The recent killing by US police of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, has sparked discussion about racism in the UK’s police forces. Media articles have highlighted racism faced by ethnic minority police officers. Concerns about the police’s use of stop and search against black people, and its use of force against black people in custody, have also received attention.
This article provides an overview of some of the issues relating to racism in the Metropolitan Police Service (the Met).
Racism towards officers
London’s Metropolitan Police has a lower proportion of police officers from ethnic minorities than the community it serves. However, it has a higher proportion of police officers from ethnic minorities than any other police force in England and Wales. In 2019, 15% of the Met’s police officers were from Asian, black, mixed and other non-white backgrounds. This compares to 40% of London’s population who come from these backgrounds. 3.5% of the Met’s officers are black, and 5.9% are Asian.
The proportion of police officers from ethnic minorities in senior roles is much smaller. Data from 2019 show that only 4% of senior officers in England and Wales were from Asian, black, mixed and other non-white backgrounds, and this proportion has not increased since 2013.
Disciplinary procedures against officers from ethnic minorities
It has been alleged that police officers from ethnic minorities are unfairly overrepresented in misconduct and disciplinary procedures. The Met commissioned research to examine whether there was any disproportionality in misconduct allegations and cases. This research was based on misconduct data from 2010 to 2015 and was undertaken by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). It found that Metropolitan police officers from ethnic minorities were more likely to be subject of misconduct allegations than white officers. They were also more likely to have a misconduct allegation against them substantiated.
This disproportionality is driven by complaints from other officers and members of Met staff. The research found no difference in the proportion of complaints from the public against white and non‑white officers.
There are several theories about why this disproportionality may exist, though the true cause is not known. The MOPAC research listed three possible explanations:
- conscious or unconscious bias;
- fear of being accused of racism (and therefore not addressing incidents informally); and
- failure to deal with difference.
Anecdotal evidence of racist behaviour
Some current and former officers have made public their experiences of racism in the Met. Writing in the Independent, Kevin Maxwell, a black former officer, says that the force was found guilty of “racial discrimination, harassment and victimisation” towards him a few years ago. The BBC has reported the experiences of Shabnam Coundhri, an Asian former officer, who says she experienced racism during her tenure with the Met.
An anonymous current officer, who describes herself as black, wrote about her experiences in the Guardian. She says that over the last year she has “been likened to confectionery, heard racist language passed off as a joke and witnessed BAME [black, Asian, and minority ethnic] officers in plain clothes accused of being intruders or told they look like they’ve just left the custody suite by other officers”.
Racism directed at the public
The Met has also been accused of racism in its policing. Concerns about racist policing include overuse of stop and search powers against black men and overuse of force. The reasons for the overall overrepresentation of black people in the criminal justice system are widely recognised to be complex and multi-faceted.
Confidence in police
Londoners from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds view the police less favourably than white Londoners. For example, 61% of young (16- to 24-year-old) black and minority ethnic Londoners have confidence that the police do a ‘good job’, compared with 70% of white 16- to 24-year-olds. Similarly, the MOPAC User Satisfaction Survey found a “sizeable and enduring” gap in levels of satisfaction with police service between white and ethnic minority victims of crime.
Stop and search
A police officer has powers to stop and search a person if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect the person is carrying illegal drugs, weapons or stolen property. Stop and search without ‘reasonable grounds’ must be approved by a senior police officer. In this case, the police officer must suspect that serious violence could take place or the person is carrying a weapon or has used one. Stop and search without ‘reasonable grounds’ is also allowed in specific locations for time-limited periods.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic Londoners are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. This rises to ten times more likely for vehicle stops. Almost one in three of all searches, 32%, result in an illegal object found or a relevant crime detected. Approximately one in five searches results in an arrest. This is an increase on 8% of searches which resulted in an arrest in 2011.
Use of force and deaths in custody
Figures for deaths in custody by ethnicity are not available for London alone. In England and Wales, in the ten years between April 2009 and March 2019, 164 people died in or following police custody. Of these people, 13 were black and 10 were from other ethnic minority groups. The numbers include deaths that occurred where injuries that contributed to the death were sustained during the period of detention, and deaths that occurred as a result of injuries or other medical problems that were identified or that developed while a person was in custody.
Compared to the proportion of the overall population, black people are twice as likely to die in custody as white people. However, of people who are arrested, white people are approximately 25% more likely to die in custody than black people.
In 2017/18 and 2018/19, data show that 17 deaths in police custody involved or followed the use of force. Of these 17 people, twelve were white and five were black.
A 2017 independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody found that potential examples of racial stereotyping, such as young black men being seen as “dangerous, violent and volatile”, were not explored when deaths in custody were investigated. It recommended that the Independent Police Complaints Commission “ensure that race and discrimination issues are considered as an integral part of its work”.
Oral question in Lords
The action being taken to address racism in the Metropolitan Police Service is the subject of an upcoming oral question in the House of Lords: “Lord Paddick to ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Metroplitan Police Service about the steps being taken to address racism within its ranks”.
Image by John Cameron on Unsplash.