Police applicants from the ethnic minorities should get automatic preference over white candidates with the same qualifications for posts in the service, according to senior officers.
A growing number of chief and deputy chief constables want the law changed to legalise “affirmative action” in recruitment to help forces meet Home Office targets for ethnic-minority officers.
One chief constable told The Telegraph: “Many forces are nowhere near meeting their targets so radical steps need to be taken to ensure that police forces reflect the communities they serve. Affirmative action is the way to achieve that.”
Julie Spence, the deputy chief constable of Cambridgeshire, who will argue the case for affirmative action at a conference in Peterborough this month, said: “It takes two years to get new legislation through so we have got to do this now if we are going to get the diverse, representative workforce the Government says it wants.
“If handled sensitively and professionally it will have a very positive effect on policing in this country.”
Opponents warned last night, however, that affirmative action would lower standards and provoke a “backlash” among white recruits who would resent being turned down for jobs because of their colour, and among ethnic-minority recruits who wanted to be judged solely on their ability.
Mrs Spence, who has been in the police for 27 years, said it was a “myth” that affirmative action would reduce standards. “The evidence shows that standards go up when more jobs are opened up to women and ethnic minorities,” she said.
The Government targets were set after the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who was killed by five white youths in 1993, described the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally racist”.
The Home Office wants 7.7 per cent of the 150,000 officers in England and Wales to be drawn from ethnic-minority backgrounds, mirroring the working population in each area, by 2009. Senior officers admitted, however, that despite recent improvements, the target would be impossible to meet in many areas, including London, Manchester, West Yorkshire and Leicestershire, where there is a high proportion of ethnic minorities.
Affirmative action is illegal under racial equality laws but the proposal for legislative change is backed by a growing number of senior police figures, including Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and former head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Cheshire.
Pressure for change is also mounting from minority groups within the force. Last week the National Black Police Officers’ national executive voted to lobby for affirmative action.
The issue has divided police officers at all levels. The Police Federation, which represents 140,000 officers up to the rank of chief inspector, warned that legalising affirmative action could lead to lower standards.
Ch Insp Jan Berry, the federation’s chairman, said: “The danger is that, for some chief constables, achieving the targets will become more important than getting the right people.
“And even if standards aren’t reduced there would be the perception that ethnic minority recruits only got the job because of their colour—and that perception will affect working relationships.”
Ch Insp Berry said that more should be done with “Positive Action”, an existing scheme to encourage ethnic minorities to join, and progress within, police forces, before any change in the law.
Another opponent, Ch Supt Brian Langston, of Thames Valley Police, and founder of the Thames Valley Black Police Association, said affirmative action was “tantamount to undisguised positive discrimination”.
“There will be a backlash,” he said. “White job applicants and officers will feel resentful because they are being discriminated against for being white. And the last thing ethnic-minority officers want to hear is: ‘You only got the job because you are black’, but, with affirmative action, that will be true.”
Supporters said that a new initiative was needed to ensure that forces reflected their local communities. Ray Powell, the president of the National Black Police Association, said affirmative action would help those areas achieve the targets.
“Once we achieve that we would not need affirmative action any more. It could be dropped,” he said. “White officers have benefited from unofficial and illegal affirmative action for 150 years. We want to help ethnic minority recruits to benefit from affirmative action that is legal and transparent.”
In areas where the ethnic minority population was high, being a member of a minority would be “an extra qualification” because recruits would understand the culture of the communities they served, he added.
Ch Supt Ali Dizaei, an Iranian-born Metropolitan Police officer, who was cleared of drug-taking and corruption charges in 2003 and paid damages in return for dropping a discrimination claim, said: “Affirmative action is not about being nice to black people or about correcting the wrongs of slavery.
“It’s about organisational transformation because the community expects it. They want a police service that looks like them.”
Mr Dizaei cited the success of the “50-50” policy in Northern Ireland, where priority was given to Catholic recruits to make the police force more representative of the population. “People predicted an outcry over that but it hasn’t happened,” he said.
A spokesman for the Met said that its current target of 25.9 per cent ethnic minority recruits was “unachievable” without exemptions from the current law and that the force was “exploring all options”.