“We have done that”: Race and Ethnic Relations within Constabularies

Recently, Tom Winsor, the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary, gave his first public speech outlining priorities for the police (http://tinyurl.com/dxtr6um). Winsor has apparently spent the last few months talking to “frontline officers and police staff” about their priorities. In his speech he responded to the officers’ views, considering them within the context of current financial constraints and other social conditions. Most of his recommendations for change in policing – about crime prevention, more collaboration between forces, to name just two – are not new.

There should not be disappointment about Winsor’s lack of novelty. Good ideas are simply good ideas and there is nothing wrong with his drawing attention to them. More importantly, Tom Windsor raised important and prior questions about the extent and content of change in UK constabularies. Why, when good policies have been advocated time and again by governments, think-tanks, working groups and individuals, have they not been implemented adequately and, crucially, found their way into the ‘common-sense’ of the lower ranks when they consider their work of policing?

For many years I have been researching aspects of race and ethnic relations within constabularies (Holdaway 1991; Holdaway 1996; Holdaway and Barron 1997; Holdaway 2009). Winsor’s implied question about the lack of policy and practice implementation is very sharp when we consider the current state of race relations within constabularies and related subjects.

Winsor recently spoke at the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee Conference about ‘Police Leadership and Integrity’. If his ear had been tuned-in when he listened to chief officers at the event he would have heard a member of the audience ask a telling question of Hugh Orde, the President of ACPO. The question was about the extent to which the ranks he represents are ethnically diverse. His answer was that he was very concerned about the lack diversity within the ACPO ranks (http://tinyurl.com/auexmdz). Just 2.8% of ACPO ranks are from ethnic minorities.

A rather different question occurred for me as a criminologist researching, writing about and at times involved closely with the development of policy for the recruitment, retention and promotion of minority ethnic (BME) officers. It was this, ‘Considerable research, policy and practice attention has been given to this subject. How have the police arrived at a point where consideration of police race relations within constabularies has waned? In this brief article I will focus upon one central aspect of an answer to my question. This is the lack of resilient strategy to increase ethnic minority representation and, crucially, the promotion of ethnic minority officers to ACPO rank.

An important part of the answer is that very few police policies about race and ethnic relations have been related closely to concerted strategy within constabularies. After the Lawrence Inquiry report was published and accepted by the Home Secretary, important work drawing on research and previous practice was considered (Sir William Macpherson of Cluny 1999). New initiatives were introduced. Black Police Associations developed in many constabularies. Many innovative policies and practices to recruit and, to a lesser extent, retain BME officers could be found throughout the country.

The subject of race and ethnic relations within the police was certainly a tough one and not easy to settle when negotiations with BPAs and outside agencies were undertaken. Increased numbers of BME recruits nevertheless joined constabularies. Problems of prejudice and discrimination towards BME officers remained but those matters were made known to chief officers aware of their seriousness and impact within and out with constabularies. Despite some damaging industrial tribunal cases when chief constables were found to have discriminated against their minority ethnic officers, chief officers were willing to learn about how to improve the employment experiences of BME colleagues.

When Hugh Orde recognised that ACPO has a less than ethnically diverse membership I was reminded of a radio programme I took part in last year (http://tinyurl.com/by8rkt7). ‘File on Four’ investigated the manner in which West Yorkshire Police disciplined a number of its Asian officers who later resigned from the police service. Listening to the officers’ accounts of what had happened to them I knew from my extensive interviews with BME serving and erstwhile officers that something was very wrong. The acting-chief constable’s answer to a question about why the constabulary had acted as it had was, in summary, “There is a great deal more about this that I cannot reveal.” The programmes reporter also interviewed Chief Constable Alf Hitchcock, then Chair of ACPO’s Race and Diversity Committee and Chief of Bedfordshire Police. When asked about the high number of Asian officers resigning from the service it became clear that he was unaware of the figures and had little to say about the West Yorkshire situation.

Earlier in the year, Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police and the erstwhile, excellent Chair of the ACPO Race and Diversity Committee, was reported in the national press arguing that positive discrimination is the proper and only appropriate response to the BME, chief officer deficit (http://tinyurl.com/b8j6j2a). In other words, the solution to the problem did not lie within constabularies but outside them. The law rather than police policy needed to be reformed.

Police race relations often point to generic problems of policing. Chief officers and their BME colleagues responded to the Lawrence Inquiry in a sincere and concerted way. Some, albeit modest progress in the number of BME officers recruited was made (http://tinyurl.com/boe7byr para 344), partly because the Home Office and HMIC monitored the situation. Chief officers wanted fairness for BME officers within their constabularies. They established initiatives, projects, sometimes monitored this and that but did not develop a concerted series of inter-related actions that had flexibility and, recognising the problem could not be solved overnight or in a year or two, set a path of strategic action for years ahead. Without that, chief officers could not remind themselves of what they were committed to do; their colleagues implementing the strategy and related policies were not provided with an established framework of action that would remain a fundamental aspect of their constabularies work; and Black Police Associations could not refer to an agreed policy underpinned by rigorous strategy that would support them as their worked for fairness within the police workforce.

As progress was made, officers working on BME projects came and went. Chief officers with specific responsibility for BME personnel were transferred frequently into and out of their posts. Because less media attention was given to police race relations, the urgency to do something disappeared. Importantly, the Home Office diverted its attention from race relations within constabularies. Chief officers moved on to their next projects and initiatives dealing with a different subject of the moment. It was assumed that the initial run of activity was sufficient for progress to be made inevitably, naturally.

What does this tell us? It tells us about a particular meaning of time amongst chief officers. It seems that for them strategy and policy are a series of initiatives and projects that realise short and medium term results. They do not stretch into a strategy requiring years of work. Chief officers tend to view their work in terms of initiatives and projects rather than policy and strategy.

It tells that problem-solving in constabularies is to take action and to deal with a particular, discrete subject. It does not consider that concerted work on the recruitment of BME officers has necessarily to be set within years of effort to ensure that recruitment, retention and promotion policies are interrelated as parts of a single strategy; that a defined notion of positive action supports everything that is done. It does not understand that race relations within constabularies (and other subjects like crime prevention and collaboration) requires concerted, long term strategy and action.

I recently accepted a very welcome invitation from students on the 2013 senior command course to speak about police race relations. It shocked me when I learned that this was the only session about race relations for these future chief officers. The next morning I talked informally to some BME officers on the High Potential Course and asked them how the subject of race relations within constabularies was addressed? They expressed frustration about the inadequate attention given to it. I asked, “How has this situation arisen?” “We have done that, the police has done race relations”, they said with more than a hint of cynicism. Projects and initiatives, the work apparently required to deal with diversity within constabularies, had been introduced after Lawrence. They had done it. There seems to be a long way to go before strategy becomes a stock in trade of policing.

Simon Holdaway is Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Sociology at the University of Sheffield and part-time Professor of Criminology at Nottingham trent University

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