That the police have spent the past year cracking down on peaceful protestors while doing nothing to prevent discrimination scandals is proof that the force cares more about protecting the powerful than ending institutional racism.

Police officers walk in-front of graffiti during a Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

From the policing of the anti-monarchy protests earlier this month, to the damning revelations in the recent Casey Review into the racism and sexism in the Metropolitan Police, it’s clear that the interests of the rich and powerful are protected at the expense of our rights and freedoms.

Today is the first anniversary of the National Police Race Action Plan (NPRAP), published by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and College of Policing as a response to the Black Live Matter protests that swept the globe. It aimed to achieve something that has evaded the constabulary for decades—improving the Black community’s trust and confidence in the police. 

However, one year on, the police’s racism scandals continue—and no one is surprised. In the words of Doreen Lawrence following the thirtieth anniversary of Steven Lawrence’s murder and the damning report by Dame Louis Casey, ‘nothing has changed.’

More Than a Few Bad Apples

The National Police Race Action Plan is the latest in a series of failed attempts at reform to address the frequent scandals of racism and misogyny in the police. From the Scarman Report in the 1980s to the MacPherson report in the 1990s, the police have a long history of recommending itself piecemeal reforms in response to major uprisings against police repression and discrimination against working class and marginalised communities.

But in failing to recognise the institutional racism in the force or provide any reasonable efforts to challenge the use of excessive force, draconian powers, or culture of impunity, the report is not worth the paper it is written on.

This latest plan proposes a number of liberal reforms to tackle the crisis in its relationship with Black (the term here used in its historical and political sense) communities in Britain. It mainly focuses on mandatory training for all police officers and staff about racism, as well as diversification of recruitment and retention, with the stated aim of creating an ‘anti-racist police force.’ In doing so, it lays the blame at the feet of individual police officers, framing the problem as the result of a few bad apples.

Despite recognising that policing ‘still contains racism, discrimination and bias,’ the plan predictably falls short of recognising institutional racism and misogyny. Indeed, it goes so far as to admit that the plan has been influenced by the now highly-discredited Sewell Report, which denied the existence of systemic racism in the UK.

A year after the plan was published, the former assistant commissioner of the Met, Neil Basu, conceded that ‘the plan’s Achilles heel is its inability to galvanise all Chief Constables to accept that we remain institutionally racist’. When even those closely involved in developing the Action Plan do not have confidence in it, how we trust it to deliver change? 

The president of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), Chief Inspector Andy George, had recently acknowledged that ‘we’re losing confidence, probably every day’. That over half of Black British police officers have themselves experienced racism from their colleagues speaks to how deeply racism is ingrained in policing as well as the limits of representation without deep structural change. Understanding the systemic racism in policing must begin with understanding the power they have to criminalise entire communities and destroy lives with impunity, despite decades of evidence of oppression, brutality and extra-judicial killings.

Challenging Institutional Racism

In the words of the anti-racist writer and activist A. Sivanandan, ‘I don’t want your positive discrimination, because positive discrimination is like giving me crutches after breaking my leg. I don’t care about whether the police officer or the immigration officer is racist. I want the policeman punished for his racism. I want the immigration officer’s laws changed.’

In uttering these words in 1982, Sivanandan understood then what we’ve now lost through the degradation of our discourse on police and racism: that the fundamental problems are an abundance of draconian powers and a lack of accountability. No amount of anti-racism training or diversification of the workforce will come close to transforming the police as an institution or changing the way it behaves.

Efforts to put an end to the over-policing and criminalisation of working class and Black communities must understand that the police force was created to control the emergent industrial working class and the colonies, with the first police force in mainland Britain—the Metropolitan Police—drawing inspiration directly from the British forces occupying Ireland and the colonial civil police force that followed.

Today’s police force was born directly out of the demand to protect the interests of the wealthy and the powerful and to defend their needs and their property. Understanding this history is key to understanding how we create a police service that protects rather than criminalises working class and marginalised communities.

The experience was something I faced growing up in Liverpool 8 in the 1980s. I remember how the police imported tactics and weapons from the occupation of Northern Ireland, using CS gas against protestors for the first time, including against members of my own family, during the so-called 1981 ‘Toxteth riots.’ To us, it was evident that the police were not here to protect us; they were here to occupy our streets and wage war on our communities. This was evidenced again in the treatment of striking miners at Orgreave and against Liverpool fans following the Hillsborough disaster—injustices for which those truly responsible were never held to account.

Despite being an elected Member of Parliament, I was stopped and profiled with my son last year while in London. Similar experiences have also been experienced by other Black MPs, such as Dawn Butler, who was stopped and profiled by Metropolitan police officers.

Every Black person in Britain has either faced or knows someone amongst their friends or family who has been profiled through stop and search. Black parents worry about whether their sons will return home safely, with too many stories of young Black men being tasered—which has resulted in death and paralysis for some—and disproportionate Black deaths in police custody. This blatant racist bias won’t be tackled unless we call it out for what it is.

Following reports of innocent young Black boys who were held by police at gunpoint in my constituency, I did not hesitate to speak out and call Merseyside police institutionally racist. I felt it was important to use my voice and position to call out what many of my constituents and I have long experienced. I welcomed support from Emily Spurrell, Merseyside’s Police and Crime Commissioner, who told me recently that ‘it’s critical we continue to be open and honest about this, recognising there is still more to be done’.

We’ve seen that it is possible for the police to tackle racial disparities in stop and search. Black people nationally are 6 times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. In Merseyside, this was reduced from 4.8 to only 1.3 times more likely. For a long time, Merseyside used this power more than most. But as we’ve seen, putting on pressure and calling it out for it has resulted in a faster reduction than the national average.

The use of force is another area which requires a far more open and honest conversion. Police have historically disproportionally used force on Black people, and the disparity is worsening. If you are Black in Merseyside, you are 3.7 times more likely to have force applied against you than a White person from the same area.

If police resources continue to be poured into criminalising minor misdemeanours such as personal cannabis possession—a key driver behind the racial disparities in Stop and Search statistics—then Black and working class communities will continue to have their life chances ruined at the hands of the police.

Reimagining Policing

We must have a police and criminal justice system that curbs draconian powers, and that is transparent and accountable to prevent abuse of power. However, we must also build a system that criminalises the wealthy and powerful for acts of economic and social violence, rather than the working classes and Black communities for protesting and resisting inequalities and injustice, or for minor misdemeanours that under the current system can ruin or even end lives.

We need a complete re-framing of what criminal harms we should be pursuing. The recent increase in police powers, including through the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Act, has expanded draconian powers aimed at silencing the voice of the powerless who seek to peacefully dissent.

Our demand must be to resist the ever-growing demand for police powers at the expense of Black profiling and under-investment in proven early intervention services. Reimagining policing includes understanding the social drivers of crime and understanding the benefits of properly resourcing family support workers, youth services and other forms of welfare support.

The National Police Race Action Plan was never intended to deliver a serious challenge to the current state of policing. None of the many scandals and reviews has produced a police service that works for people and not for the powerful. It’s time to demand an alternative.

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