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16 June 2020

“If you want to change a system, you have to be a part of it”: black police officers reflect

Following the death of George Floyd, black police officers speak about diversity, perception and how education could help bridge the gap between communities. 

By Rohan Banerjee

The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the custody of a police officer, Derek Chauvin, in the United States, sparked mass civil unrest on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The problem with policing is not unique to the US. Black people in this country were over three times as likely to be arrested as white people in 2019-20. There were 35 arrests for every 1,000 black people, compared to 10 for every 1,000 white people. And even without arrests or convictions, it would be fair to say many black people have had unpleasant interactions with white police officers. On 9 June, for example, a video featuring two white officers from Suffolk Police, was circulated on social media, showing a black couple being stopped and questioned over entering their own car, because they “looked suspicious”. 

But despite long-standing problems with the perception of the police among many black communities, black officers do exist. One mixed-race officer, whose father is Jamaican and who would prefer not to be named, tells me that his childhood on a rough and ethnically diverse south London council estate was largely themed by a distinction between law enforcement and everyone else. “There was them, and then there was us,” he says. 

So, if the police are perceived as institutionally racist, what would attract a black person to join their ranks? Tola Munro, who is of Nigerian heritage and is a sergeant with the Avon and Somerset Constabulary as well as a former president of the National Black Police Association, points out that policing, on a conceptual level, could be considered noble work. “There’s an appeal in wanting to protect your community,” he explains. “That’s not a black or a white issue. And I strongly believe that if you want to change a system then you have to be a part of it.” 

While Munro admits to having periods of disillusionment with his industry, including within the current context of the coronavirus pandemic and the tragic death of George Floyd, he would “still recommend” policing as a career path. “As a police officer, the biggest pat on the back you can get is from when a victim of crime says thank you. That’s closely followed by putting bad guys away, which is what we’re meant to do.”

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But Munro says that many ethnic minorities can feel “over-policed and under-protected… That’s what we’ve got to change, and there’s still a lot of work left to do.”

What happened to George Floyd, Munro confirms, “wasn’t policing”. He tells me: “I couldn’t watch the whole video [of Floyd being choked to death as Chauvin’s knee rested on his neck]. I’ve seen too many video clips of life being taken from black men, especially in the US, by police, for seemingly non-policing matters.” 

That Floyd had a criminal past, Munro asserts, is irrelevant. “Police officers don’t get to be vigilantes and dish out their own sentences. Why did he deserve to die? I’ve seen some people refer to George Floyd’s death as an ‘extra-judicial killing’. Let’s call it what it is – it’s homicide. If the reasoning is, oh well, he’s a bad guy anyway, that’s not right. That doesn’t give anyone the right to snuff his life out.”  

Would hiring more people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds into the police force help to alleviate racial tensions? “Actually,” the anonymous police officer suggests, “the police force in the UK is already fairly diverse, certainly more so than it was. You do have black people in the police, and Asian people, and LGBT officers. The bigger challenge is seeing those diverse people get given more senior positions. You might see black or Asian police constables, but you see far fewer getting to the top ranks.” 

Munro says that the police do “recognise the benefits” of diversity, “in terms of bringing in new skills and understanding”. But he agrees that the “process” of promotion is challenging for people from minority backgrounds. “You have to show a certain knowledge of the law [to get promoted] and to have been here [in the police] for a certain amount of time. Time can be a barrier in itself. And maybe the criteria for promotion needs to be looked at.”

Michael Fuller, the former chief constable of Kent Police and who left the role in 2010, remains the first and only black person to reach that position in the UK. This, Munro says, is “mortifying”. He adds: “But I think many people within the police would agree with that assessment… and a number of the services have committed to trying to get more black police officers into the senior roles. It isn’t an issue that is being ignored. But there is a lot of work to be done.” 

The police officer who would prefer not to be named, meanwhile, says “more education and training” around diversity at all levels of the police would help them to become “more aware” of the breadth and depth of the communities they serve. But, he admits, this is an issue that applies “to everyone, not just the police”.

Indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement, while catalysed by the death of George Floyd, is about much more than just that. It taps into the myriad structural disparities between the lived experiences of black and white people all around the world – not just in their interactions with law enforcement, but in the employment market, and representation in film, literature, and TV. As a father, the officer tells me, he has found it “very hard” to find books or learning materials that feature a “strong black main character”. This, coupled with a lack of diversity in various top jobs, contributes to a feeling of alienation for black people – who may turn to crime if they feel that the rest of society has turned its back on them.

While the lack of diversity in various fields and industries is a problem, Munro says it must not be held up as “an excuse”. But the root causes for crime, he agrees, are far-reaching, and committing more time and effort to learning about the “stories” that lead people astray may very well help to prevent them in the future. 

Communication and transparency, Munro says, should be the core tenets of any attempt to improve the perception of the police among black communities. “Some forces, like mine, do visits to junior schools, and that helps to break down some of the barriers, and it shows young kids that the police are on their side.” 

Has the government’s policy of austerity and cuts to police budgets undone some of the progress that was made previously on inter-race relations? “Absolutely,” the unnamed police officer says, and he highlights the abandonment of various “race liaison and caseworker roles” as one of the main problems in combatting racism. “Police departments up and down the country were under pressure to scale back and a lot of these roles got cut. We used to have trained professionals working on community engagement programmes, but they’ve, over time, been replaced with volunteers.”

Could Floyd’s murder be a watershed moment in the fight against racism? “It has the potential to be,” the anonymous officer says. “I just hope that we don’t lose the momentum when the protests begin to ease.” Munro agrees. “Hopefully, this will underline the point that good policing is about protecting everyone.”