Police Race Relations

A consultative paper written for
the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain

Simon Holdaway, Professor of Sociology,
Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield.

i. Introduction

ii. Any consideration of contemporary police race relations has to take into account The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (Sir William MacPherson of Cluny 1999). There are two reasons for this view, the first being straightforwardly pragmatic. The Lawrence Inquiry Report has set the government's medium and long-term policy objectives for the reform of the police. To try and set another, fundamental agenda for reform would not attract the attention of any significant groups that influence police policy. The second reason is less pragmatic. The Lawrence Inquiry recommendations for the reform of the police are good. Her Majesties Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC), in a very important, recent report about aspects of police race relations, also made some excellent recommendations for change. Their recommendations should not be rejected outright. (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary 1999).

iii. There can be no doubt that public knowledge about the ways in which Stephen Lawrence's murder was investigated has tested levels of public trust in the police. Trust and confidence amongst members of ethnic minorities have been affected particularly. The police now have to demonstrate that they are receptive to change and able to implement reforms that benefit the ethnic minorities. The onus is on the police to reform their policies and actions not on ethnic minorities or any other section of the population to accommodate to present police policies.

iv. This review of police race relations will not repeat the proposals found in The Lawrence Inquiry and HMIC reports. Some key proposals, however, will be placed within a rather different context than is apparent in the reports. In particular, the organisational and cultural contexts of constabularies will be considered.

2. Understanding police race relations

i. In a recent speech to chief constables and Chairs of Police Authorities, the Home Secretary described the police service as ' . . . . . an organisation which responds rapidly to change, once it recognises that change has got to take place. It is a can-do organisation . . . . . ' The Home Secretary's description was an accurate one. Chief constables are oriented towards 'doing' rather than thinking carefully about and clarifying the ideas that inform their policies and actions. His description, however, could have the unintended consequence of sustaining a very undesirable situation in which the police do much but understand little about the ideas underpinning their actions.

ii. An example of this lack of reflection can be seen in some chief constables' responses to the Lawrence Inquiry discussion of 'institutional racism'. There is no need to repeat in detail the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police's failure to understand the notion of 'institutional racism' when questioned at the inquiry hearings. He did not understand the notion. The confusion the chief constables of Greater Manchester and of Derbyshire revealed when they commented about institutional racism to the Lawrence Inquiry added to the bafflement created by the Commissioner.

iii. Within this context, the Commissioner nevertheless established a special squad to deal with racial attacks and a pretty extensive programme of action. There was no suggestion that the senior command of the Metropolitan Service were taking stock, awaiting the McPherson report or the Home Secretary's action plan and, therefore, a greater clarity about the ideas on which their policy development could be based. The Metropolitan senior command were demonstrating precisely that they were a 'can-do' organisation.

iv. In my research about the recruitment of ethnic minorities into the police I found that assistant chief constables consistently understood the notion of 'positive action' to mean 'positive discrimination' (Holdaway 1991). A definition of positive action was suggested in my Home Office research report and in a Home Office Circular. It is now clear that chief police officers ignored or failed to understand the advice given to them. They did not understand the notion of 'positive action'. Uncoordinated and unmonitored recruiting initiatives were nevertheless being developed continually. Positive action did not inform them adequately, if at all.

v. Finally, in what is essentially a very good, recent report, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary with particular responsibility for police race and community relations suggested that, 'what commentators and journalists have referred to as "the canteen culture" . . . . . is as misleading as it is mischievous. Expressions or labels, which may be seen as discriminatory since they are perceived to taint all, will not move any organisation forward (ibid. p.9.).

vi. It is indeed true that the notion of a 'canteen culture' is misleading. It restricts the idea of culture to the police station and to discourse rather than to police action on the streets. HMIC nevertheless failed to describe the 'occupational culture of policing', which we know to be a very important factor in policy development and implementation (Holdaway 1983). His remarks reveal that he has not understood the concept of a police occupational culture, which has been articulated clearly by commentators.

vii. In this report the HMI also put it that, 'any definition (of institutional racism) around this issue must be understandable to all and amenable to positive action at all levels of the Service' (op.cit, p.30.). He was right. There is a need for clarity about key terms related to police race relations and it is necessary for chief officers and their senior staff to understand them. The National Police College at Bramshill, which trains chief officers, has failed demonstrably to do this work and the annual Home Office seminar about police race and community relations has also been less than successful.

viii. The Commission could recommend that forums be established in which chief constables and other senior officers can discuss ideas that underpin race relations and related policies. Discussion at these forums would:

  • Lead to a clarity of action based on an equally clear understanding of the ideas informing action and, therefore, to more effective policy.

  • Place ideas for change within wider, societal and organisational contexts.

  • Minimise the unintended consequences of action.

  • Help to change the 'can do' culture of the senior ranks.

ix Further, in these forums, chief and other senior officers could assess clearly the relevance of race relations to policing. In a sense, race relations is the fundamental subject for senior officers. At the moment, however, I do not find clarity from government or police sources about why race relations are of importance, apart from a view that officers must serve the whole of our society, which is a multi-racial society. This is a basic point, but there are other, more critical reasons why race relations are critical to effective policing. Ministers, the Home Office and the police service must understand and articulate them clearly.

3. The relevance of race relations to policing

i. Race relations in general and police race relations in particular are obviously of concern to the present government. I am not satisfied, however, that the government has articulated clearly, in a policy statement of intent or some other document, why police race relations are of importance in contemporary Britain.

ii. It is not within my remit to say more about the need for a government, race relations policy statement, other than that it would provide a rationale for related policy statements by chief constables and all other officers. There are presently no clear police statements about why race relations are of importance to their work. The Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain could address this problem, expressing clearly why race relations are fundamental to good policing.

iii. The first reason is that race relations are a major feature of social exclusion and marginalisation within contemporary Britain. The policing of ethnic minorities can contribute significantly to social exclusion and marginalisation. Social exclusion is not simply about differential levels of income, health, educational achievement and so on. It is not only about the differential outcomes of social provisions that should be provided similarly to all sections of the population.

iv. Of equal and, possibly, of more importance, is a perception amongst some ethnic minorities that they are marginalised within our society. They do not feel that they belong fully to our society. This is the subjective aspect of social exclusion that does not align itself absolutely with objective measures of differential outcomes of policies, the use of law, and so on. An Asian businessman, who is rated highly on objective measures of income, health, and so on can, for example, feel marginalised and excluded from full participation in our society. The police can play a significant part in the development and sustaining of his view. This subjective cast of social exclusion is extremely important.

v. Published evidence about the outcomes of police use of stop and search powers, for example, indicates that they are used differentially (Smith 1994). Some ethnic groups are over-represented in the figures. One effect of public knowledge about these figures has been to increase a perception of marginalisation amongst ethnic minorities, irrespective of whether or not they have been stopped personally by the police or whether or not the figures are presented adequately. High profile industrial tribunal cases involving ethnic minority officers have had a similar effect. The Lawrence Inquiry has also had an enormous impact.

vi. Public opinion surveys about levels of satisfaction with police services and levels of confidence in the police, which are currently a managerial fashion amongst chief constables, cannot document the contours of the marginalisation and exclusion I am describing. They are too formal, too bland a research instrument. My argument is that the police play a key role in enhancing or frustrating ethnic minorities' sense of belonging to contemporary British society. Race relations are thus central to policing.

vii. The second reason for the importance of race relations to policing is that, when they are analysed, race relations act as a litmus test (Holdaway 1996). By this I mean that problems of race relations have a capacity to reveal generic problems of policing. When race relations within a constabulary are analysed, a great deal is discovered about the fundamental organisation and management of a constabulary. My research about the employment experience of black and Asian officers, for example, has revealed how the occupational culture has marginalised all minorities within the police work force; a general lack of supervisory skills amongst lower ranked officers; and the failure of chief officers to undertake strategic planning (Holdaway 1991; Holdaway and Barron 1997). The Lawrence Inquiry has revealed the generic problem of translating written policing into action by the lower ranks; the failures of police training; and so on (Sir William MacPherson of Cluny 1999).

viii. This litmus test should be an incentive for chief officers to give the closest attention to all aspects of race relations that affect their constabularies. If they understand and analyse how race relations are articulated within their constabulary, they will learn a great deal about fundamental questions and be faced with many opportunities to provide a better service to their workforce and to the public.

ix. The Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain could usefully express why race relations are of crucial significance to policing. It could recommend that the government and all ministries, including the Home Office, produce a clear policy statement of intent, requiring it to be reflected in similar statements by chief constables and police authorities. The rationale for placing race relations at the centre of policing should be a key feature of such statements.

4. Race or multi-culturalism - police training

i. A great deal of this report implies the need for a thorough reform of police training. A recent Home Office report has identified many basic deficiencies of training and there is no doubt that the government will soon be taking action to create a new training structure for the police.

ii. My concern is a more basic one, however. I have acted as a consultant to the National Police Training Development Unit and am aware of the ways in which race relations training has been developed. Throughout, I have found a strong police view that race relations training is about understanding different cultures. The perception is one of Britain as a multi-cultural society and the police task is to understand cultural differences, taking them into account during their work.

iii. This view has therefore tended to divert attention away from the conflicts of race relations in which the police can be involved. Cultural differences are important but they are not the main point of tension in police race relations. The way on which the police dealt with the Stephen Lawrence case, for example, was not related to cultural differences. It was about Lawrence and his family being black, and their perceived membership of a group defined by racial criteria. Race relations are far more important to the reform of policing than differences of culture.

iv. Basic and continuing training in police race relations therefore has to be more firmly based on an understanding of the difference between multi-cultural and race-based approached to policing. The centrality of race has to be at the forefront of change.

5. Policy Implementation - the occupational culture

v. One of the main findings of social science research about the police is the tenuous relationship between the intentions of written police policies and the ways in which policies are negated, changed or ignored as they are passed down the chain of command to the lower ranks. Crucially, the occupational culture of the police rank and file moulds all policy and practice to accord with what officers regard as their common-sense ideas and actions. This finding has been related to routine foot patrol, motor patrol, a special policing squad, the use of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the system of Management by Objectives. The gap between written and implemented policy as the primary impediment to change within the police service has been confirmed (Skolnick 1966; Bittner 1967; Holdaway 1977; Manning 1977; Holdaway 1978; James 1978; Chatterton 1979; Holdaway 1979; McConville, Sanders et al. 1991; Chatterton 1993).

vi. Policy will always be moulded and to some extent changed as it is implemented to meet the practical circumstances of an incident. Discretion is central to the police implementation of law and policy. As Lord Scarman put it in his report about the Brixton Disturbances, 'the balance between retaining order and the use of law is always a matter of judgement' (Scarman OBE 1981).

vii. The discretionary freedom officers possess; the difficulties of supervising police work, which often takes place in private places; the power of traditional ways of practising police work, passed from generation to generation of officers; and so on, create a difficult organisational context for the implementation of policy. There is a key distinction to be made between policy as it is written and policy in action. It is not possible to read police policy and to know precisely how it has been or will be used in practice.

viii. Discretion is not unbounded, however. Police policy is an authoritative guide for officers' action, save when they can justify clearly a deviation from it. Policy represents the basic action a member of the public can expect an officer to take in a particular case; the quality of service that a constabulary is committed to; and it is a statement to which a constabulary is accountable. The relationship between police policy and practice, however, has been shown by research to be tenuous.

ix. The reasons for this tenuous relationship between policy and practice are complex but related primarily to the continuing power and authority of the occupational culture, which research has shown to remain intact for decades. As new police policies have been introduced, perhaps with implications for changing the occupational culture, they have been moulded to suit what rank and file officers regard as the appropriate way of policing, with what they regard as police common-sense. Although there has been a development of management strategies amongst the higher ranks during the last decade or so, there has not been a similar development evidenced amongst lower ranked supervisors, sergeants and inspectors (Chatterton 1993).

x. The dominant model of policy development and implementation within the police, however, has been one of a formal, rational progression from written policy to implementation by the rank and file. Although it has been known that the occupational culture is a major impediment to change, it continues to frustrate reform. The lack of supervisory attention by sergeants and inspectors has preserved traditional ways of policing rather than enhanced change.

xi. Ideas about 'race' have a powerful, central place within the occupational culture and are intertwined with its other features. We know that many officers use negative, derogatory language when talking about ethnic minorities (Smith 1986; Holdaway 1996). There is evidence of differential rates of stops in the street and of arrests for black males (Smith 1994; Home Office 1997). Stereotyping, joking, banter and a stress on membership of a tightly knit team of officers have been found to reinforce negative classifications of ethnic minority police officers.

xii. Ethnic minority officers who have been the subject of these negative categorisations have reported to researchers that they are not restricted to relationships within the police work force (Holdaway 1991; Holdaway 1993; Holdaway 1997). Many of their white peers have negative ideas about black people, especially black youth, which are integral to the occupational culture. These negative ideas mould relationships with black youth in particular and black people more generally. It is crucial to understand this culture of policing and, equally important, the ways, in which police action, which stems from it, sustains negative relations with black people (Holdaway 1996).

xiii. A keynote of my own research has been to argue that it is not appropriate to regard the policing of black people as completely different from the policing of other sections of the general population. In their routine work officers use stereotypes, jokes and banter, for example. These and other features of what officers regard as normal policing, however, have an adverse effect on and create negative relations with members of ethnic minorities. By policing normally, in what officers regard as common-sense ways, and failing to reflect on the implications of their ideas and actions, negative relationships between the police and ethnic minorities are created and sustained.

xiv. Negative ideas about ethnic minorities are part of this view of normal police work that affect the policing of black people. The need is for officers to become aware of the assumptions they are making about their work, including their assumptions about ethnic minorities, to reflect on them and to understand how they can create negative relationships with black people. Appropriate action should then be taken to check and balance the negative effects of these images and the action associated with them, not least on relationships between black people and officers.

xv. This is precisely where police policy and practice has failed. There is a lack of reflection by many officers about the effect of what they consider to be 'normal policing' when dealing with ethnic minorities in general and black people in particular. They would argue that their actions are neutral, 'colour blind'. This 'colour-blind' approach to policing, however, sustains negative relationships with black people and an inadequate quality of service provision. When trying to understand police action in any particular case it is therefore important to keep in mind the ways in which taken for granted features of the occupational culture and particular, negative categorisations of black people are relevant.

xvi. The ways in which the occupational culture has a negative impact on police race relations must be central to any programme of reform. The Commission should therefore emphasise the importance of cultural change within the police, remembering that such change cannot be realised effectively in the short term.

6. Pressure points on the street

i. There is one aspect of police race relations to which I want to give particular attention. This is the use of stop and search powers.

ii. It has been pointed out that the police use of stop and search powers can have a negative impact on ethnic minorities' sense of belonging to our society. This is because there are important instrumental and symbolic dimensions to the use of such powers. They encapsulate in a personal context the imposition of the state into an individual's life. Further, because they are used in a personal context, they can resonate actual and perceived discrimination to whole communities, ethnic minority communities in particular.

iii. National data about the use of stop and search powers demonstrate considerable variation between constabularies which, when aggregated, indicate that black youths are disproportionately stopped by a factor of 5 in relationship to their number in the general population. In his Action Plan, the Home Secretary put it that,

1 million stops and searches were carried out by the police under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) of which 11% were of black people, 5% Asian and 1% 'other' non-white origin. Police forces varied in their use of powers to stop and search under PACE. Black people were, on average, 5 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police then white people. The use of these powers for Asians and 'other' ethnic groups varied widely. (The Home Office, 1999. p.5.)

iv. An explanation of this differential use of stop and search powers is complex. Rates of stop differ between geographical areas and between ethnic minorities. Most records of stop and search are very likely to be an undercount. Different constabularies record different information. Questions about the meaning of proportionality are not entirely straightforward. The key point, however, is that constabularies must be able to monitor the use of stop and search powers and analyse their data adequately. This means the use of police or contracted staff with appropriate monitoring skills.

v. Home Office research has indicated that most constabularies are presently not equipped to undertake the required, detailed analysis of stop and search or any other relevant data [Fitzgerald, 1997]. The upshot is that senior officers cannot identify exactly which of their divisions have staff who are using the powers in a biased way and, therefore, the individual officers who should be made accountable for their actions. Further, it is very doubtful if lower ranked supervisory staff, sergeants and inspectors in particular, have the skills to comprehend the analyses undertaken and to manage their officers adequately if a biased use of stop and search (or any other powers for that matter) is identified.

vii. This inability to analyse data has to be related to police ideas about the value of ethnic monitoring. The Home Office research about ethnic monitoring identified a police ambivalence about and, sometimes, hostility to ethnic monitoring. The researchers summarised their findings in the following way,

' . . . . . the research found that most police officers appeared to view ethnic monitoring as irrelevant at best; at worst, it was resented and/or feared as a stick deliberately designed to beat them with. . . . . . Those in senior management positions who were most actively supportive of monitoring were, nonetheless, wary of some of the possible repercussions of examining the statistics, both inside and outside the force; and most, in any case, had other, more pressing demands on them [Fitzgerald, op. cit. pp. viii-ix.).

viii. The Home Office researchers also found that many officers thought that ethnic monitoring was primarily about documenting the crime patterns of ethnic minorities. If they had another view it was that monitoring was imposed to accuse them unfairly of bias. The attitudinal context within which ethnic monitoring is undertaken leaves a lot to be desired.

ix. Finally, it should be noted that the collection of ethnic monitoring data is designed mainly to analyse differential outcomes of the use of stop and search and arrest powers. These, standard data have a very limited use, however. They are a record of the outcome of action not of the actions that led to the outcome. Local police managers therefore need to be able to analyse ethnic monitoring data to identify the processes that led to differential outcomes. Unless these data are used to identify the processes that have led to racial discrimination, effective change cannot be realised.

x. A great deal of work has to be done by the police if the differential use of stop and search, or any other powers, is to be identified and appropriate action taken. The Home Office should prepare a standard monitoring system, used by officers with demonstrable skills in the analysis of data, and its use within all constabularies should be required and assessed by HMIC. Thought needs to be given to placing the ability to analyse data as a core skill for promotion to supervisory rank. The development of analytical skills should be assessed routinely in staff appraisals. Officers need training in the analysis of data; in moving from a reliance on outcome data, to identify the processes that have led to particular outcomes.

xi. A further aspect of monitoring is the Home Secretary's appointment of an implementation group to ensure that his Lawrence Inquiry action plan is realised within the police. Although the membership of this group is not decided finally, it is primarily made up of the members of the police representative associations and other interested parties.

xii. The implementation group does not have members who are experts in the monitoring of policy implementation. Indeed, it is dominated by the representatives of various police staff and other associations, who have proved themselves to be less than competent in the very task they are supposed to be monitoring - police policy implementation!

xiii. The reason for this membership is probably that the Home Secretary feels he needs to retain the confidence and support of the police as policies develop. This is all well and good but not adequate for the stated purpose of the implementation group. It is now crucial for organisations like the Runnymede Trust to ensure that the implementation group considers adequate monitoring information and that their work is effective. The suggestion that a monitoring group should be monitored sounds cumbersome and tedious. I am afraid that, in my view, it is necessary.

7. Race relations within the police workforce - appraisal

i. From a police perspective, race relations can be a very negative subject. Critics who are always ready to use accusatory language when things go wrong do not help the situation. A somewhat unhelpful rhetoric has developed to discuss race relations. Police attitudes could harden. It is therefore very important for the police supervisory ranks to create a positive context of work, and to be encouraged and rewarded for good police work concerned with race relations.

ii. The encouragement and rewarding of supervisory officers for their work of dealing with race relations is crucial. As part of their annual appraisal, officers in charge of police divisions or areas should, in consultation with their appraiser, be required to set for themselves objectives concerned with race relations within and beyond their police area. They should be held accountable for realising the objectives they set. This means that there must be clear evidence to support a judgement that they have or have not been realised.

iii. The point about evidence to support a judgement is crucial. If an objective has not been realised, and there is evidence to indicate that every reasonable effort has been made to achieve it, there should not be criticism and the possibility of reinforcing a view that race relations is a negative subject. Where objectives are realised, excellence should be recognised and rewarded.

iv. These points are also of direct relevance to the assessment and appraisal of all sergeants and inspectors. As far as constables are concerned, it is important that supervisors communicate to them the positive aspects of race relations. Supervisors will need training in this work. Constables, however, should be held more fully accountable to police supervisors and managers for their use of legal powers. They should be trained and managed to accept the professional view that, for example, if they make a mistake in an area of police race relations, and it can be shown that every effort was made to prevent it, the mistake should be accepted and remedial action taken. If the mistake was made because of sloppy police work, a sanction will be forthcoming. This is an element of professionalism I do not yet find in constabularies.

8. Ethnic minority officers

i. The recruitment and retention of ethnic minority police officers is a key policy for the government. It is straightforwardly important for the British police to have representative proportions of ethnic minority officers within all ranks. At the moment there is an under-representation of such officers, however under-representation is defined.

ii. The Home Secretary has set a target figure for the recruitment of ethnic minority officers within each constabulary of England and Wales. This is an important policy decision and the recruitment and retention of ethnic minority officers, especially black and Asian officers, is important. Given what we know about the ways in which the occupational culture marginalises such officers, however, the position of ethnic minority officers within constabularies cannot be separated from the need for wider cultural change [Holdaway, 1997a,c). The occupational culture has specific features that marginalise members of minorities within the workforce. Without change to the occupational culture, recruitment programmes will be opening their front door of constabularies to ethnic minorities whilst presenting them with a context of work that encourages them to consider resigning by exit through the back door.

iii. All the points I have made about management and supervision, about the meaning of positive action, and so on are pertinent to the recruitment and retention of ethnic minority officers. There is one further aspect of the subject, however, that I want to stress, which is the emergence of black police associations. The lesson from the USA is that black police associations can have a very considerable effect on change within constabularies. In the USA, they forced change by taking chief officers to court over the enforcement of quotas. In this country, their work in supporting officers who have taken their chief constable to an industrial tribunal has been of particular importance.

iv. When I began research about ethnic minority officers in 1993, I found they described themselves as 'police officers who are black or Asian'. In more recent studies I have found them to describe themselves as 'black or Asian police officers' [Wilson, 1984; Holdaway, 1997b; Holdaway, 1991]. One significant reason for this change is their awareness of a common experience of employment and, therefore, a strengthening of their ethnic identity.

v. Black police associations act as a pressure for change within constabularies; they offer support to ethnic minority officers; and they affirm the presence of ethnic minorities within the police workforce. A National Black Police Association is presently being established.

vi. The important contribution of these associations needs to be acknowledged and encouraged. The extent to which they can speak on behalf of officers of Afro-Caribbean and of Asian origin is not yet known. There is a danger that officers occupying official posts will be rewarded by their chief officer (which may be appropriate) and a form of co-option develops. Chief officers might put too much pressure on the associations, expecting them to solve problems which are clearly within the chief's remit. Finally, the Police Federation, which speaks for the majority workforce, is yet to acknowledge the importance of these associations and, by default, fails to offer a positive note to police race relations within constabularies.

vii. The Commission should consider the place of black and Asian police associations within constabularies and their future role.


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