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12 June 2007

More than a question of colour

The police requires a total culture change if it is to recruit more officers from ethnic minorities

By Kay Hampton

It has been eight years since Sir William Macpherson declared that the police were “institutionally racist”.

Those words followed the findings of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry which concluded that there was “a collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”.

One outcome of the inquiry was the creation of a set of targets outlined by the then-home secretary, Jack Straw. These targets were aimed at increasing the recruitment, promotion and retention of ethnic minority staff in police forces across the UK.

There is no doubt that significant progress has been made in the area of race equality since those findings were published. The police service has targeted funding and created measures aimed at speeding up the recruitment of staff from a wider selection of racial backgrounds. As a result the number of black and minority police officers has almost doubled in seven years.

Unfortunately even with these achievements, many forces are still struggling to recruit people from diverse backgrounds. On average only 3.5 percent of police officers currently come from minority communities. It is likely that police forces will fall short of the Home Office target of seven percent by 2009.

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One key reason for the failure to recruit more ethnic minority staff is the negative perceptions and experiences of the police service by these communities. On average a black person is three and half times more likely to be arrested than a white person. Yet the rate of conviction is only slightly higher than that of their white counterparts. Not surprisingly this creates resentment and distrust of the police.

This personal experience is compounded by high profile media stories that reinforce the notion that police service is racist. With programs such as Panorama’s “Secret Policeman” which featured trainee officers spouting racist abuse and mocking fellow officers. Is it that surprising that many ethnic minorities do not apply to become police officers?

The CRE welcomes a debate on under representation in the police and welcomes measures to tackle the problem; however we do not support positive discrimination.

We believe that these forms of reverse discrimination could increase community tensions and undermine ethnic minority officers. We would ask the police to move away from the smokescreen of positive discrimination and start looking at the underlying reasons why ethnic minorities are not applying to become police officers.

The police should use all the measures open to them to re-address this balance such as undertaking positive action schemes (not to be confused with positive discrimination). This includes taking steps to provide training for members of under-represented groups, and focusing recruitment drives at unrepresented minority communities.

However, these measures will only go so far. We need a total culture change; the police must create an environment where all people feel valued for their professional skills and have access to a career structure based on merit, not on skin colour.

These changes must be visible. Only then will the police be able to recruit a more representative workforce and create a service that truly reflects the communities it serves.