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Racial disparities in UK policing

By Deirdre Golden

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A recently published report by the UK Home Affairs Committee into racial disparities in policing has found that “serious and deep rooted racial disparities” still exist in policing, over twenty years on from the seminal findings of the McPherson Report, published following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath. The inquiry set out to examine the progress against Sir William Macpherson’s original recommendations, and concerns that progress had stalled in some key areas of policing. In the words of Baroness Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, “things have become stagnant and nothing seems to have moved.”

The inquiry was given further impetus by the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd at police hands in the US.

UK government ministers, public bodies, and police authorities affirmed the principle that Black lives matter and initiated action to address racial inequality in policing.

Amongst the key findings the report has highlighted, is the lack of trust in the police felt by people from Black and mixed communities compared to people from Asian and white backgrounds.

A significant barrier to confidence building with the Black community is the low numbers of police from ethnic minority backgrounds. In 2020 (the latest figures available) Black and minority ethnic officers represented just 7% of the police service across England and Wales, half  the 14% of the population in England and Wales who identify as Black or from a minority ethnic background, and this underrepresentation increases with seniority.

Efforts have been made over the intervening years to increase the diversity of the police workforce but it has been slow and with mixed results.   There are no easy answers, but it is also clear that unless effort is put into creating a culture of inclusion, a revolving door situation may continue with recruits coming in, but leaving because they face hostility or lack of progression.

The recent inquiry also highlights the issue that Black recruits face higher levels of disciplinary action than their white counterparts. This indicates there are systemic issues around culture and bias in the people systems and processes.

Policing is contentious in many part of the world. The death of George Floyd in the US last year, and the on-going deaths of people of colour in the US at the hands of the police, is testimony to systemic racism in both the police and criminal justice systems.  The death of Mr Floyd and its aftermath is driving reform, with legislation being brought forward at Federal level, and initiatives at individual State level, despite this, resistance to change remains.

Perhaps lessons could be learned from the Northern Ireland experience, where the police force had a similar challenge of deep mistrust by the minority population, albeit one based on religion rather than on race.

Police reform was a key feature of the peace process. Prior to the 1998 Peace process just 8% of the Northern Ireland police force was Catholic, today it is one third Catholic ( however more than 45% of Northern Ireland’s population is catholic). The increase was achieved by a radical shake up of the police force and an active and unwavering policy of recruiting Catholics, including through a policy called “50-50 recruitment,” which aimed to replace retiring older Protestant officers with new Catholic recruits over the period of a decade. This initiative did act as a catalyst for change, but there are concerns currently that the momentum has plateaued.

People from Black, Asian and minority communities in Britain, and people of colour in the US, will continue to feel distrust in the bodies who are supposed to protect them without significant changes in diverse representation. As the Northern Ireland experience has shown, this will not happen until such times as there is radical change in the systems and structures underpinning the police and criminal justice system, as well as the commitment to sustain the change over time and without a time limitation on the effort.


You can read more from Baroness Lawrence in the foreword to our 2020 Impact Report.

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