEASE don’t read them, throw your teddies out of the pram and stop reading. If you continue to the end, and read the explanation behind the simple answers I am absolutely confident that you will understand why I answer as I do!
- Are the Metropolitan Police still “Institutionally Racist”?
Yes. It’s not possible for them to be anything but, IF you understand what it actually is (and isn’t).
- Am I as an individual “racist”?
I hope not. But I undoubtedly DO have subconscious / unconscious biases and prejudices. If you understand where those come from it is pretty much impossible not to have them!
To discuss this subject properly we need to have a full and proper understanding of what is meant by “institutional racism” and we need to have accurate and reliable facts as the basis for our debate. Sadly the levels of understanding of “institutional racism” are STILL utterly dire (on the part of most commentators on policing and other aspects of the issue.
WHAT IS “INSTITUTIONAL RACISM”?
“Institutional Racism” was defined for the first time in this context by Macpherson so we need to go back to his enquiry and the Macpherson Report itself to understand what he meant by the term. It is notable that he states (at paragraph 6.6):
“We must do our best to express what we mean by those words, although we stress that we will not produce a definition cast in stone, or a final answer to the question. What we hope to do is to set out our standpoint, so that at least our application of the term to the present case can be understood by those who are criticised.”
Having said that he outlines a whole range of different views, from different organisations and individuals, about what it means. He then concludes (in paragraph 6.34) that he will take the following as his working definition:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
So, in very simple terms, it comprises two aspects:
- Organisational, structural factors (i.e. policies, procedures, etc.) and
- Unwitting, subconscious individual factors
It does NOT include widespread individual, knowing, deliberate, malicious racism – Macpherson quite specifically did NOT find any of that (other than one instance relating to use of inappropriate terminology), even looking back at the Metropolitan Police Service of 1993. He makes that clear in paragraph 6.3:
“In this Inquiry we have NOT heard evidence of overt racism or discrimination, unless it can be said that the use of inappropriate expressions such as “coloured” or “negro” fall into that category.” (My emphasis)
So “institutional racism” does not, and never has, meant that all police officers in the Metropolitan Police Service are “racist” in an overt, individual way. He didn’t find that ANY were! And so it is NOT “institutionalISED racism”, a phrase which would mean that overtly, individually racist police officers were SO common within the police service, and were allowed to continue unchecked, that their overtly racist attitudes had become the norm within the whole organisation (i.e. those attitudes had become “institutionalised”).
Misunderstanding this fundamental difference between “institutional” and “institutionalised” racism is at the heart of the debate 20 years later.
“INSTITUTIONAL RACISM” IS UTTERLY UNAVOIDABLE:
As Macpherson repeatedly acknowledged in his Report, “institutional racism” is not something that ONLY affects the Metropolitan Police Service. It is not something which only affects the police service generally. It is something that is inevitable in ANY organisation which was created by, and is operated by, an overwhelmingly majority ethnic group. I would go further than this. Although Macpherson was only considering race, exactly the same principles apply to other aspects of diversity – gender, religion, class, age and more.
If you think about it for a moment, if a group of people invent an organisation (on whatever scale) then they inevitably will invent it in a form which suits THEIR purposes and needs, not the purposes and needs of others. It is totally illogical to expect otherwise. Therefore if that group are predominantly of one ethnicity (or gender, religion, class, age or whatever) then the organisation they create will INEVITABLY be “institutionally racist” (and/or institutionally “sexist”, “faithist”, “classist”, “ageist” or whatever). It cannot be otherwise.
So let’s think back to who created the police service (and pretty much every other institution / organisation in the UK) … With just a moment’s thought we find that it was white, male, Christian, middle/upper class, middle/older aged members of “The Establishment”. And when we look at who currently operates the police service (and pretty much every other institution / organisation in the UK) we find that at an operational level it is still predominantly white, male and Christian (though the gender balance is changing relatively quickly). The Metropolitan Police Service, the police service generally and pretty much every other institution / organisation in the UK are therefore inevitably “institutionally racist”, etc. at the structural / institutional level.
And in relation to the individuals making up the Metropolitan Police Service, they inevitably see the world through their own eyes, influenced by their parents, their upbringing, their friends and neighbours, their education, etc. If there are differences in the attitudes, cultures and norms between different ethnicities (or genders, etc.), and there are to a greater or lesser extent, then white police officers will see the world slightly differently to black police officers who will see it slightly differently to Asian police officers and so on. These differences may not be huge but they ARE there and when it comes to things like deciding whether or not a particular observed activity or behaviour is “suspicious” or “normal” which form the basis of so much policing activity they can lead to unwitting, subconscious bias – the second basic aspect of “institutional racism”.
Taken with the structural / institutional racism discussed above, this ethnocentricity (seeing the world from the perspective of our own ethnicity) makes it absolutely inevitable that the Metropolitan Police Service (and every other police service, and every other institution / organisation in the UK) MUST be “institutionally racist” and, unless the demographics of the organisation are fundamentally changed, it cannot be “cured” of it – the best we can do is (a) recognise the aspects of “institutional racism” and (b) work to minimise the impact of them on minority communities.
In relation to the underlying facts, there are several which I could discuss, but the most fundamental one, which is constantly quoted to “prove” that the police are still racist, is the question of disproportionality in the use of stop and search (and, to a lesser degree, in the use of force, the making of arrests and use of other powers). Unfortunately, although these disproportionality statistics (which are religiously repeated by the media every six months or so when the latest statistics gathered by the police and/or the Home Office are published – recent example here) are treated as tablets of stone, as absolutely incontrovertible facts, they are anything but.
The statistics are shot through with sources of error and inaccuracy and, even if they were correct, an assumption is made that they arise solely from the racism of police officers using the power when there are numerous other explanations for the disproportionality.
For the purposes of this blog I will focus on just one source of error, though there are more. To calculate disproportionality you need to have something to use as a comparator for the proportions of people of different ethnicity stopped and searched. The comparator used, the base population for the calculation, is the Census data for the relevant area. This throws up a number of issues:
- It is out of date (the Census was last conducted in 2011)
- It is inaccurate in relation to younger people
- It is inaccurate in relation to very mobile populations and populations living “below the radar” for various reasons
- Not everyone stopped and searched in a particular area lives in that area (in some areas, such as central London, hardly ANYONE does!)
There is therefore an argument that the ethnic mix of the “street population” (i.e. the people actually on the street and available to be stop and searched) should be used as the comparator. This is not readily available in published statistics and so would need to be established by empirical research. When attempts at carrying out this research have been carried out, it has been found that disproportionality all but disappears when the “street population” is used as the comparator. An example of this research is “In Proportion: Race and Police Stop and Search” (P. A. J. Waddington, K. Stenson and D. Don, (2004), 44 British Journal of Criminology 889).
This research has been acknowledged to have weight by some of the most trenchant critics of the police who argue that the disproportionality “proves” racism (for example see this article by Ben Bowling and Coretta Phillips)…but they seek to claim it is irrelevant because there are factors which mean that black and minority ethic youths are disproportionally likely to be found in street populations (and even involved in street crime) for a variety of socio-economic reasons. I wouldn’t seek to disagree withy their arguments, but they fail to take the next logical step which is to acknowledge that the police, when carrying out stop and search, etc. can only deal with what is in front of them – THEY are not responsible for the socio-economic reasons why there is disproportionality in the “street population” and so if their stop and search, etc. is proportionate compared with that “street population” then there is no “racism” on the part of officers.
This failure opens up my second point too: even if there IS disproportionality in the use of stop and search, etc. by police, there is nothing to say that it is solely because of police racism in the use of their powers – there are several other possible explanations available, including, most obviously, the possibility (acknowledged by Bowling and Phillips) that black and minority ethnic youths may, for a variety of socio-economic reasons beyond the direct control or influence of the police service, be disproportionately involved in street crime such as street corner drug dealing, street robbery (“mugging”), moped-enabled crime, knife crime, “gang”-related crime and the like.
A STAGNANT DEBATE:
So we have a discussion based on a widely misunderstood concept and some unreliable facts. Hardly the basis for a sensible debate or for the finding of any answers. Against that background it is hardly likely that the debate has stagnated for years: effectively the “illness” has been wrongly diagnosed and the “treatment” (requiring the police to “stop being so racist”) is NEVER going to remove the “symptoms”. Perhaps, after several decades, we should be at least recognising that this is a possibility!
Having set the scene and discussed some of the underlying issues, we can now look at today’s debate on LBC.
Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police: We started from the comments of Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who has reportedly said that she does NOT consider the police to be “institutionally racist”. Well, as is so often the case, I think the media have to some extent misrepresented the totality of what she said. She didn’t make that denial in such a stark, unqualified way, she used the words in the context of explaining she didn’t think it was a particularly “useful” way of looking at the Metropolitan Police Service today.
I absolutely agree with that point: the Metropolitan Police Service (and policing generally, albeit to a lesser extent) HAS recognised some of the aspects of “institutional racism” and it HAS carried out a lot of work to address them and minimise their impact. The proportion of black and minority ethnic officers has grown from about 3% in 1999 to about 14% today – that is a very significant improvement, even though there is still some distance to go. The Metropolitan Police Service of 2019 is most definitely NOT the Metropolitan Police Service of 1999, still less the Metropolitan Police Service of the 1980s: it has changed fundamentally, it has changed beyond recognition. And that change MUST be acknowledged – it is simply wrong to claim, as some critics do, that nothing has changed.
Ken Hinds: We then had a contribution from Ken Hinds. Ken has been involved in stop and search monitoring for many years and he is a long standing critic of the Metropolitan and other police services (we have fallen out over his comments on more than one occasion). He was talking about why people from the black community don’t join the police and he made a point that I absolutely agree with – there is a barrier for them, because of the history of relationships between the police and their community, which today manifests itself as them being told by others in their community (primarily their peers) that they would be considered “snitches”…and that “snitches get stitches”. I have long made this point.
I have personally spoken to MANY black people over the years who have been thinking of joining the police service, and who would have made excellent police officers, but who have eventually decided not to because of the negativity from within their own families, friends and wider community. I have seen black and minority ethnic officers abused by members of their communities whilst on duty (and I am proud to say that on more than one occasion I have personally arrested, charged and convicted those doing the abusing). I have read the abuse from some of the most implacable anti-police commentators on in the media (social and mainstream) who refer to black and minority ethnic officers in the most offensive terms.
The critics will tell you that black people don’t join the police because “the police are racist”…but that doesn’t explain why the proportion of black and minority ethnic PCSO’s and members of police staff is very significantly higher than the proportion of black and minority ethnic actual police officers – if the organisation was racist then surely the same barrier would apply to all roles, perhaps more so to the support roles.
I was very pleased to hear Ken say he was very positive about encouraging members of the black community to join the police service. He said he’d like to “flood” the police service with black recruits. I absolutely agree with him – there are thousands of potentially brilliant police officers out there in the black community and we (all of us!) need to work together to help overcome the barriers preventing them from joining.
Sheldon Thomas: Sheldon Thomas is a former member of “gangs” from back in the 70s. He now runs “Gangsline” and is one of the most experienced practitioners involved in intervention, mentoring, etc. around (though it must be acknowledged there are now MANY more excellent individuals working in the field too). He made a point I hadn’t specifically noted before: that the black community who undoubtedly WERE mistreated and abused by the police service in the 70s and 80s had never received a formal apology for, or even acknowledgement of, what had happened. This had left a festering sore which had never healed and which was now infecting the contemporary relationship between young members of the black community and today’s police officers (neither of whom were born in the 70s!).
I have regularly despaired at some older members of the black community who keep harking back to those days and who state (or at least suggest or imply) that nothing has changed since then when all the indications, taken objectively, suggest there has been massive change. If an apology would help move things on, then surely it is something that should be done as soon as possible.
Sheldon also raised the issue of black and minority ethnic officers in senior ranks. He saw this as being the result of the police service deliberately failing to promote black officers in particular. Although he is right that there are very small numbers at higher ranks (though not as low as he seemed to think), I think he is wrong about why. There are a number of factors which could be discussed, but I would make two main points.
Firstly, many black and minority ethnic officers, just like many white officers, join the police service because they want to actually be police officers doing frontline policing. They have no particular desire to be Commissioner, or anything beyond Sergeant or Inspector in many cases. For them, the failure to move rapidly up the ranks is not due to the police organisation keeping them down, it is because they have no desire to move up.
Secondly, above Inspector especially (i.e. after promotions are largely decided by examination), he has a point. Senior officers, like all of us, see the world through their own eyes and, unless great care is taken to avoid it, tend to select and promote in their own image. It is not just black and minority ethic officers who suffer this – female officers have long complained of it, “challenging” officers who don’t just do what they are told have suffered it for many years (I was one and this was a major factor in why I left the police service early) and, of course, we still have an issue with the influence of the Masons at higher rank (though it is MUCH reduced from the bad old days of the 70s and 80s). A lot more work needs to be done to address this aspect and ensure that all selections and promotions are based solely on objective factors and all potential for personal bias or preference on the part of senior officers and selection panels is eliminated.
Ken Marsh, Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation: Ken Marsh readily accepted that there was still more to do, but he made the point that the Metropolitan Police Service HAD changed – it now had more than half the black and minority ethnic officers in the whole of the UK – and it was unfair and unreasonable not to acknowledge that. On the question of how to address the fact that progress of proportionality was so slow that the Commissioner had acknowledged that, at current rates, it would be 100 years before full proportionality was achieved, he made the point that “you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” and there was no way the police could force members of the black community to join the police service. He’s absolutely right and the point he was making is the same as the one I have already made – there are barriers within black and minority ethnic communities which prevent members of those communities joining the police service. As Ken suggested, we all need to work together to identify and understand those barriers and work to help potential recruits overcome them. In particular, he suggested that those who spend all their time criticising the police service and saying how bad it is need to understand how THEY are a barrier to many people from minority communities joining. I absolutely agree. By all means make valid, proportionate criticism of the police service but make sure it is based on fact, not prejudice; make sure it is current, not based on ancient history; and make sure that the criticisms are balanced with acknowledgement of the good stuff the police service has done / is doing too.
Ken was asked about the possibility of the Government introducing “quotas” or “targets” to help drive up the numbers of black and minority ethic officers. He firmly resisted the suggestion and pointed out that the public – of any and all ethnicities – deserved the best police officers possible and so there should be no question of diluting quality standards in order to meet quotas or targets (as would inevitably be the case if they were introduced and any difficulty in achieving them was encountered). I absolutely agree with this point of his too: not only should we seek to recruit the very best police officers of whatever ethnicity but there is absolutely no reason to compromise – there are thousands of immensely intelligent, capable and impressive young people out there in ALL our communities. Instead of introducing quotas and targets we should work on making the police service an attractive proposition for those people.
Sadly I fear that planned changes to recruitment in the next year or two, with three degree-level only entry routes will REDUCE attractiveness. We need to work NOW to ensure that these new routes are accessible and attractive to members of all communities and, as we have a deficit of black and minority ethnic officers, pay particular attention to making sure they are accessible and attractive to them. This WON’T happen without some specific attention and intervention!
Ryan from Belfast: Finally, there was a caller from Belfast who neatly illustrated one of the aspects of institutional racism. Ryan (who hadn’t actually ever seen a black police officer in Northern Ireland (there aren’t many!) took up the point that the presenter, Tom Swarbrick, had asked about from the start of the programme – does the ethnicity of the officer you are dealing with actually matter? Ryan stated quite openly (and without malice) that he would prefer to be dealt with by a white officer and so he totally understood why members of the black community would prefer to be dealt with by black officers. He therefore thought that it was desirable for a police service to reflect the community it served.
Without recognising it, his comments illustrated my earlier point about us seeing the world through our own eyes: he felt more comfortable dealing with someone who (he perceived) saw the world much more like he saw the world than someone who (maybe)saw it differently. That isn’t “bad” or “racist”, it just “is”. And it is a reflection of why black and minority communities want to see members of their communities serving throughout the police service.
I’m sorry this has been something of a stream of consciousness but I felt that there were a number of interesting points which came up during the hour long programme. I’d rather have spent five minutes explaining them verbally instead of a couple of hours typing out this blog but there wasn’t an opportunity. Tom Swarbrick closed by saying he hoped that he would come back to the debate again on another occasion. I hope that he gets the opportunity to read this blog before he does (and perhaps invite me on to add to the debate).
I have been thinking for some time of trying to help get something off the ground to improve the recruitment of black and minority ethnic recruits, especially in the context of the imminent introduction of the “degree-level only” recruitment routes in the next year or two which I fear will not only fail to improve the proportion of recruits from black and minority ethnic communities but which will actually reduce it unless something is done. The points raised and the comments made, especially those by Ken Hinds and Sheldon Thomas, have convinced me that there is an opportunity to improve things here.
If we can spend £5m plus on “Police Now” to recruit “high octane” graduates from the best universities, expecting them to only serve for a couple of years before moving on to something more lucrative, surely we can find a couple of million to recruiting more of the incredible young people from within our black and minority ethnic communities who may not have had the opportunity to go to the top universities!
“BAME Police Now” anyone???