‘Guilty as charged’: top UK officer urges police chiefs to admit institutional racism

One of Britain’s most senior officers has called on chiefs to admit that institutional racism blights policing, declaring “we are guilty as charged”, and blaming failures on the leadership of law enforcement.

Neil Basu, an assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan police and former head of counter-terrorism, told the Guardian “positive discrimination” should be introduced to boost numbers of minority ethnic officers in the ranks.

The intervention by Basu, the country’s most senior minority ethnic police officer, comes on the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by police in the US. The protests that the killing prompted in the UK led to police chiefs launching a race plan this week, billed as a landmark attempt to reset strained relationships and reverse dwindling confidence.

They admitted shame over continued racial bias, but not to institutional racism – a finding made in 1999 by the Macpherson report into police errors that left the racist killers of Stephen Lawrence free.

In a Guardian article, Basu speaks for a minority of chiefs across England and Wales when he says: “The plan’s achilles heel is the inability to galvanise all chief constables to accept that we remain institutionally racist and to apologise for that and our post-Windrush history.

“If we can’t accept we need to change and say sorry to people we have wronged, how can we expect them to trust us?”

Basu had previously argued in 2019 that policing was not institutionally racist, but changed his mind in the aftermath of the Floyd murder, which prompted discussions in which minority ethnic police staff told their bosses about the discrimination and challenges they faced while in uniform.

Basu said: “We are guilty as charged and the evidence can be found in the voices of our staff and communities of difference, and in the still unexplained and disproportionate data that calls out some of our poor policy and practice.”

He takes his share of the blame, with black confidence in policing below that of white people, and despite repeated claims by police leaders to have reformed in the 23 years since the Macpherson report. Basu writes: “This is an indictment of our senior leadership post-Macpherson report, not the vast majority of our frontline staff, who don’t deserve this stigma created by a minority in their ranks and the failure of their leadership to promote diversity. I am as guilty as any.

“We may be better than we were, but we are complacent. Society has moved faster and further than we have.”

Citing research showing policing will take six decades to have the same proportion of minority ethnic officers in its ranks as in the population, Basu calls for the law to be changed to allow positive discrimination. A form of it was tried as part of wholesale sweeping reforms to policing in Northern Ireland and was seen as helping to reduce Catholic mistrust.

Basu writes: “No one I know with protected characteristics wants positive discrimination – I didn’t 30 years ago – but I am an assistant commissioner now, not a PC struggling to be recognised. It worked in time-limited circumstances in Northern Ireland, and it may be necessary in the rest of the UK.”

Basu is reported to have irked the home secretary, Priti Patel, by calling for positive discrimination in a private meeting. It was a longstanding policy of police chiefs and was supported by Bernard Hogan-Howe when he was Met commissioner.

Basu and Hogan-Howe both recently applied to be the director general of the National Crime Agency, seen as the second-biggest job in policing. Basu reached the final two, Hogan-Howe did not. But after an intervention from Downing Street, the process has been scrapped, and it will be restarted in an attempt to help Hogan-Howe get the job.

Confidence in policing among women has dropped after revelations about misogyny and the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met officer. Basu says the blueprint for solving policing’s race crisis can help bridge gaps with other communities: “The black community is not the only part of society that is losing trust and confidence in us. The actions we take in this plan are transferable.

“We can and must reconnect with the public, as Robert Peel wanted when he first said that the public were the police and the police were the public. In 1829 it was an idea ahead of its time. In 2022 it is an ideal we have yet to realise in full.”

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