Support 100 years of independent journalism.

12 June 2007

23 years is too long to wait

The Police Service must be allowed to adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing society

By Peter Fahy

The Police Service finds itself in an unusual position at present. After many years of being regarded as insensitive, brutish and indeed openly racist, it is now more likely to be lambasted for being over sensitive, politically correct and far too soft.

In the recent counter terrorism operation in Birmingham, West Midlands Police were criticised for distributing leaflets explaining their actions in minority languages as this would supposedly harm integration. The support last month at Chief Constables’ Council for a debate on the case for affirmative action in the recruitment of police officers was seen as further evidence that police chiefs had lost the plot.

That debate has already started whatever our critics may think. The background is that policing in this country is very firmly based on the principles of policing by consent and requiring the ready support of the population for coercive powers to be exercised against individuals for the benefit of society as a whole.

It is crucial, therefore, that the Police Service is seen to be broadly representative of the community it serves for the exercise of those power to be seen as legitimate. Policing is totally dependent on the flow of intelligence and information from the public and this flow relies on the trust and confidence of the population that this information will be used proportionately all the more easier when the police ‘look like us’.

For obvious socio-economic reasons the police have proportionately more interactions with the ethnic minority populations who may harbour distrust and suspicion based on historical experience here or in other countries.

It is for all these strong operational reasons that it has been judged so important for the police to be broadly representative of the population it serves, particularly in respect of ethnic background.

To use the jargon, there is a very strong business case here and this applies equally to the issue of gender. Currently about 22 percent of police officers are female meaning the Police Service is missing out on a great deal of the talent in the workforce. These female officers are largely concentrated in the junior ranks and progress through the hierachy is painfully slow.

The Stephen Lawrence report set a target for the Police Service to be representative of the ethnic make-up of the population by 2009. This would mean seven percent of police officers coming from ethnic minorities by this date. The figure in 2006 was 3.7 percent so the target will be missed. This should not be an argument over targets, however, but about legitimacy and police effectiveness.

Most police officers serve for 30-35 years. As a result the rate of turnover is abnormally low and makes the Police Service almost unique in its inability to achieve a quick turnaround. In the Metropolitan Police, for instance, up to 40 percent of current enquiries for jobs are coming from ethnic minorities, but this will take a long time to affect the overall percentage of ethnic minorities in the organisation.

The Police Service can always do more to attract applications from ethnic minorities but those applications have to wait their place in the queue alongside all the applications from white males, the group we have traditionally recruited from.

Slowly dripping ethnic minority or female recruits into organisations which remain overwhelmingly white and male can satisfy certain targets but does not fundamentally shift the ability of the internal culture to accept difference.

Such individuals are asked to be role models and standard bearers, but many grow tired of this additional responsibility on top of being a good operational cop or effective leader. So the notion of the tipping point is a crucial one – and we are a long way off that tipping point.

Recent guidance issued by the Home Office does allow preference to be given to candidates who are proficient in a minority language or have particular community experience but the criteria is very tight and can only be applied after the initial selection has taken place.

Recruitment professionals say it is unlikely to make a huge difference and in any case the CRE has shown it will take a hard line with any force that falls foul of what the law allows. Police forces are committed to do all they can to recruit a more balanced workforce within the law and will work to stretching annual recruitment targets.

This is not about lowering standards. The proposal for debate is whether, for a limited period time, the Police Service should be able to take into account an applicant’s gender or ethnic background as long as they meet the agreed standard and only until a set quota is achieved. Otherwise police forces are required to dance on the legal pinhead of employment law or bend the rules by, for instance, concentrating recruitment activity in neighbourhoods of high ethnic minority population which is just as liable to breed resentment.

The alternative is to abandon employment targets as a measure of police performance in building trust and confidence, but this avoids the issue of legitimacy and the ability of the Police Service to gather information and intelligence.

The make-up of our society is changing rapidly and the Police Service is on the front line of the resultant tensions and mistrust. The argument is that we should have the ability to also change more rapidly, acknowledging that every successful modern organisation sees the promotion of diversity as a key business strength.

Some commentators have said they regard a representative police force as crucial, but also do not support any notion of affirmative action. Research by Dr. Jennifer Brown of Surrey University has shown that under current employment law it will therefore take 23 years to achieve a representative police force. Some of us do not want to wait that long.

Topics in this article: