Black and blue: the secret lives of BAME police officers
Thirty years ago, in a nondescript hall in Bristol, an extraordinary event took place. Those who were there remember it with a mixture of pride and pain.
In what is now the University of the West of England, black and Asian officers from all over the Metropolitan police area were talking about the racism they had encountered as they tried to build their careers and serve the public. One told of having abuse daubed on his locker in a secure area of the station, another of finding faeces in his helmet. Some described their shame and embarrassment at sitting silently as white colleagues used racial epithets about suspects or while shooting the breeze in the canteen.
“Remarks like ‘Throw him a coconut’ and ‘Hey, my slave, good to see you, man’ were some of the least unpleasant,” noted an internal report produced by Scotland Yard. Black and Asian officers spoke of colleagues who resorted to racially offensive mimicry over the radio or who took just that little bit longer to respond to their appeals for help when they were in trouble.
They told of “old sweats” or “John Wayne types” who were openly racist towards the public. “Words such as ‘spooks’, ‘nigger’ and ‘coon’ are in such general use throughout the service that one officer counted 230 instances in one week,” the summary said.
Most accepted that the “proportion of outright racists in the Met was small”, but there was, they felt, “a lack of understanding” that blighted their careers.
Each had previously thought theirs was a uniquely harrowing experience. Over those two days, they learned that they were sailing in the same black and blue boat in the same cruel sea.
“Oh, God, I was mortified. It made me sick to my stomach,” recalls Shabnam Chaudhri, who joined the Met in 1989 and retired in 2019 after 30 years. “It was cathartic; liberating for people to be able to speak openly. Everybody had hope. Everybody believed that this was going to be the big change that was needed within policing.”
Sultan Taylor, a genial man who rose to become an east London borough commander before retiring in 2016, has similar memories. “It was a shock at how widespread this issue of racism internally was.”
Leroy Logan, whose early career and struggles as a black officer were recently portrayed in the BBC series Small Axe, recalls that even the journey to Bristol by coach – called the “wog wagon” by detractors – was emotional. “People were saying: ‘Is that how it is for you as well? Oh my gosh, it’s terrible, man.’ I thought: ‘Wow, the people are suffering.’ And in the meetings themselves, some people broke down, they cried. They were sobbing. It was really strong stuff.”Leroy Logan. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian
Strong enough to overcome the doubts of the many black and Asian officers who did not want to attend the event for fear it would further distance them from their white colleagues. They had been given no choice: the Met had made their attendance mandatory. But, once there, they showed what the summary described as “obvious delight” at knowing that the problems were out in the open. Jenny Donaldson, who joined the Met in 1983 and rose to inspector before retiring in 2015, was one of them. “I was quite against it,” she recalls. “I said: ‘There’s obviously a blacklist, and I’m on the blacklist.’ But it was like therapy. It was really cathartic.”
The report that came out of the Bristol Seminars, as the event was known, was a true account. Taylor, having volunteered when it seemed management would write the summary themselves without input from those who had spoken, was one of the authors. It starkly juxtaposed the contrary view of a control group of white officers who refused to even see there was a problem and defended the toxic behaviour as “police culture”.
But there is another reason that the seminars are remembered today – the crushing feeling of disappointment that followed. The initiative had been driven by one very senior officer, Wyn Jones, whose advocacy of it provoked strong internal opposition. When he left the Met, for unrelated reasons, the impetus went with him. Elements of the report, Looking Into the Recruiting and Retention of Officers, Particularly Black and Asian Officers, are said to have informed internal thinking, but the report was never published. No serious attempt to address the problems followed.
Logan says it was painful to see hopes evaporate. “When he crashed and burned, the report crashed and burned.”Jennifer Donaldson in 1983.
It is a failure of historic significance. Thirty years on from that historic event – more than half a century after Norwell Roberts, now celebrated as the UK’s first postwar black police officer, donned his uniform – black and Asian officers are still struggling to find their place in the police service.
Few now say they hear racial slurs in their stations or find racist graffiti on their lockers or faeces in their helmets. In policing, as in wider society, the line has been drawn against such overt discrimination. But that hasn’t driven it out – witness the recent case in Hampshire where officers in one unit were found to have a “toxic, abhorrent culture”. They used offensive terms for women, black people, immigrants and disabled, gay and transgender people and referred to their black colleague using racist tropes and references to slavery. But such behaviour, once uncovered, results in disgrace and dismissals.
However, having spoken to numerous black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) officers over a period of months – in an attempt to understand the landscape around them in the era of Black Lives Matter – it is clear that, 30 years later, the police service has failed to construct a level playing field.
The Home Office says there were 9,174 BAME police officers on 31 March 2020 – an increase of 842 on the previous year and 7.3% of all officers. But that still represents only just more than half of the proportion of those it classifies as “other ethnic groups” in the population. The proportion of senior BAME officers has risen from a paltry 2.8% in 2007 to just 4%.
These facts are known. Last year, the home secretary wrote to all chief constables and police and crime commissioners, urging them to do better. The national government has hopes to increase diversity in the police service as part of a plan to recruit another 20,000 officers. This is not a matter of altruism, for it is broadly accepted that policing diverse communities with non-diverse forces is divisive and ineffective.
In London, where 44% of the population is believed to be black or from an ethnic minority, the problem is particularly acute. Sadiq Khan, widely expected to be re-elected as London mayor in May, has called on the Met – which has the most BAME officers of any force: 5,000 out of 32,600 – to raise its target for BAME officers from 19% to 40%. On past performance, that is a huge ask. It is virtually impossible to build diverse, effective forces if too few BAME officers sign up and too many – finding that hardships and unfairness still bedevil their careers – choose to leave.
And problems occur on multiple levels, because even when they try to fit in, when they find a way to deal with the pushback they sometimes encounter in their communities for having joined the police, they face the prospect of having their lives destroyed by a discriminatory disciplinary system.
In 2019, the National Police Chiefs Council found that Britain’s minority officers are more often referred for disciplinary examination – and more often exonerated. They are arbitrarily and unnecessarily pulled through an institutional mangle.Leroy Logan at Metropolitan police training school in Hendon, north London, in 1983.
And the why, as set out by the police chiefs themselves, is revealing: “It begins with the BAME officer being referred to professional standards department (PSD) by their supervisor for low-level conduct allegations, with that supervisor failing to deal with the conduct allegation proportionately and at the earliest opportunity. This is either out of fear of being called racist or not having the knowledge to deal with the matters raised appropriately. As a result, BAME officers were often only made aware that their performance or conduct was in question when their supervisor informed them they had been reported to PSD.”
So this is no longer the problem of Bristol, of graffiti on lockers and monkey noises on the radio. Instead, officers describe an “othering” that is quieter and more insidious. The tragedy here is not just the dashing of individual hopes and the degradation of policing capacity that affects us all, but also that the very act of treating black and white officers differently is senseless.
One significant advance from the Bristol Seminars was the officer-to-officer connection that led to the formation by visible minority officers of the Black Police Association. But after speaking to a number of BAME officers for a radio documentary, it became clear to my producer, George Luke, and I that they are not in any way a cadre apart. They are just police officers. The same view of society and themselves that draws white officers to the job attracts them, too.
And we realised one surprising thing. Regardless of their backstories – those who attended the seminars, those who have joined more recently, those who have had turbulent careers, those who haven’t – not one said they regretted their decision to become a police officer. All felt they had in some way contributed towards making the police service fit for purpose. All said, with realistic caveats, that they would recommend a policing career to a friend or relative. All had experienced the lows we knew, but also highs they wanted to speak of.
Logan, whose celebrated, turbulent career saw him fight Scotland Yard in court – and win – told us: “I love the police. If my grandchildren decide they want to join, I’d encourage them. But I want to make sure that the Met police is a bit better positioned than it is now.”
Andy George, the president of the National Black Police Association, negotiates daily the racial and religious issues that arise with being a Protestant officer of colour in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There are tough days, but ask about the highs and he will talk proudly about his part in saving multiple lives – and sustaining injury – after a driver who had mowed down a girl was attacked by a crowd.Andy George. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian
Taylor, who took his borough from being one of the worst performing to one of the best, said: “If you’re a frontline officer, dealing with burglary and preventing burglary, arresting burglars, you do get a buzz. If you’re an inspector running a team that’s doing well, you get it, too.”
Donaldson remembered times on the street, and within the job itself, when she was singled out because of her skin, but also other times when white colleagues went out of their way to support her. There were cases that even now evoke pride: such as the time she spent supporting a mother whose 17-year-old son had been stabbed to death.
Chaudhri recalled a forced marriage case. “We managed to secure the safe return of a victim who had been locked up and beaten up by the family members. There were those good times when you genuinely care for a victim of crime or robbery or in a murder case.”
Kaelon Parkes, a 27-year-old constable who decided that the best way to capitalise on his talent for dealing with young people was to join the Met, spoke of the times when he wouldn’t swap his job, such as the day in the powder keg of Brixton, south London, when a street stop was spinning violently out of control and his intervention stopped what seemed to be impending disorder. “I still see people that shake my hand and say hello to me. I think you can be human about these things.”
We asked numerous black officers: what do you really want? They talked of better training modules, more genuine appreciation of diversity within the forces that employ them, better leadership and more understanding from the public. But reading the yellowing pages of the Bristol report and talking to officers, the main aspiration seems basic and consistent. Pausing for breath at the end of a list of wishes, one said: “We just want to be coppers.”
Black and Blue is on BBC Radio 4 on 9 February at 11am and 15 February at 9pm