Racism in policing is the problem: its ‘eradication’ is not the solution

As long ago as 2004, working with the Home Office to redesign National Police Probationer Training, I provided a briefing paper on the implications of racism for the recruit training system. The reasonable implication of the Macpherson Inquiry’s finding of “institutional racism” in the police is that racist attitudes are incipient in each individual – learned since childhood. I briefed, therefore, that though racism is the problem, ‘eradication’ of racism is not the solution, however uncomfortable that might be. We can no more eradicate our deeply ingrained attitudes than we can change our place of birth. The question is how we deal with that reality.

Nor is the Minnesota determination to close down a police department any kind of solution to enduring cultural problems of security, community service and law enforcement. The problems will transfer to whatever new body the Minnesota municipality puts in place.

What is needed is a three-part approach to training and cultural change in policing:

  • underpin recruit training with the key principle that disciplined and accountable action according to a professional ethic allows even a racist to perform fairly. Good behaviour can mask problematic feelings – that is the nature of professional discipline;
  • scrutinise policing policies for their known permissiveness of racist attitudes – in our review of policing of the Brixton/Toxteth riots in the early 1980s we found stop-and-search to be just this, and it is so today – it is inherently undisciplined, and so it encourages and does not discourage racist behaviour;
  • reintroduce self-evaluation and critical reflection as key structural (role-based and accountability-based) elements of police training, management and practice – discarded by Chief Police Officers in the mid-1990s and again in 2005.

In 2002, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary had declared police probationer training “unfit for the 21st Century”. The Home Affairs Committee Report (2018), Policing for the Future (while not even mentioning racism!) showed that policing is still “struggling to deal with the fast-changing demands of the 21st Century”. It noted the rapid erosion of neighbourhood policing, the key to community accountability. As I and my colleagues always reminded the Home Office and the Police, training is the ‘tail that wags the dog’ of policing culture.

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