The day Kevin Maxwell was sworn in as a police constable in 2002, something was already wrong. As he stood facing the Union Jack during a ceremony at Sedgley Park training school in Greater Manchester, he noticed a pencil mark on his application form. It was put there by officials to flag the arrest of his older brother in 2001. This turned out to have been a case of mistaken identity. But during the arrest, the police – Maxwell’s colleagues-to-be – had broken his brother’s thumb. Maxwell knew nothing of the incident, but this was the reality of policing for black men like him and his brothers.
Growing up working class and gay in Toxteth, inner-city Liverpool, Maxwell witnessed the riots against the Merseyside Police on his council estate in 1981. He saw police betray his city after the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster, and was only three years younger than Stephen Lawrence when the 18-year-old was murdered in 1993 – a case that led to the Metropolitan Police being described as “institutionally racist” by the 1999 Macpherson Report.
As Maxwell writes in his new book, Forced Out: “It was as if the universe was telling me: Don’t join the police.”
The universe was right. From 2001 to 2012, during seven years with Greater Manchester Police and four with the Met, Maxwell, now 42, experienced racism and homophobia from fellow officers. An employment tribunal in 2013 found the Met guilty of 40 counts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation against him.
The experience took its toll. After eight years without a sick day, Maxwell collapsed on duty at Heathrow airport in 2009, while working in counter-terrorism. He was suffering from severe reactive depression. “I thought I was the kind of person police wanted to recruit,” he told me, speaking from his flat in north London. An illustrated poster of London hangs on the white wall behind him, while his Scouse accent is a reminder of his hometown.
The youngest of 11 siblings (“our own football team”) raised alone by their Catholic mother, Maxwell describes a happy childhood, despite prejudice. “It wasn’t easy for a white woman to raise 11 mixed-race kids,” he recalled. “She’d be called ‘n****r lover’, her kids ‘black bastards’. She remembered those notices which said ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ – she’d say, I’m two of them, not the dog!”
From naming his Lego figures after characters on the TV police drama The Bill to learning the phonetic alphabet, Maxwell nurtured a dream of becoming a police officer. By the time he had completed his performance degree at the University of Salford, he wanted to chase “criminals through the back streets of Manchester” instead of pursuing a showbiz career.
While working as a manager at the iconic Manchester gay club the Paradise Factory he sat his tests for the Greater Manchester Police, reporting for duty at the age of 23 in 2001.
“My white liberal friends from university would say, ‘Kevin, they’re not ready for someone like you.’ Why, with all these messages, all these red flags, did I continue with my pursuit of this dream?” he wondered. “I haven’t got an answer. I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was.”
We spoke shortly after he had finished a 90-minute weekly group therapy session. Yet wide-eyed and leaning close to the camera, he had plenty of energy left to tell me his story.
Joining the police in the New Labour heyday of equality legislation and diversity training, Maxwell was one of only 40 ethnic minority male officers out of 8,000 on the Greater Manchester force. He was immediately dismissed by fellow recruits and superiors as just an “ethnic” for photo opportunities, and was called a “coconut”. When Maxwell qualified, he was told to forget the politically correct “crap” he’d been taught during training, and was warned not to “play the race card” or “fly the flag” for black or gay rights.
In 2003, Maxwell witnessed colleagues kick a restrained black man, who had been pepper-sprayed, and then laugh at the subsequent CCTV footage (a sergeant was investigated, but no charges were brought; he later became a police “diversity champion”).
“I was one of those cops,” Maxwell said. “I once stopped a young black boy in his car – when he told me he was always being stopped, I said, ‘If you don’t like living in this country, go somewhere else.’ It shames me. I was so institutionalised, I’d almost been taught to see black and brown boys as troublesome.”
Maxwell believes that improving police diversity is not enough. “We need officers of colour to join the police to think differently, not just look different,” he said. “They missed an opportunity with me because I am someone from a poor, working-class community; black, mixed-race, gay, who brought something different to the table.”
Although he has never been on a protest (apart from a 2008 march over police pay), Maxwell sympathises with the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a US police officer.
“I would never pick up the phone and call the police,” he told me. “I would never trust the police again. If I see police officers on one side of the street, I cross to the other side.”
I hear his voice thicken. “When I see that uniform now, it causes me panic. That’s sick because they’re the people we’re told to run to, not run away from. And I only ever wanted to be one of them.”
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation