Posted on January 8, 2024

Head of Britain’s Police Chiefs Says Force ‘Institutionally Racist’

Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, January 5, 2024

The leader of Britain’s police chiefs’ organisation has become the most senior serving leader to say that policing is institutionally racist, as he called for a fundamental redesign of national policies and practices to eliminate discrimination.

Gavin Stephens, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said black people should no longer experience disproportionate use of force, and that too little progress had been made to reform policing, with some leaders slow to accept the size of the challenge.

Stephens – elected by his fellow chief constables to lead their representative body – emphasised it was his personal view that discrimination in policing operated at an “institutional level”.

In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “It’s a leadership responsibility for us to describe to them what it [institutional racism] means and what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that all police officers are racist.

“The way our policies, procedures [and] training have been designed and implemented for many years have not had the voices of black people involved in the design, the implementation, of those practices. And as a consequence of that, we get disproportionate outcomes in places where there shouldn’t be disproportionate outcomes.

“The most helpful discussion for policing to have in the future is how we redesign the policies, the practices, the implementation, of policing to remove that discrimination.”

Stephens’ remarks come as policing continues to wrestle with the issue of whether it should accept it suffers from institutional discrimination, a debate dating back more than 30 years.

His intervention will add to pressure on the heads of England’s biggest forces to adopt the idea – including the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley. Rowley refused to accept the terms “institutionally racist” and “institutionally misogynistic” after a damning report last year, with the Met commissioner claiming their meanings were unclear.

Those findings, by Louise Casey in March after the murder of Sarah Everard in 2021, were contained in the second report to find police to be institutionally racist. The first, by Sir William Macpherson in 1999, followed an inquiry into failings that allowed the racist killers of Stephen Lawrence to escape justice. Police leaders accepted the findings, then later claimed to have reformed the service to the extent that it no longer applied.

Stephens said his personal view was that the reports were correct. He said: “The problems that we need to solve across policing are at the institutional level and they need institutional changes. Whether you look at the Macpherson definition in the Stephen Lawrence report, or whether you look at Louise Casey’s definition, my personal view is that they apply to policing.”

Asked for clarity on whether his personal view was that “police are institutionally racist”, Stephens replied “yes”, while emphasising that his reasoning for reaching that conclusion was important.

Police chiefs debated whether to admit to institutional racism in 2022, with most being against making the admission.

Police Scotland, the second biggest force in the UK, as well as Avon and Somerset police and the British Transport Police, have accepted that the term applies to them. But the biggest three forces in England – the Met, West Midlands police and Greater Manchester police – all disagree.

Stephens said: “Colleagues have valid reasons why they don’t want to go down that route.”

After the murder of George Floyd in the US and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the NPCC promised reform and launched a race action plan – which critics say has done little or nothing after three years.

Stephens said progress had been made, but that some of his fellow chiefs had been slow to accept the scale of the problems. “We have got some tangibles. I’d be the first to accept that we haven’t made progress at the rate that we would want to,” he said. “To get acceptance of the scale of that challenge took longer than we’d anticipated.”

The NPCC chair said he personally supported the idea of police officers being licensed, in the same way nurses or doctors were. He believed it would help professionalise the service and hoped for an “active” debate on it among his fellow chiefs.

Stephens became NPCC chair in March 2023, having previously been the chief constable of Surrey police.

The scale of the racial disparity in the use of force in England and Wales was laid out by police leaders in 2022, when they launched the first written version of their race plan.

They wrote: “Black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people and five times more likely to be subjected to the use of force … 10% of our recorded searches, 27% of use-of-force incidents and 35% of Taser incidents involved someone from a Black ethnic group. The latest estimates suggest that only 3.5% of the population is Black.”

Some have said that police stereotype black men as being more dangerous. Stephens, who grew up in Hartlepool, said this was wrong: “This myth that sometimes exists in popular culture that young black men are dangerous. It’s a myth. Yes, young black men get involved in crime – yes, they’re at risk of victimisation – but so do white men if you go to my neck of the woods.”

He added: “If you’ve got that cultural connection, if you’ve got something in common with the person that you’re dealing with on the street, there’s a higher likelihood that you’re going to be able to resolve that issue without resorting to use of force.”