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Radical reform is required if the police service is to look like the society it serves

The Mayor of London has recently published an Action Plan to improve black Londoners’ trust and confidence in the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).

As part of this are some of the most radical initiatives to increase workforce diversity in recent times. Thus, the MPS is aiming to have Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) officer representation at 16 per cent by 2022, 21 per cent by 2024 and 28 per cent by 2030.

To achieve this, the MPS want 40 per cent of new recruits to be from BAME communities from 2022/23 and the London residency criteria has been re-introduced. Specific targets will be set for the recruitment and retention of black officers.

As of December 2020, 7.5 per cent of police officers in England and Wales are BAME (1.2 per cent black, 3.2 per cent Asian, 2.2 per cent mixed ethnicity and 0.8 per cent other ethnicity), despite the current BAME population being projected at 17.2 per cent. The 2.8 per cent increase in the last decade has mainly been driven by the recruitment of Asian and mixed ethnicity officers.

Black officer representation has increased by a mere 0.3 per cent in the last 10 years; 28 forces have seen no increase in the proportion of black officers in this time, 23 of which saw decreases. Over a quarter of forces do not have a single black officer with almost 40 per cent having one or fewer.

BAME populations are outpacing the rate of change in BAME police officer proportions. If the average annual rate of change between 2015 and 2020 continues, it will take over 90 years for the police service of England and Wales to be representative of the BAME population of 2050.

This is a hugely simplified picture. There is further concern with regard to intersectionality; the proportion of female white officers has increased by 5.9 per cent over the last decade. In comparison the proportion of female BAME officers has increased by just 1.3 per cent.

Additionally, diversity generally decreases with rank. Of the two per cent of Chief Officers that are BAME, just two are female. Home Office data indicate that there are no BAME female Chief Superintendents, although the author is aware that this data may contain inaccuracies

It is of course necessary to assess workforce diversity at the local force level considering the huge regional variation in population diversity. However, no forces are currently representative of their communities in terms of ethnicity.

For ‘policing by consent’ to be effective, all members of the community must feel that the police are there to serve them and that the police will treat them fairly and with respect. Black (in particular black Caribbean) and mixed ethnicity communities have much lower levels of confidence in the police than white British people do. Having a police service that is more representative of the communities it serves is one important way of addressing this lack of trust and confidence.

There are significant barriers facing BAME police recruits and each of these need to be addressed.

Before even applying to join there are of course pre-existing perceptions of the police that can put many people off from considering a career as a police officer. Alongside this is the very real potential for backlash from one’s family, friends and community, a fear of an unwelcoming culture within the police and a lack of black police role models in influential positions to aspire to.

Even passing the initial assessment to join the police is more difficult if you are from an ethnic minority. Recent figures from the Day One Assessment Centre trial show the pass rate for BAME candidates was 48 per cent compared to 81 per cent for white British candidates (74 per cent including white minorities).

Data from Police Now show that if a BAME candidate does receive a job offer following the Police Now assessment centre trial they are twice as likely than white counterparts to have an offer rescinded by a force. BAME candidates are six times more likely to fail vetting, four times more likely to fail a fitness assessment, 21 times more likely to have an offer rescinded for ‘other issues’ and one percentage point more likely to fail a medical assessment.

If a BAME candidate is successful in the recruitment process, further barriers stand in the way of smooth career progression; retaining BAME officers is equally as vital as recruiting them.

BAME police officers are less likely to be promoted than white officers. Last year just 4.9 per cent of police officers promoted were BAME. BAME officers are also disproportionately subject to internal conduct allegations.

It is unsurprising then that BAME officers are 50 per cent more likely to voluntarily resign than their white counterparts (29 per 1,000 officers, compared to 18 per 1,000) and more than twice as likely to be dismissed or have their contract terminated.  

So BAME police officers face considerable challenges. Making progress can require great patience, resilience and tenacity. But many more police officers from ethnic minority backgrounds are urgently needed.

Positive action initiatives are sporadic across England and Wales but have gone some way to increasing police officer diversity. But it is not enough.

In 1981, Lord Scarman said ‘vigorous action is required if the police are to become more representative of all the community they serve’. In those 40 years, the proportion of black officers has increased by 0.9 per cent. In 1999, Macpherson echoed Scarman’s concerns and none of his targets for the following decade were met. Since then, the 2016 Home Affairs Select Committee described police officer diversity as ‘shameful’, ‘pitiful’ and that ‘many police forces seem to have no better grasp of how to increase diversity than they did decades ago’.

Radical action is necessary. It is hard to imagine how and when the police will be representative if substantial progress is not made during the current uplift. The MOPAC Action Plan is a step in the right direction for London and we will soon see whether it is sufficient or if we may need to go further and consider positive discrimination, as was used in Northern Ireland to successfully increase the proportion of Catholic officers.

There must also be radical reform of accountability, retention, progression and training. We need racial and cultural literacy throughout the workforce and throughout the service.

Yesterday the Police Foundation’s annual conference, which formed part of the Strategic Review of Policing hosted a panel discussion on workforce diversity with Sophie Linden, Deputy Mayor of London, and Leroy Logan MBE, former Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police and author of ‘Closing Ranks, My Life as a Cop’, who had his life in the police depicted in Steve McQueen’s recent BBC series, ‘Small Axe’.  A replay of the event is available and you can purchase access here.

Stephen Walcott, Researcher, The Police Foundation