Policing differences

The Metropolitan Police's diversity policies have bred problems of their own.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Operation Trident, the London Metropolitan Police’s specialist squad to deal with violence in the black community, has been told by an advisory group that it needs to recruit more minority officers. According to Lee Jasper, chairman of the Trident independent advisory group, this is the third time that his organisation has raised the issue (1).

This comes in a long line of spats about race in the Met. The National Black Police Association last week said it would deter black recruits from joining the force, after disputes about the way the Met had dealt with racism allegations. The force’s ethnic minority recruitment taskforce, launched in a blaze of publicity 15 months ago, has reportedly been of little effect and is to be wound up.

It is perhaps not surprising that such disputes are taking place. Policies designed artificially to promote cultural diversity, which have become ubiquitous in the rest of society, tend to heighten awareness of racial differences, and harden divisions between people. The police is not the rest of society – and attempts to apply such policies to the police make existing tensions even worse.

In the case of the Metropolitan Police, diversity policies came particularly in the wake of the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – the black teenager who was stabbed to death near his south London home in 1993. This report, published in 1999, found that the Met’s investigation had failed as a result of ‘institutional racism’ in the force, and recommended a whole series of measures to help create what has been described as ‘a new kind of police culture’ (2). We are now seeing signs that this ‘new police culture’ is one that has race issues at its heart.

Operation Trident is a showcase example of the ‘culturally sensitive’ policing recommended by Macpherson. The operation’s independent advisory group includes senior community leaders – which, the Met’s website claims, ‘helps to create a positive climate for members of black communities to come forward with information about Trident related criminal activity’ (3). A recent Trident event was attended by the Brent-based rap group ‘Nuh Fear Dem’, who performed their song about gun crime in London, ‘The Killing Must Stop’. Poster campaigns attempt to key into the concerns of black youth in particular boroughs.

Behind this initiative is the idea that black communities need a special kind of policing: that they need a separate force that they can relate to. This is a policy that was bound to backfire, and breed further disputes about race.

For a start, black communities could well be suspicious of the police’s attempt to recruit their eyes and ears. These communities are wary of the police for good reasons, having experienced racism at police hands; a targeted operation may just look like another kind of victimisation. Police attempts to use spokesmen like ‘Nuh Fear Dem’ to get the anti-gun message across appear disingenuous and patronising.

The remit given to Operation Trident was almost asking for complaints about the insufficient representation of black officers on its team. Out of Trident’s 267 officers, only 12 are black. An initiative aiming to relate to black communities can’t very well be headed by white guys. Chief Inspector Leroy Logan of the Met’s Black Police Association was in keeping with Trident’s ethos when he argued: ‘You need officers who share the common experiences of the constituency that you are dealing with.’ Of course, the attempt to emphasise common experiences blurs the fact that, at the end of the day, the aim of Trident is to persuade people to grass up their mates.

Shoving black officers up through the ranks just because they are black, however, creates problems. Such moves have reportedly been opposed by some of Trident’s black officers because it could dilute the quality of the squad – as well as cast doubts on their professionalism. Gun crime is hardly an area to push fresh new recruits into: already there have been complaints that black officers without necessary experience were given dangerous undercover assignments.

The Met’s ethnic minority targets have bred similar troubles for the force. One of the Macpherson recommendations was ‘that the membership of police authorities reflects…the cultural and ethnic mix of the communities which those authorities serve’. Met commissioner Sir John Stevens has said that he wants to achieve 25 percent ethnic minorities, to match the mix of the capital. The force has gone all-out to bring in what it describes as ‘Visible Ethnic Minorities’ – setting up stalls in mosques, using black celebrity boxer Lennox Lewis in an advertising campaign, recruiting from the north of England, and even considering bringing officers from overseas.

This drive has been ignored by potential recruits and lambasted by existing officers. In spite of the massive investment, impact upon the proportion of ethnic minority recruits has been marginal – recent figures showed an increase from 4.81 to 5.21 percent in the year up to November 2002 (4). One scheme even paid black officers £350 if they recruited a colleague to the force; this blatant attempt at bribery collapsed under fierce opposition from black staff.

It was the Met’s investigation into the Iranian-born officer Superintendent Ali Dizaei that sparked the National Black Police Association’s threat to dissuade new ethnic recruits. Dizaei was accused of drug dealing and involvement with prostitutes, but the Met’s case against him (based on an estimated £7million investigation) collapsed. Dizaei is now pursuing an employment tribunal alleging racial discrimination and victimisation (5). The NBPA says that this case shows how minority staff are being unfairly targeted for disciplinary action.

Whatever the facts of this case, one consequence of the reaction might a reluctance to investigate any allegations against black officers, for fear of accusation of racism. This is anything but equal treatment. And you can hardly run a police force along these lines.

Meanwhile, Macpherson’s loose definition of racism has ensured that everyday disputes within the police become ‘race issues’. The police’s unequal treatment of different communities has historically been key to the maintenance of racial inequality in Britain. But in keeping with the current consensus, Macpherson saw racism, not as a structural or social phenomenon, but as ‘processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. He also said that racism is anything that ‘is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’.

When racism is supposedly any ‘unwitting’ individual behaviour that is perceived as racist, then it can be anything. The individual behaviour of officers – their manner and attitude, their conversations with fellow officers in the canteen – is increasingly placed under scrutiny. This makes ‘racism’ into an issue of who said what to whom.

From community-specific policing to ethnic quotas to the Dizaei case, we can see diversity policy reinforcing racial division. If race was an issue in the Met before Macpherson, it is even more so now.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Yard ‘needs more black officers’ to solve murders, Guardian, 13 October 2003

(2) Steps toward a new kind of police culture, Guardian, 25 February 1999

(3) Operation Trident on the Metropolitan Police website

(4) MPA leads by example – working towards greater visible ethnic minority representation in London’s police service, 14 January 2003

(5) Cleared Asian police chief accuses superiors of crusade to destroy him, Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2003

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Topics Politics


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