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Race and policing - Chief Constable Jon Boutcher reflects on 25 years since Stephen Lawrence murder

19 Apr 2018
Chief Constable Jon Boutcher
Chief Constable Jon Boutcher

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, the national police chiefs' lead for Race, talks about changes in policing ahead of the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

When I first walked the streets of London, I did so in the shadow of relatively recent tragedy and in the aftermath of widespread disorder. The awful Deptford arson attack in 1981, a crime motivated by racism, had claimed the lives of 13 young people. This incident had been one of a number of triggers together with the enduring concerns about stop and search that then led to the Brixton riots and subsequent Scarman Report.

Some years later in April 1993, I was serving as a Detective Sergeant in Brixton. On 22 April 1993 Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist attack; the hurt and suffering that Stephen’s family suffered should never be forgotten. The Macpherson report followed with the identification and acceptance of institutionalised racism in policing. At the 25th Anniversary of Stephen’s murder, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the improvements in policing that have followed and the challenges around race and policing that remain today.

Sir William Macpherson described how institutional racism 'persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address [racism’s] existence and causes by policy, example and leadership'. It was clear to all in policing that attitudes, behaviours and ways of working had to change. Policing has undoubtedly improved in many areas since 1993; better investigations, the development of world class forensic science and wider professionalisation all accelerated by Stephen’s awful murder and subsequent Macpherson report. However, whilst a whole generation has passed, fundamental questions remain about the effectiveness of the police in addressing racial disparity, the adequacy of our workforce community representation and our overall understanding of the subject of race.

When people talk about the relationship between the police service and the public, immediate recitation of Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement 1829 often follows: The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of the community welfare.

In my 34 years of policing, this service has never truly represented the public fully and I have always been concerned and disappointed by this. Policing is the most incredibly rewarding public service where officers can positively change the lives of those they encounter forever. Of all professions that a person can do, policing is the finest, most rewarding and greatest privilege. It is the best job in the world, it always has been during my service and it continues to be. This fantastic job should be open to everyone in equal measure, but for a whole host of complex reasons people from diverse communities have not seen the police service as welcoming.

Whilst much has been done to amend and challenge this, and I am grateful to those who have championed that progress, however more work must be done and this is everyone’s responsibility not just a passionate few.

In October 2015 Theresa May, then Home Secretary, highlighted at the National Black Police Association Conference that four police forces in England and Wales had no black officers at all, with 11 forces having no black or ethnic minority officers at chief inspector rank or above. This appears to have triggered a spike in activity; by 31 March 2017, 7,572 (6.3 per cent) police officers identified as being from an ethnic minority – an increase of two percentage points compared to 2005.

Whilst the figures continue to improve, representation remains considerably lower than the proportion of the general population that is from an ethnic minority (14 per cent). There is a degree of caution to be applied when interpreting these statistics, particularly given that many forces had until recently imposed recruitment freezes whilst grappling with reduced budgets.

Whilst undoubtedly there has been a drive to increase Black And Minority Ethnic (BAME) recruitment, the past few years have seen the retirement of a generation of predominantly white officers which may have in itself naturally altered our workforce. Last year 11 per cent of new recruits nationally were BAME; this is positive but we must not just sustain this rate but build on it.

There is also significant progress to be made with regards to retention of staff and progression; only four per cent of officers above chief inspector rank identify as BAME; 31 forces have no female BAME officers at a rank above inspector; there are currently no black or Asian chief constables. Thus whilst the recent spike in improvement is positive, this must be translated into sustained effort and prevented at all cost from dropping off of the policing agenda as it has done during the last 25 years on occasions.

In Bedfordshire, we have made significant progress in improving workforce diversity, but we must sustain this and retain and progress those from diverse groups far more than we have previously. In 2015 Bedfordshire Police had the third lowest number of BAME police officers nationally, when compared to the population of the area we serve. BAME officers accounted for just under six per cent of Bedfordshire Police’s workforce. Bedfordshire Police is now one of the most representative forces as regards BAME officers.

I commend the work of the Metropolitan, West Midlands Police and Greater Manchester Police and have looked to them for good practice. However even those forces, and mine, need to do more. The Metropolitan Police has obviously lived through the entire experience of Stephens’s murder, 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. That said, although I celebrate that work, we need to use it as the platform to build on and not see it as complete.

Last year in Bedfordshire we recruited 190 new officers; 51 of these (27 per cent) indicated they were BAME. Overall, almost 11 per cent of our workforce in Beds are now BAME, compared to 23 per cent of our local communities and the gap continues to close.

This was achieved through community roadshows that my senior team and I led in community centres at the heartland of our diverse communities, wider engagement events and bespoke mentoring that have helped to increase the number of BAME applications.

Some have questioned me whether our campaign is attracting the quality candidates required to deliver 21st century policing. The answer is absolutely yes. We also now have a member of our community together with a serving police officer or staff member interviewing our recruit applicants. Those community members are interviewing for their police officers, this adds to the legitimacy of the process.

The biggest challenge has been persuading those brilliant and talented candidates from diverse backgrounds that policing is the future profession for them. Having spoken to recently recruited student officers, I was surprised that younger officers were unaware who Stephen Lawrence was or of the legacy of his murder. I think this is a time to reflect and debate what progress has been made and what more needs to be done.

This is the responsibility of all forces and people at all levels but especially for the leadership in policing, as Macpherson reminded us, crucially this must include those forces which are less racially diverse.

Modern policing challenges arising from transient communities, borderless crime and recognised vulnerability mean that race, and in particular workforce representation, must be taken seriously by all of us. In my view, forces cannot effectively respond to matters such as cybercrime, modern day slavery, cross-border drug dealing, or the safety of local authority looked after children – as examples – without having a workforce that truly represents our communities.

Beyond recruitment and retention of staff we must also address poor behaviour where it occurs and improve culture. 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 the force still face many challenges in relation to their stop protocols, arrest rates and use of powers in respect of ethnic and minority groups. Interestingly officers assess diversity as preventing them from being allowed to do their jobs.

I come from an entirely operational history and 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. My communities and I desire stop and search to keep them safe. I encourage my officers to use those powers, which are one small but crucial measure in the raft of activities to tackle knife crime.

As portfolio lead for Race I have formed a strategic group with some extremely experienced, passionate and committed individuals, including MPs, community leaders, academics, diverse staff associations, Liberty and officers who will support us in addressing matters of race inequality across the service. There is a clear and consistent message from stakeholders relating to race: This area requires strong leadership; it should not be seen as ‘risky’ or challenging. It is core business for policing.

Within the equality, diversity and human rights agenda, I feel strongly that race should be a priority. It is absolutely vital that all protected strands under the Equality Act are treated with importance, but there is an absolute operational imperative to prioritise race because of the numbers involved, the links to community cohesion and our need to ultimately create safer societies. Racial disparity in policing undermines legitimacy and threatens policing by consent; increasing the likelihood of adverse response or disorder relating to stop and search, or in critical incident scenarios.

Whether the police force remains institutionally racist in 2018 is not a judgement I can make. What matters most is the community perception of whether policing is institutionally racist. We must do everything possible to avoid another iconic tragedy that stems our progress.

I am both optimistic and determined about the future; my work with key stakeholders has shown the commitment and determination that exists to drive the race agenda forwards. I am confident that the green shoots of progress around recruitment and workforce representation will grow into police forces which are rich in diversity so that we can serve the public with true legitimacy. This will help us tackle complex matters such as knife crime in a more effective, legitimate and sustainable way.

This week I have written to all chief constables asking for reflection on progress over the past 25 years since Stephen’s murder and challenging them to address racial disparity more effectively.


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