Black Lives Matter: Reflections on UK policing (blog post)

A blog by Cumberland Lodge Fellow, Aida Maaz, a PhD student in the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, University of Bath


On Thursday 17 July 2020, Cumberland Lodge convened a webinar on another challenging issue facing the UK today, the Black Lives Matter movement as it relates to policing.

As part of a four-part mini-series of Dialogue & Debate webinars focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement, this third panel discussion focused on the interaction between police and civil society in the UK, amidst the COVID-19 crisis, and beyond. Specifically, it looked at the strategies that both communities and the police can adopt to prevent conflict and misunderstanding borne out of racial inequalities.

This webinar links to several strands of work carried out by Cumberland Lodge, including recommendations from an upcoming Resilient Communities report, long-standing work around pressing issues in policing and criminal justice, and recently published reports on Race in Britain: Inequalities, Identities and Belonging (2019) and Difficult Histories & Positive Identities (2019).

The webinar was hosted by Jane Furniss, former Chief Executive of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) from 2006-2013 and a Cumberland Lodge trustee. The four guest panellists were:

  • Dr Alison Heydari – Commander in the Metropolitan Police Service (‘the Met’)
  • Leroy Logan MBE – Former Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police Service and Chair of Trustees at Voyage Youth
  • The Rev Canon Dr Rosemarie Mallet – Archdeacon of Croydon
  • Hashi Mohamed – Barrister at No.5 Chambers, author and broadcaster

At the outset, panellists highlighted the differences in the policing systems of the US and the UK, but the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the death of George Floyd in America has urged British people, as well as other populations around the world, to take notice, reassess their own approaches, and raise their voices against social injustice. There has been an acknowledgement that ongoing inequalities in relation to policing in the UK, and the short comings of police-community relationships, cannot be ignored and need to be discussed openly.

At the outset, panellists highlighted the differences in the policing systems of the US and the UK, but the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the death of George Floyd in America has urged British people, as well as other populations around the world, to take notice, reassess their own approaches, and raise their voices against social injustice. There has been an acknowledgement that ongoing inequalities in relation to policing in the UK, and the short comings of police-community relationships, cannot be ignored and need to be discussed openly.

Meaningful facts

Jane opened the discussion with some reported facts regarding racial discrepancies in the policing system in the UK, which explicitly reveal that “institutional racism” has been threatening social cohesion in Britain. These figures suggest that people of Black, Asian or Minority Asian ethnic origin are still experiencing significant discrimination, which highlights a pressing issue of concern for British society.

For instance, in the tax year 2018-19, 0.4% of the white population where stopped and searched by police, compared with 3.8% of the black population. And despite making up just 3% of the English population (according to the 2011 Census), black people account for 8% of those who have lost their lives in police custody.

The panellist’s responses were mixed with sad and painful feelings and shone the light on the current presence of “institutional racism” in the UK and how we as a community, including the police, should respond, focusing on the strategies and practical actions required. The intention should be to bring people together, for the benefit of everyone in the community.

Reflections on racial inequality in UK policing

Leroy Logan himself a former Met Superintendent, expressed his disappointment at the lack of police leadership and response to the Black Lives Matter movement, during this critical moment when real actions could have been taken. In Leroy’s opinion, the lack of action by police forces is fuelled by the failings of their federations. He said he is yet to see evidence of any serious intent coupled with effective action, implemented by any of the police federations across the country. Acknowledging that “racial inequalities” exist is specifically what Leroy finds is missing from the policing system.

Alison Heydari, speaking as a serving Commander in the Metropolitan Police (‘the Met’) in London, strongly believes that, as she herself did, most Met police officers have joined the institution to “make a difference”, protect people, and help to prevent injustices within societies. She described how the response from officers, whatever their ethnic origin, is rooted in their duties to safeguard the public. Alison added that the Met is committed to providing comprehensive support to all staff, especially black colleagues, in order to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

UK policing system is not ideal

Drawing on her work with communities in central London boroughs and more recently in Croydon, Rosemarie Mallett expressed her view that the situation many young black people are facing in their communities is influenced by the “toxicity of the racism” from the very institution which should be protecting them.

Leroy, also suggested that policing institutions seem to be greatly influenced by “conscious bias” and “prejudice with power”. Leroy believes that, 10 years after the Macpherson Report of 19991, a lack of accountability has flourished, and this, alongside the divisive impacts of Brexit, is one of the main reasons for the current high rates of hate crime, as well as of continued aggressive attitudes towards black people.

Hashi Mohamed, author of People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain (Profile Books 2020), mentioned that the last 40 years had witnessed many tragic deaths of black people in police custody, and that the impact of institutional racism in policing was becoming more obvious. He referred to data showing that black men feel more “enforced against” rather than “protected” by the British police, and such critical issues need to be discussed deeply.

Jane seconded Hashi’s point by saying that, during her time at the helm of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (2006-2013), it was clear that a majority of black people would have described the police as enacting “force” rather than providing a “service”.

Alison disputed the idea of systematic failure within police institutions, mentioning that it would be reasonable to expect that some individuals, upon joining the organisation, and coming from a society in which racism exists, might not reflect the established values and ethics of the police force as a whole. She responded to one listener’s question by saying she does not believe that the Met is a racist institution, but that there are undoubtedly some “bad pennies”.

Acknowledging progress in UK policing

Despite Leroy’s critical stance, he acknowledged the progress was achieved in policing following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, and that Alison, as a black commander in the Met, is herself an example of such progress.

Hashi also felt that UK policing had made great advances since the English riots of 2011, and agreed with Leroy that Alison’s status within the Met was some evidence of that. He also urged the audience to consider that the shocking statistics outlined at the start of the webinar were the results of a combination of “societal and demonising factors” against the black community, which go far wider than the impacts of policing. Macpherson, for instance, reported institutional racism across society, rather than simply within the police force, in his 1999 report.

Alison pointed out that the last few years have witnessed noticeable improvements in the scrutiny of procedures taken to tackle contentious issues within policing, such as stop-and-search and the use of force.

Enhancing police engagement within communities

Alison reflected on the importance of two-way communication; of opening up dialogue and actively listening to the communities that the police are there to serve. Hashi also stressed that police “authority”, and indeed “legitimacy”, stem from a healthy connection with the people they serve, and that this ought to be the foundation on which the institution is built. He mentioned that inadequate numbers of police officers risk unsatisfactory levels of cohesion between the force and communities.

Rosemarie called for the police to build a more honest and transparent police-community connection, in the current chaotic climate around COVID-19 and black Lives Matter, and beyond. She believes that there is a growing demand for more respectful and adequate relationships between the police and the public. Young black people should not feel that there is an unequal power dynamic, when communicating with police officers, especially whilst stop-and-search is a necessity. She expressed a hope that stop-and-search should be modified, to become ‘Stop, Relate and Search’.

Strategies to make a difference

Hashi suggested that all of us, as members of one wider community, should work shoulder-to “bridge the gap” in community policing. He also called for a balance to be struck between society-police relationship, and for people to beware of the habit of considering black communities as a homogeneous part of the overall population.

Hashi argued that today’s officers should shoulder the responsibility of the “police legacy” in the way they act and implement policy. He stressed that more needs to be done to address real and perceived bias in stop-and-search practice, to ensure that police forces are more representative of communities, and to deal with conscious and unconscious prejudices within policing. But, most importantly, he felt that police officers should be well-informed and trained in how to react towards, and collaborate with, members of the community.

Leroy called for the recruitment of more Black, Asian and minority-ethnic officers at chief officer status. Those in leadership positions within the police must acknowledge what does go wrong and act effectively to solve it. He also suggested that, in the London context, putting “positive pressure” on the Met would inspire it to become more “reflective organisation”, able to deal with critical circumstances more effectively. He said that building “trust and confidence” within the organisation, and dissolving the current confrontational environment, are of paramount importance for encouraging people to join the police, as well as to relate to it and work together to make a positive difference.

Alison highlighted the fact that, in the Met, processes are already in in place for meaningful dialogue with communities and to achieve effective engagement across the institution, to support positive changes in the way the police operate. For example, the Met is pursuing open discussions with faith leaders, to help understand how communities believe police interaction should be shaped. These meetings, which are open to all parties, are being held to involve the public and build stronger working relationships with the police, via transparent and sincere conversations.

Alison said she hoped that, through training and monitoring, the police might be better equipped to impose values of inclusion and equality. She also said that greater support for decision-makers would mean they could, in turn, support their teams more comprehensively to serve local communities.     

Rosemarie concluded by stressing the importance of “deep listening” and active engagement and involvement with communities, but stressed that this must be followed by action, if positive outcomes are to be achieved on the ground. She echoed Leroy’s position, by stating that the current narrative should be changed, and that the police need to start by first admitting to the challenges, and then moving on to how they plan to address them. Rosemarie stressed that clear statements and aims should be made by the police, in order to effectively work with communities to achieve the desired changes.

My key take-away

As an international PhD student, newly introduced to British society, listening to this conversation enlightened me to the presence of institutionalised racism in the UK and showed it to be a deeply complex social issue. This was reflected in the differing views of the four panellists who took part. It was perhaps most noticeable in the views held by Leroy and Allison, both of whom have experience of working within the Met in London. However, Leroy comes from a place of agitation, passionately calling out the inadequacies of the police, whereas Alison was keen to defend the work of her policing colleagues, whilst acknowledging some of the shortcomings of policing in the UK today.

It was clear that Rosemarie, as a faith leader, wished to voice the concerns of the community she serves, often explaining the reasons why members of the black community can be reluctant to work alongside the police. Hashi, like Alison, was keen to acknowledge progress already made on police reform, whilst also remaining critical.

I was interested to learn more about critical events of the past, such as Stephen Lawrence’s death and the Macpherson inquiry, that were turning points not only in UK policing but also in the debate around British racism. However, it has been sad to see that racism, which I have experienced myself, is still a serious issue facing British society.

Along with the four panellists in this webinar, I strongly believe that acknowledging the problem is a starting-point towards finding a solution. Community policing is only meaningful if police officers really understand a community’s needs and are equipped to act accordingly, and this should not only happen in times of crisis. Government, police forces and other institutions need to work alongside the people they serve, to ensure that racism and other types of social injustice are resigned to the past and no longer have a place in our present society.

Dialogue & Debate: Black Lives Matter