Last week I wrote about a conversation I had with my 16yr old son that had made me think about my beliefs and understanding of racism and institutional racism. I recounted an incident from years ago when I was a Metropolitan Police Officer. If you didnt read, its worth a look here http://wp.me/p2lS1i-3 before reading on. I received a lot of responses. Some via Twitter and some in replies posted to the blog. Many of the very positive responses came from Solicitors, other legal types, criminologists, other academics. There were many responses from Police officers. Some of them were very nice and told me not to take any of the (inevitable?) furore too seriously. Others were cross that, in their eyes, I had somehow been made to feel guilty and openly recount my story as a form of absolution. Some replied that the incident was clearly some years ago and that it wouldn’t happen now. A small number of the Police responders agreed with my conclusion. What I wrote about happened in the Met and yes, it was quite a few years ago. Does it still happen? Yes. It does. I know this because people contacted me and told me that it still happens. Does this mean that Police officers are all racists? No. It doesn’t. Did I feel guilty and write the piece to absolve myself? No. I didn’t.
I wrote it because it occurred to me that I was only just beginning to understand what institutional racism is. A few years after the aforementioned incident, I worked in one of the first community support units in the Met and dealt with race crime along with several other ‘victim orientated’ crime classifications. I would have confidently told you that I understood more than most about racist crimes. I may have understood the systems employed to deal with the crimes but that’s not the same as understanding the concept or the experience of racism.
I am white and my entire family is white. We have social acquaintances who are black but no close friends. My son, the 16 yr old, has a close friend who is black and whilst he lives near us in a leafy Surrey town, his dad lives in Brixton. My son’s friend has personal and family experiences that I do not have and that I cannot experience myself. I cannot opine about the racist acts of individuals other than honestly recounting what experience I have personally.
However what I can do, is to record my own burgeoning understanding of institutional racism and what that means for individuals. If you are a Police officer please stop taking it personally when your organisation is accused of being institutionally racist. Yes, you are the public face but you are NOT where the buck stops, whatever your management would have you think. Whenever cries of institutional racism become too loud to ignore ACPO pick a few officers who have acted in either a blatantly racist manner or more often in an irresponsible and heavy handed manner. These officers, who would otherwise have been internally disciplined or quietly required to resign find themselves at the centre of a media storm, the sacrificial offering from a confused and panicking establishment.
No wonder they and their colleagues feel angry and confused. No wonder the public feels frustrated and looses trust in their local Police. The problem never goes away and it never even changes. This is because the problem is not, in fact, these individual officers. They are in some cases, a symptom of the problem but rarely more than that. The problem lies squarely with ACPO and the Home Office. It is not enough for ACPO to pay lip service to the concept of institutional racism then repeatedly make policies and issue directives which perpetuate that very thing. It is far too easy and frankly very sloppy management to say the right things in public, change nothing in private then blame the man at the end of the chain when it all goes wrong.
Last week I stood up and told the truth. Not because I felt the need to tell my story but because it’s about time the men and women at the end of line said enough is enough – here we are, we are imperfect but we are honest and we are doing our best. As soon as these officers stop feeling they have to protect themselves for something they do not do, the sooner everyone will look to ACPO, where the real guilt lies. The systems which govern how Police work were set up by white privileged men who perhaps knew no different. Today our leaders have a plethora of experienced intelligent people to advise them and to learn from. Yet they don’t. They stay in the same ‘safe’ tracks and throw blame back at their rank and file officers. I believe strongly in bottom-up innovation but when it comes to institutional racism the change has to come from the top. And the only way ACPO can make the right change is by listening. To everyone.