This is the full version of a piece published in The Independent on Sunday today.
In 2006 I was hiding out in the toilets of The British Museum. The charity 100 Black Men had invited me to speak at one of their events and although my talk was about the genocide in Darfur, I was out of my comfort zone. In a crowd of 300, mine was the only white face.
I retreated to the toilets to compose myself before speaking. Whilst gaining profound insights into how it must feel to always be the face that doesn’t fit, I heard voices outside my cubicle. An irate sounding young woman protested “What gives her the right to lecture us on Africa?” The voice of a soft spoken older woman replied “It took a lot of guts for her to come here. Let’s hear her out”. I flushed the loo and made my exit. Standing next to me at the washbasin was Doreen Lawrence.
We exchanged awkward smiles. Her eyes were laden with the palpable pain of a grieving mother. A mother whose son, Stephen, was murdered by a gang of racist thugs and whose family was denied justice for 20 years by a racist police service. This week the Lawrence family learned that the Metropolitan police had allegedly authorized an undercover operation in the mid nineties to smear their family and undermine their quest for justice.
In the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, The Macpherson report found the police to be institutionally racist. There followed a series of awareness training throughout the Met. and progress was being made. Tragically, this started to unravel when the anti-racism initiatives were sabotaged by an ostensibly unlikely source. The then Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), which has since been amalgamated into the all encompassing, though equally inept, Equality and Human Rights Commission. A senior (white male) officer who had been working tirelessly to address issues raised in the Macpherson report, conveyed to me his dismay when Trevor Phillips, then chair of the CRE, told the Met board “It’s time to forget about institutional racism”. It went downhill from there.
Six years ago, the Metropolitan police realized it couldn’t deliver its primary objective, to “make London safer” unless it could attract a workforce that reflected one of the world’s most multicultural cities. With almost 40% of London’s population comprising of Black and Minority Ethnics (BME), a predominately white male police service couldn’t connect with the diverse community it purported to serve. It’s this disconnect and mistrust that led to the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985 (and the Tottenham riots in 2011).
On that premise, the Met instigated positive action for BME candidates (as opposed to positive discrimination) at recruitment level. The initiative failed because candidates were lured into a hostile environment. The black faces were expected to fit in with the established culture, one that continued to favour white men for promotion. The Met continues to hemorrhage black officers.
During that period I advised a Met commander that the initiative failed because it was at the wrong level. The culture disseminates from the top so that should be the focal point for change. Although the officer agreed, he didn’t put the proposal to the board.
Whilst I support Doreen Lawrence’s call for a public inquiry, the Channel 4 Dispatches programme that exposed the Met’s alleged attempt to smear her family, also uncovered a callous contempt for women. One of whom was targeted by an undercover officer for no apparent reason. She described her experience as being “raped by the state”. The Met is unsustainable without the confidence and respect of its community, 50% of which is female.
This crisis requires a complete cultural overhaul so that those that make the decisions are representative of the people over whom they wield so much power. The dearth of women and BME senior officers is no excuse for an all white board with one woman. With an elite group of just 8 the Met leadership could open itself up to “civilian” stakeholders, bringing a diversity of perspective and accountability.
This could be achieved by recruiting senior women and BMEs from non police staff within the Met, as well as tapping into the plethora of talent in the civil service (where women and minorities are better represented). The Ministry of Justice and The Department of Communities and Local Government, would be good places to start. There are no more get out of jail cards for the police. The public has run out of patience.