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26 February 2020

Radical action is needed to tackle the ‘race gap’

Positive discrimination is the only way to tackle Macpherson's unfinished business, says Louise Haigh. 

By louise haigh

William MacPherson’s landmark report, twenty-one years ago this week, was a watershed for British policing. Since then progress has been made thanks the dedication of campaigners like Baroness Lawrence and the hard work of police leaders and officers. Independent oversight of police complaints was introduced, changes to the law brought two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers to justice, and now a hate crime is defined as such if the victim perceived it to be a racist attack.

Progress though, on one key area, on diversity in policing has been far too slow. After Macpherson firm targets were set to ensure the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic officers reflected communities (seven per cent) by 2009. Today, forces have still not reached even that initial target. The so-called ‘race gap’ is now even larger that it was when Macpherson was published and the Metropolitan Police, for instance, will take a century to reflect the communities it serves at the current rate of progress.

At the very top of policing, the picture is even worse; there has only ever been one black Chief Constable, and the number of Asian officers at the most senior level has fallen back.

This isn’t good enough and it matters because every officer knows, as I do, that the cornerstone of British policing is to ‘police by consent’ – the public are the police, and the police are the public. The vital relationship building and voluntary intelligence generated by this trust and legitimacy is at the heart of effective community policing.

So what I say, I say as a former special constable and a firm friend of policing: the truth is this glacial rate of progress is damaging British policing. I know many officers and leaders recognise that diversity isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have to build those vital community relationships particularly in the shadow of austerity and the erosion of neighbourhood policing.

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This is too important to wait a century for change to come, so we must accept that radical action is needed to address it. We simply cannot afford to rely on a recruitment drive alone to improve diversity because the lessons from the last surge under a Labour government show that it will be too slow.

That’s why I believe that positive discrimination is now needed. Nobody claims this would be without its difficulties or that people from BME communities would rush to join the police; it is not a silver bullet. But I believe this would be a generational opportunity to transform the face of British policing, and above all improve policing.

The lessons from Northern Ireland shows that it can bring about fundamental change to address societal challenges. There recruits had to, of course, meet a tough standard before being considered for selection and were then placed in a pool and assigned on a quota basis. In ten years, Catholic representation in the PSNI jumped from eight per cent to nearly 30 per cent and crucially the number of Catholic applications to join the police also increased.

Positive discrimination here would send a message, as the government’s recruitment drive continues, that if you are black or Asian the police service is a career for you.

Fundamentally, progress on diversity is stagnant with no obvious sign that it will change. The history of policing demands we do something to radically address this inequality, particularly as communities change. Policing leaders have shown they recognise this challenge, but to address it we must all be brave.