Police forces are not racist organisations – the reality is much worse
“ . . . Cypriots, Maltese and coloured British subjects are responsible for a disproportionately large part of the offences connected with gaming, living on immoral earnings of prostitutes, and the sale of drugs and liquor. If they could be sent home on conviction, there would be a distinct improvement in those areas where they are active. . . ”
The above comment was made by Sir Harold Scott in 1954. Just the sort of reactionary comment, you might think, that one could have expected from a member of the establishment at the time. In fact, Scott was one of the most effective and liberal Commissioners that the Metropolitan Police has had since the end of the Second World War. He served from 1945 until 1953 and guided the force through its difficult post-war reintegration into civil society, against a background of austerity, soaring crime and major social change.
The comments that he made, unacceptable as they are to us over half a century later, were nonetheless made in response to, what was to him, an almost seismic social and demographic change in the way that Britain looked and felt. His proposal was not consciously born of racism; I doubt that such an unfailingly courteous product of the Edwardian upper-middle class had a truly racist bone in his body as we would understand it. He was however the first of a long line of police leaders who sought to link race with policing. Most were unsuccessful, and a few have done damage to race relations on a majestic scale.
There is no doubt that mass immigration from the Commonwealth and beyond, has been appallingly handled since the end of the Second World War. No government; Labour, Conservative, (or indeed Coalition), has clean hands on the issue. Employment policy has been piecemeal, targeted on the basis of regional aid and party-political constituency considerations. Housing policy has been non-existent and as a result, pockets of residency have emerged which amount to racially exclusive enclaves
Against this background, a predominately white, male, working-class police force has failed to deliver anything approaching an adequate service. This has been particularly prevalent in our urban areas, because of a misconceived view that a ‘different approach’ was needed in terms of policing ‘newcomers’. This, in turn, has generated a sense of victimhood on the part of many black and Asian residents of such communities.
All of this has had a corrosive effect on the resolve of the police in terms of crime and social disorder, with the result that weak police leaders and poorly-led police officers operate double standards in terms of what they regard as acceptable in such areas, compared with the norm elsewhere. Put simply, to deal drugs openly in a residential street in one of our prosperous, largely white suburbs is something that would once have been considered as unthinkable. Such activity would have attracted highly assertive policing with the problem being quickly nipped in the bud. However, street dealing on a sink-estate in our inner cities generates an entirely different approach. Hand-wringing senior officers whine about the need to ‘consider cultural issues’ or their obligation to ‘preserve community cohesion,’ as reasons for holding back from an interventionist policy. But the real losers when such an apologist line is taken are, of course, those that have to live, work, and raise families in such areas, exactly the people who deserve the highest level of care and commitment from their local police. For it is they who are at the mercy of predatory gangs; whose lives are blighted on a daily basis by drugs and violence. Many decent first and second generation immigrant families are not only the victims of a criminal minority who live amongst them and prey upon them, but also the victims of deeply patronising inaction by police, who lump everyone together and regard the situation as a ‘community and cultural problem’.
Many commentators regard the Macpherson Report, published in 1999 following the murder of Stephen Lawrence six years earlier, as having had the final word on the subject when it pronounced the Metropolitan Police guilty of ‘Institutionalised Racism’ (not ‘Institutional Racism’ as many believe). This might seem to be a semantic point but the latter phrase, which has gained great currency, implies an attitude which is structural and built into the fabric of an organisation; ‘Institutionalised Racism’ is less definite and suggests something that has been tacitly accepted over time. Clearly, there were organisational failings going back decades and a vacuum of leadership of which the police service should be ashamed, but branding every police officer in the UK as a member of a racist organisation was, in the view of many, a distortion of the truth.
Undoubtedly, there were and are officers who harbour racist attitudes in every police force in the land – there always have been and always will be, because recruits are drawn from British society as a whole. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society stratified by class, education, aspiration, and yes, race. In my experience however such officers are a vanishingly small proportion of those currently serving – much less than one-tenth of one per cent of the total, and their influence is non-existent (largely because of two decades of diversity training, and because society as whole has changed).
So, if not racism, then what is the root-cause of the manifest breakdown of any working relationship between the police and those they should serve?
Since 1997, policing has undergone a profound attitudinal change linked to the concept of ‘officer safety’. Every police command unit in the country now has a full-time ‘Officer Safety Trainer’ who works from a nationally agreed manual. All officers are trained to be ‘continually on guard against attack’, to ‘regard every situation, no matter how seemingly benign, as a threat situation’, to handcuff suspects ‘even before the individual has actually offered violence’. The lesson to be drawn is that the public are your enemy. Police officers, the majority of which being quite young, have been trained to believe that they are continually under threat and must be continually on their guard. The public at large, and particularly crowds, are to be viewed with fear and suspicion.
Officer Safety Training actively encourages officers to be aggressive. They are told to shout at people they are dealing with to ensure compliance, to threaten them with batons in order to force them to ‘maintain a safe distance’. Young impressionable officers are told that it is perfectly acceptable to strike a suspect with what is called a ‘palm heel strike’ (a punch to you and me) as “a normal distraction technique used to disorientate, cause pain or make the suspect unbalanced”. Such tactics are almost guaranteed to lead to misunderstandings and confrontation in a multi-cultural context, where body language and raised voices can and do have different connotations. New recruits, fresh from training which emphasises the primacy of their own safety over that of the public, now learn from those senior to them , who also know no better, that their job is to respond in groups of never less than two, (for officer safety reasons) to emergency calls.
We all need to be concerned about the direction of policing in this country – not because it is a rabidly racist organisation – but for a much more important reason. The only effective policing in a democracy is ‘policing by consent’ based upon mutual trust. By sacrificing that trust and increasingly acting like an army of occupation, the police are in real danger of losing what little public confidence they still retain.
Image from http://nonstopagainstapartheid.wordpress.com/
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.