Those who forget their history …. and I am not talking about statues. I am talking about the history of black protest in the UK.
There have been repeated protests in the last forty years. Sometimes they have ended badly, sometimes they have led to significant inquiries and recommendations that seem not quite to have been implemented.
In the UK police are mostly unarmed and that means we do not have so many deaths at the hands of the police as in the USA – but the evidence is that black people die disproportionately at the hands of the police. The UK focus on statues has shifted attention from a history of failed protest by black communities, very often triggered by policing incidents.
The inquiry into the botched investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – twenty years ago amazingly – concluded that the police suffer from institutional racism. There is overwhelming evidence this is still a problem. There has been minimal progress – and maybe even regression through the return of stop and search.
Some very basic statistics: police recruitment of officers from ethnic minorities in England is abysmal. Between 2007 and 2017 the proportion of officers reported as “black” increased from 1% to 1.2% (with another 2.1% reporting mixed heritage). The least progress has been made in the areas with most diverse populations.
It is possible to create a simple index to indicate the extent of this: proportion of population from an ethnic group divided by proportion of police from the same group, representing an index of failure to recruit from BAME communities (1 or less represents success):
So for London; Black people: 3.5, Asian: 2.88, white: 0.70
West Midlands; Black: 4.28, Asian: 2.6, white: 0.79
Our local newspaper lodged some FOI requests about use of force and stop and search. The findings were stark: a black person is three times as likely to be subject to use of force and four times as likely to be subject to stop and search as a white person. The figures are similar nationwide.
We need more than protests to address this. The pattern of urban police forces failing to be representative of the communities in which they work is linked to the wider problems in policing these communities. If you work with people of diverse backgrounds you might just have a chance to understand them.
Community policing in all senses needs to be developed. We need local police that understand and work with their local communities. But we also need a much tougher line of accountability for the police as a public sector organisation.
In thirty years no death in police custody has led to a prosecution. Inquiries have always cleared individual officers. There appears to be no system of investigating institutional neglect, uniquely, as the NHS now has multiple oversight and the private sector is subject to Health and Safety Executive investigation.
The police service fares badly in comparison with progress in the NHS. An avoidable death in the NHS can lead to wholesale management clear-outs and prosecution of NHS trusts. Within the policing system, chief constables, with some justification, complain about politicisation if they are subject to disciplinary action by Police and Crime Commissioners.
The police service inspectorate needs the breadth and powers of the Care Quality Commission, that now oversees the NHS. The CQC asks whether NHS organisations are “well-led, responsive and caring” and arranges for boards and managers to be replaced if they fail. Who takes the same action against Chief Constables and PCCs?
There should also be joint accountability for the police and the NHS in respect of the management of offenders with mental health problems. And this could be extended to schools, certainly in urban areas, when there is evidence of activity by gangs who are recruiting, dominating and destroying the lives of those in their early teens.
Improved accountability would concentrate minds on improving recruitment and finding alternatives to stop and search and use of force.