PCC Blog 175

Last week I went to Robert Dyson House, the police training centre in Rotherham, to see the latest cohort of people join South Yorkshire Police (SYP).

There were 48, male and female, and mainly quite young – I guess in their twenties and early thirties.  The day before, these were 48 ordinary members of the public. Now they were about to become police officers with uniforms, warrant cards and powers of arrest. It was an awesome moment for them as the reality began to sink in.

The Assistant Chief Constable spoke to them first. He emphasised that while what lay ahead would be challenging and hard work, in one sense they could now relax: they were no longer having to compete with others for a place in the force; they had achieved it. They now had to switch from being competitive to being collaborative since policing was a matter of team work. They would be relying on others at all times. He also told them to ensure they still had enjoyment in their lives.

The ACC was correct about competition. As a result of SYP now being a good performing force, many want to join – and not just people from South Yorkshire. So there is competition: many are called but fewer chosen. But this does mean that we have some really good recruits joining – and that is a reassurance for the future. In fact, our numbers are so healthy that we have been able to help the government reach its national target for increasing officer numbers by 20,000 by taking more than our allocated share of new officers – just over 500. Some forces have struggled to reach their target and the Met is falling short by 1,000.

The new officers were also addressed by the tutor from Sheffield Hallam university – a former probation officer in Sheffield – who will be overseeing their academic learning – because all police officers must now either have a degree or, like these recruits, acquire one as part of their training. And they heard from the magistrate before whom they had to take their oath. I said a few words too, welcoming them on behalf of the public of South Yorkshire whom they are now to serve.

Reflecting on what will now happen to these young-in-service officers, it seemed to me that there were two aspects to their development over the next two or three years. One is obvious and is managed, and managed well, by the force’s own trainers and by the tutors at Hallam. This is the formal training and education. They will learn about the law, especially as it applies to them and their use of their powers. They will learn new skills, as you would do in any profession: they will learn to problem solve. They will be exposed to the realities of doing the job. This is all about what they need to know and how they need to respond – policecraft – with each shift day to day.

But when I talk to police officers I am always acutely aware of something else. As well as formal training and education there is also a process of what I would call formation that goes on. These new officers will gradually acquire a certain mind-set, something internal, a new sense of identity, that does not come into play only when a shift starts and is then laid aside when it ends. They will know, metaphorically speaking, at all times that they are a police officer, living and acting at all times according to certain values. This is an ontological shift rather than the acquisition of knowledge or skills. It is acquired by being exposed to the culture of the organisation and could, therefore, be different from force to force.

As well as being educated and trained, then, new officers are also formed – and that is just as big a factor in fashioning the officers of the future as any course or programme, important though they are. It means that we have to think about the values of the culture they will unconsciously absorb as much as the programmes they will consciously work through as we shape the future of SYP.

Formation is institutional and specific.

Orchards and apples

Earlier this year, Baroness Louise Casey published her review of the culture of the metropolitan police force. It had been commissioned by the Mayor of London following the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer, and after concerns about other aspects of police misogyny, homophobia and racism. The damning conclusion was that the force was ‘institutionally racist, homophobic and misogynistic’ and what was true of London might be true elsewhere.

As I wrote in a blog at the time, the key word was not ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’ or ‘misogynistic’ but ‘institutional’. If the Met could not accept that finding, then it was not wholeheartedly accepting the findings of the review and was unlikely to get at the roots of the problem.

The reason Baroness Casey used the word ‘institutional’ was because she wanted the force to understand that what was wrong with the Met was a matter of culture as much as the behaviour of any individual officer – and by culture she meant ‘the way we do things’, the force’s procedures and practices. The point here is that if, say, an unconscious racism is already embedded in ‘the way we do things’, then police officers and staff who have no racist attitudes as individuals can become complicit in procedures and practices which have some form of racist bias built into them. They act unconsciously and, knowing that they are not ‘racist’, are puzzled when those who feel the impact of unconscious bias say so.

Sociologists understand this mechanism of institutional – or ‘structural’ – bias very well. It explains why a particular racial group can feel disadvantaged even though nobody holds deprecating views about them. The classic example is the way in which a black person in New York, as distinct from a white person, found it hard to flag down a cab. This was not because the cab driver was reacting to a potential customer’s race but because they believed the person hailing the cab was more likely to live in a deprived area (which was probably true for most black people) and they did not think they would gain another fare in those areas once the person had been dropped off. There was discrimination, but not because of race but because of economics – it was structural.

If Baroness Casey’s finding is rejected, however, then the only racism that the organisation will look to change is the racism of individuals – which may be present in some individuals, but is not the whole story – and not forms of structural racism. And this is where the Met is stuck.

I said at the time that if the police could just accept this finding, hard though it was to hear, then it would be able to move forward with a better chance of both rooting out bias and discrimination and also convincing black and other ethnic minority groups that it was seriously seeking to change. But the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police could not do this and he was supported by the other chief constables, in part because they were reluctant to have the police singled out in this way when society itself was still not free of racist attitudes. They did not understand structural racism.

But something is beginning to change.

The new chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), Gavin Stephens, who was Chief Constable of Surrey until taking on this role, has now said that the NPCC ‘has not reached a settled position on institutional racism’. I don’t know whether, in saying that, he was taking other chief constables by surprise or whether this unsettled position is now a new position for all. If so, I welcome it and sincerely hope that the chiefs will now go further and have second thoughts. If they can do that, we can all move past the place where we are currently stuck and see racism as a cultural bias, a structural issue, and not simply a matter of individual attitudes and behaviour. It is important to understand this because every new officer coming into a force is socialised into its culture.

Chief Constable Stephens has now said that this is his personal view. But he is chair of the NPCC, and that is a position of considerable influence. One can only hope that he will use his position to turn what he described as the current unsettled position to a new settled one. Racism is about ‘the way we – collectively – do things’ and not just about how some bad apples behave.

Think orchard and not just apples.

Stay safe