‘Policing by consent’ in contemporary Britain

Just over thirty years after the 1981 riots, in the summer of 2011 the streets of Brixton amongst other areas across England were once again shut down by unrest. Although it is unfair to attribute the causes of these two waves of rioting to one thing alone, suspicion of the police was common to both of them. In areas like Brixton, Tottenham and Birmingham’s Handsworth, rioting in part occurred when large black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities felt alienated from their local police forces. Arguably, the process of alienation began when these communities felt that their police forces couldn’t engage with their concerns. To an extent, these riots were a reflection of a serious breakdown in trust between the police and the communities that they were meant to be safeguarding.

Yet, how can we talk about relationships of trust between the police and these communities when there are so disproportionately few BAME officers? A recent Guardian freedom of information request has found that in the Thames Valley Policing catchment, in a community that is 15.4 per cent BAME, people from ethnic minority backgrounds make up only 5 per cent of the force. If it sounds bad here in Oxford, under the Metropolitan Police a community that is 40.2 per cent BAME is represented by 11.7 percent of the police. Both forces see disproportionally lower application rates from BAME communities and even less representation in actual appointments. When communities begin to be cut off from the police in these ways, opportunities for dialogue breakdown. A lack of BAME representation in our police forces is a problem for all of us because it represents a severed link between these communities and the people that are meant to be working for them.

When Sir Robert Peel first established the Metropolitan Police in 1829 he did so on the principle of policing by consent. As much as it has evolved since its nineteenth century origins, the concept of policing by consent remains fundamental to how our forces are justified to this day. For policing to be consensual, however, the communities that are policed must feel like their forces are at their service. Communities must understand that the old mantra that the ‘police are the public and the public are the police’ rings true for them. In the spirit of the famous ‘Peelian Principles’, policing can only work for BAME communities when they can trust their voices are being heard. So long as these communities are underrepresented in their local forces, it is difficult to see a more productive relationship emerging.

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Perhaps most strikingly in the historical record, the lack of Catholic representation in the Royal Ulster Constabulary of the eighties and nineties shows what this means. Communities put off entry into their police are encouraged to believe in a ‘them’ and ‘us’ relationship with policing. The travesty of underrepresentation in policing is that Peelian notions of consent are eroded. Intolerably, what at first was intended as cooperation for public order becomes the perceived ‘occupation’ of communities by outside forces.

If politicians from Theresa May to Sadiq Khan are agreed that ethnic minority representation in the police force is a problem, their solutions are dramatically different. The question of representation in our police forces is a cross party issue, yet, somehow our politicians seem to be missing the point. Both sides debate about whether the selection process for officers should be amended through rhetoric about ‘affirmative action’, task forces designed to address the problem, or even recruitment quotas assigned to particular forces. More of a problem is that too little emphasis is placed on the underlying problems with policing culture in this country at the moment.

If we are serious about producing more representative police forces, we first need to improve the image of the police in ethnic minority communities. Janet Hills, the new president of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), has noted that one of the main causes of this problem is that confidence in the police in some ethnic minority communities remains shaky. Young people from these communities are not inspired to apply to become Police officers because they don’t see enough evidence that the Police is on their side. Before we can begin to see a change in policing representation, we first need to see a change in the way in which the police are represented to these communities. Affirmative action for the recruitment and promotion of successful BAME officers can only work if first members of BAME communities are convinced that policing works for their benefit.

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Ultimately, the first steps towards a more successful and representative police must be recognised as more consultative police forces. If we are serious about improving ethnic minority community representation in the police on grounds of merit, our police forces first need to take into account the findings of the 4 Days in August report produced after the 2011 riots. We need to make sure that our police forces are in better contact with groups and leaders so that they can promote a healthier image of policing in BAME communities. Only when the police are shown to be properly listening to people’s concerns in these communities can we expect more people to want to join the police. Only when there are more BAME candidates for policing positions will affirmative action make a real difference for representation in the police force. In the end, it is only when BAME communities are shown that they have a greater stake in their local police that relationships of trust can be more firmly established.