Racism won’t change until black people no longer seen as police ‘property’ – former Met diversity chief
Dr Victor Olisa says black people need to stop being stereotyped otherwise there will be more deaths.
Following the killing of George Floyd by a white officer, police forces around the world have come under scrutiny for their treatment of black and ethnic minority people.
Dr Victor Olisa was made borough commander for the London Borough of Haringey in the run-up to the 2013 inquest into the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by police in Tottenham.
He is also the former head of diversity for the Metropolitan Police and was Surrey Police’s first black officer when he started his career in 1982.
Dr Olisa, who retired in 2017, writes about his views and experiences of British policing and racism.
The UK’s “service” style of policing is praised around the world for its consent-led approach.
Yet, for black people, evolving changes in the language and style of UK policing are shifting towards more of an “enforcement” style than “service”.
Under the current conditions, it is a matter of when, not if, the next death in custody will occur.
The heart-wrenching images of the killing of George Floyd in the US has become a powerful driver for change in the way black people are treated by the police around the world.
In the UK, some people console themselves that such a barbaric act would not happen here because of the checks and balances in place to prevent that level of police misbehaviour.
However, the words “police culture”, often evoke negative mental images of police misbehaviour and indiscipline.
The criminologist Robert Reiner argues that the “core” characteristics of police culture, such as “mission” and “action”, engender in officers the belief that policing is not just a job but a way of life.
It is the reason why officers rush towards danger when others run away.
Canadian criminologist John Lee described a characteristic of police culture that he termed police “property”.
He explained that “modern police forces emerged out of the need to protect dominant communities from dangerous classes” and as a consequence police soon learned to distinguish the “public” they were supposed to serve and protect and the “public they were supposed to control and punish (i.e. blacks, women, Indians, and others)”.
Police “property” are “low status, powerless groups whom the dominant majority see as problematic or distasteful and are prepared to let the police deal with their property and turn a blind eye to the way this is done,” he adds.
Today, the concept has become a powerful reality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, because of the callous way it was done by the officer: hands in his pocket as he surveyed all around him in triumphant nonchalance.
As a police officer for 35 years who has worked in forces in the UK and with police organisations across the world, in my experience the majority of officers are professional and committed people who uphold the ideals of public service.
So, the question is, how has such a powerful and respected social institution allowed some of its officers to police with unimaginable brutality, and engage in irrational activity?
In the sense of irrational activity, the misuse of “stop and search” exemplifies the notion of police “property”.
The negative impact of stop and search has been well documented.
For example, the conclusion of a 2013 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary inspection on stop and search states: “With a few exceptions, forces were not able to demonstrate an approach to using stop and search powers that was based upon a foundation of evidence of what works best to fight crime.”
Today there is a growing practice (as often posted on social media and according to anecdotal information I hear from accounts of police training) of officers handcuffing young black boys who have not been arrested and are not resisting or showing any signs of aggression, before they start searching them.
This happens while white friends who are with them are searched without being handcuffed.
This is a worrying development of a practice that seem to reinforce the stereotype that conflates blackness with dangerousness.
An often-articulated statement by police officers is that people from BAME backgrounds do not want to join the police – not all BAME people want to join the police but enough do.
My plea to senior officers is work to reduce the rate of attrition for those who do join.
Home Office data (March 2019) suggests 23% of recruits to the Met Police were people from BAME backgrounds – but voluntary resignation is 26% BAME and 17% white officers.
Additionally, 2.6% of BAME officers are dismissed compared to 1.2% white officers.
The journey for many black officers (in my experience the BAME category fare better collectively) is comparable to them running a 400m steeplechase alongside their white colleagues who are running a 4x100m sprint relay.
Consequently, black officers never realise their potential, because the hurdles they must overcome grinds them down and saps away their energy.
Whatever our colour, race or social standing, society needs the police.
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If we are genuinely going to address racism and its destructive effects, every one of us needs to look at ourselves and ask: what do I need to do to take black people off the police “property” list?
The answer is to stop stereotyping black people as low status, unintelligent, aggressive, dangerous, self-destructive, and sub-human.
And recognise the privilege and comfort that comes from remaining ‘silent’.
Every person advocating for change must make a commitment to empty the police “property” list so black people and others subjected by the majority to negative stereotyping as “low status” do not die in police custody.