London Letter: Police struggle to keep pace with London’s changing demographics

Senior Met officers believe the force must recruit more minority officers


John Kent was a man before his time. In Carlisle in 1837, Kent, the son of a West Indian servant, became the first known black police constable in Britain.

Known as “Black Kent”, he was a well-known figure in the Cumbrian town. In 1841, he was in the middle of a melee when a man was killed by a blow to the head after an election rally descended into violence. He married a white woman that same year, but three years later his career in the force ended when he was alleged to have reported for duty while drunk, a not entirely uncommon occurrence of its day.

Before he became a policeman, Kent had attracted attention because of the colour of his skin when he worked on the roads, though, interestingly, the local papers never referred to his colour in the numerous references they made to him over the years.

Back then, Kent was an exception, but even today officers from black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds are still rare. Nearly 90 per cent of the Metropolitan Police’s numbers are white. Now, senior Met officers believe this must change; pointing to the model followed in Northern Ireland after the Royal Ulster Constabulary was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland when, for a decade, one Catholic was hired for every Protestant.

Positive discrimination
The 50:50 recruitment rule ended in 2011, by which time a third of the force was Catholic. “In my view, that was the critical change that helped us to move forward,” says Hugh Orde, former PSNI chief constable. Under existing rules, the Metropolitan Police cannot enforce a particular mix of recruits without breaking the law, but assistant commissioner Simon Byrne believes little will change unless positive discrimination exists for a time.

“We have not kept pace with the changing shape of London,” he said last week, adding that the Met had broadly been “a white, male-dominated organisation”, a legacy which he said it must overcome.

The lack of ethnic minority officers is hampering policing in a city where ethnic minorities make up 40 per cent of the population, making it more difficult for officers to develop roots within different communities.

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester police, told the Guardian: “The police service is not as effective as it could be in countering terrorism because of its ethnic makeup. A big part of dealing with terrorism and crime is gathering intelligence, having people who get to know local people so they have the confidence to pass information.”

Norwell Roberts was the Met’s first black officer, joining in 1967. He retired in 1996, with the rank of detective sergeant and the Queen’s Police Medal. In uniform, he was frequently abused by fellow officers. Bananas were thrown at him from patrol cars.

Met recruitment has slowed over the last few years because of public spending cuts, but nearly 5,000 officers must be brought in between now and 2017 just to keep the force’s numbers steady because of retirements. However, the Metropolitan Police’s own Black Police Association – which once urged young blacks not to sign up because of institutional racism – believes the problem is not limited to the numbers of ethnic minorities recruited.

Rather, it argues that the ones who have been brought in are unfairly treated, even if they are not commonly subject to the sort of overt racism that was the order of the day in many police stations in the 1970s. Eight years ago, the Morris inquiry found that some senior ranks lacked “the confidence to manage black and minority ethnic officers without being affected by their race”, leaving them to face disproportionately high numbers of disciplinary offences. “This represents a serious issue of discrimination which must be tackled as a matter of priority. The same high standards of conduct should apply to all officers and staff,” the inquiry said.

For Janet Hills, the chair of the Met’s Black Police Association, too many of her members are constables, or, perhaps, sergeants, who have been unfairly blocked for promotion, losing out to less experienced white colleagues. “That is where the majority are, constables and sergeants. You get some inspectors, but, after that, there are very few around. That obviously causes frustration for people who are ambitious and talented,” she told The Irish Times.

Fifty-fifty recruitment would change the dynamic over time, she says, if not immediately.

Career ladder
Hugh Orde, however, believes that action short of positive discrimination could be taken now, such as special courses for high-potential black and Asian officers. “That would help to give the skills to get them up the ladder more quickly,” he says, though his experience leads him to believe that nothing short of a 50:50 rule would have changed the make-up of the PSNI. So, too, for the Met.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.