Institutional racism. Those two words, when placed next to each other, stir intense feelings. This has been evident in the many conversations I’ve had with colleagues across Avon and Somerset Police and in some of the private correspondence I have received from different staff and stakeholders. It is also an issue that Chief Constables across the country have been deliberating on, in the run up to the publication of the National Police Race Action Plan.
The challenge for reform, set out by Lord Macpherson almost a quarter of a century ago in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, cannot be said to have been unambiguously answered by policing. Many people still believe policing to be institutionally racist and have grounds for this view.
We cannot dismiss the power and meaning of these two words. The lived experience and statistical evidence of disproportionality that underpin them are real and credible. But we must also move beyond these two words. We need to place focus on the real and tangible actions we must take to ensure everyone is protected, respected, involved and represented in policing.
The National Race Action Plan
This week the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing (the professional body for everyone working in policing) published the National Race Action Plan that aims to improve policing for Black people, address race disparities, and change a legacy of distrust.
We’re talking with colleagues about the action we’ll take locally in response to this national plan.
I’ve appointed Assistant Chief Constable Will White to lead on this internally, while I personally am stepping up to lead the response to the locally produced and recently published Identifying Disproportionality in the Avon and Somerset Criminal Justice System report, working with partners across the Crown Prosecution, Court, Prison and Probation services. This shows we recognise the importance of this work and its significance in moving our police service forward on our inclusion journey.
Saying that racism, discrimination and bias still exist in policing – as the foreword of the Plan does – is not the same as characterising policing or all of its officers and staff as racist. ‘Racism’ is a toxic word. It shows how far we have come as a society that being labelled a racist is highly inflammatory and upsetting to those accused of it. I entered policing to help create a fairer and more just world so the accusation to me – and all those like me – feels abhorrent. Even prefixing the word with ‘institutional’ and directing it at an organisation rather than at individuals, can still feel highly personal. The overwhelming majority of police officers and staff are not racist and would assert that we do not consciously tolerate racism.
Becoming actively anti-racist
But we must recognise that it is no longer enough to not be racist. We must become an actively anti-racist organisation that Black people can trust. People must trust us to give us information. People must trust us to share their experiences of crime and give testimony of those experiences. People must trust us if we are to be the people they turn to in their darkest hour. People must trust us to allow us to use our powers reasonably and fairly. Without trust, there is no consent and without consent we no longer have legitimacy to police. It is this simple. It is fundamental.
The statistics and data set out in the local disproportionality report and in the national plan, show clear evidence of differential experiences in the way we interact with different races, particularly those who are Black. Whether it is the disproportionate way they experience our power, or how satisfied people feel in the services they receive from us; or the way that some colleagues find it harder to progress in the service and are more likely to find themselves facing misconduct or under-performance processes.
There is also the lived experience of people in our communities and in our workforce. I have taken time to seek people out and to listen carefully to what it feels like. What I have heard is compelling and it has moved and inspired me.
Whatever label we apply to the data on disproportionality and people’s lived experiences, failing to acknowledge these things is deeply disrespectful to those for whom it is a daily reality and fact of life. It denies their experience, increases their sense of trauma and injustice and – and this is an absolutely critical point – it undermines any real chance of making progress or moving forward. It’s an old adage but we must first admit we have a problem before we can solve it.
A power for change
The launch of the National Police Race Action Plan provides a real opportunity for us to move forward and make real change. This is an opportunity we must and will embrace in Avon and Somerset Police.
Policing is the gateway to the Criminal Justice System. The Criminal Justice System draws the line between what we tolerate in our society and what we don’t. This means policing plays a hugely influential role in our collective way of life. It can also have a profound impact on the lives of individual citizens.
Policing has the power to bring forward change. It also has the power to hold back change. When it comes to policing and race, we need to be a power for change, not just for our institution, not just for the Criminal Justice System but for our society as a whole.