After my appointment to oversee police plans for race equality in England and Wales was announced, a friend messaged me, warning that I may find myself “hard-blocked at every turn, worn down by frustration or have no real power – if not all three”. Another called me to check I had a good support network in place, and that I had an exit strategy for if and/or when I became exhausted by the role.
It’s a cynicism that I shared and remain acutely sensitive to, despite my grand-sounding title of chair of the independent scrutiny and oversight board on the police’s action plan on inclusion and race. Since May last year, I’ve seen numerous institutions and corporations releasing statements about anti-racism, we’ve had black squares on social media, but there’s been very little movement towards structural change. I’ve also seen a decrease in the quality of conversation and action around racism: a war on “wokeism” raging in politics and the media, and a reluctance to even accept the idea of systemic inequality.
A year ago, I wrote a Guardian article about the concerns many of my Black friends had around calling the police. The article drew on my decade-long experience as a barrister and quoted Home Office statistics, the Lammy review into race and the criminal justice system, and reliable reports of cases. Though the article was largely well received, a Black Conservative MP tweeted (now deleted) that my article was “disingenuous” and fuelled division. There were defensive replies on Twitter asserting that, despite my professional experience, I simply didn’t understand how policing works.
That’s how discussions around racism often pan out: calls are made for evidence to prove a problem that has been proven time and again; when that doesn’t work, the person raising the issue of racial disparity is attacked. Rarely is the response to concentrate on tackling racism itself.
The evidence shows that racism in policing is real. Earlier this year, the home affairs committee released its update report on progress by the police on the 70 recommendations made in the seminal Macpherson report which 22 years ago famously concluded that the Metropolitan police was institutionally racist. This year’s update found that confidence in the police among Black people has fallen in recent years. Twelve years after the last Macpherson update, in 2009, little has changed in terms of recruitment and retention for Black, Asian and minority-ethnic people.
There is clear racial disparity in the number of officers being dismissed from police forces and in the number of minority-ethnic officers and staff being subjected to internal disciplinary processes. Disparities in stop and search are still unexplained and unjustified, and recommendations made by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary since 2017 to improve the way stop and search is used are still not being followed by all forces. Several senior policing figures accept that overall progress has not been fast enough, and that issues raised by Macpherson have proven intractable.
When I first heard of this scrutiny position it looked to me like it could be more of the same: being asked to fix a problem that affects Black people but isn’t caused by us. I was also concerned that, were I to take it, it might simply be an opportunity for the police to tick a box and use my identity, and the fact I’ve previously spoken out about racism, as a convenient cover if ever they were criticised about their record.
But then a friend posted the role in a predominantly Black WhatsApp group, urging us to share it with our networks or to consider applying for it ourselves. When I looked again at the advert I saw this was an initiative generated from within policing – a collaborative effort between national police chiefs and officers; and the role was to monitor progress rather than create a plan from scratch. It had the hallmarks of what I was looking for, a push for institutional change. So I applied.
Since being appointed, I’ve begun recruiting a diverse six-member board, all of whom will be paid. We will have a clear purpose and boundaries, and will work transparently. We will also have input from organisations with an interest in scrutinising the police; independent advisory groups; police and crime panels; local community groups and civilians. Finally, we have unfettered access to data, and the commitment of each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales to deliver on an action plan. The meetings I’ve had so far with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and senior members of the College of Policing have been positive.
My board’s role will be to hold the police accountable. Ultimately, time will tell whether the plan will be successful: its focus is on long-term change. But I have seen evidence of real commitment to the idea of it, and I’m determined to ensure that Black people are properly at the centre of the way it is implemented.
I’ve spoken out on police failings before and, though I’m committed to being successful in this role, if I see them being repeated I’ll have no hesitation in speaking out again.