Quite a title, don’t you think? A challenge – obviously, as the Met has faced this same charge, of being institutionally racist, periodically over most of my adult life. When Police officers hear this charge they immediately say ‘not me, I’m not racist. I dont work with any racists either. So the charge is untrue and unfair!’ Of course, in the vast majority of instances, this is absolutely true. And yet not.
I am going to tell you something which I don’t often speak about. I recently told this story to my teenage son. He was not, as I had imagined, proud of me. He was shocked that I had not done more. He made me think. Then yesterday, I exchanged only two tweets with Sophie Kahn which cemented the thoughts that my son had planted.
Many years ago I was a young WPC in London, in a marked police car being driven by an older PC. We drove past four black teenagers. They were walking on the pavement, talking and laughing between themselves. Just the same as all the other people on the street that day. Except that the PC I was with turned our car around and drove back to the group of boys. He drove really slowly beside them and then, when they were all fully aware that our car was trailing them, he wound the window down and began to wind them up. I genuinely can’t remember what he said. I do remember thinking very fast about what was going to happen next and what choices I was going to have to make. Eventually one of the boys swore at my colleague and this older more experienced PC told me to get out of the car and arrest the boy. I said no. It took a lot of guts and I was shaking. The PC turned several shades of purple and got out of the car calling for back up to arrest the boys who were by now all abusive and loud. An onlooker may have seen only the aggression and verbal onslaught of these boys. They would not have seen why this situation had arisen. So, more colleagues arrived, the boys were chased and eventually caught and arrested for public order offences (probably Breach of the Peace). I was taken back to the Police Station and kept well out of the way of the older PC who I could hear loudly shouting to all that he would never work with me again. The boys were quite quickly released without charge and that was the last I saw or heard of them. The PC moved to a different unit not long after. Which may or may not have been connected to what happened.
When I told my son, he was not proud of me for making the stand I did. He was shocked that I had not taken it further. Why had I allowed that PC to go back out on the street and most likely do it again? I thought about my son’s reaction for a while then I moved on. A week later the Met was accused again of being institutionallly racist. PCs began to be suspended. Recent complaints were reopened. The new Met Commissioner told anyone who would listen that racism would not be tolerated anymore. But the truth is that this problem is much bigger than one man in charge of one Police Force (Service?!) as was evidenced on Twitter over Easter Bank Holiday weekend.
Sophie Kahn wrote what I am sure she will agree was a very inflammatory tweet which garnered a lot of attention
from Police Officers all over the country. The tweet was about the Met but it was clear that it offended officers from all Forces. Most people who responded directly to her were clearly upset. Some took things too far. A well known Police blog featured the tweet and invited further comment. The responses to that blog contained some unacceptable personal slurs on Ms Kahn. I tweeted Sophie myself to welcome her to come and meet my family as we have been Met officers for serveral generations. Her response to me brought me back to the story i had told my son. She said maybe we were not racists but perhaps some of my family had stood by and let someone else get away with racist behaviour. She is right. It was me.
I am standing up to be counted. I am also saying loud and clear that the problem does not lie with the individual officer on the street. It lies with the systems those officers have to work within and ultimately it lies with ACPO. Overt racism IS rare. But institutional racism is quite different and most of us don’t even understand what it is. And that’s the real problem.