British policing is institutionally racist. Until we admit it we’ll never win back trust | Neil Basu

Positive discrimination could encourage more black people to join the police so that our forces better represent their communities

  • Neil Basu is assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police

I write this not as a 30-year serving police officer, an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police service, a board member of the race and policing action plan group, or the chief constables’ non-executive director on the board of the College of Policing. I write this as the most senior police officer of colour in the UK. I write this as Neil Basu.

More accurately, I write this as Anil Kanti Basu – the mixed-race son of a white Welsh woman and a Bengali Hindu immigrant, invited to the UK on a medical scholarship in 1961 to help build our glorious NHS, Their subsequent treatment would have been entirely recognised by a post-Windrush community that still doesn’t trust the police. I write this with 54 years of lived experience of racism. I understand how they feel.

The police race action plan, released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) this week, aims to improve trust between police and the black community. It was developed and led by quality leaders who believe in diversity, equality and inclusion. They understand the chronic trust and confidence deficit in much of the black community, particularly the young, male black African-Caribbean community, which has been overpoliced and underprotected ever since the Windrush disembarked.

The plan’s achilles heel is its inability to galvanise all chief constables to accept that we remain institutionally racist, and to apologise for that and our post-Windrush history. If we can’t accept we need to change and say sorry to people we have wronged, how can we expect them to trust us?

We are guilty as charged, and the evidence can be found in the voices of our staff and communities of difference, and in the still unexplained and disproportionate data that calls out some of our poor policy and practice.

This is an indictment of our senior leadership since the Macpherson report in 1999, not the vast majority of our frontline staff, who don’t deserve this stigma created by a minority in their ranks and the failure of their leadership to promote diversity. I am as guilty as any.

We may be better than we were, but we are complacent. Society has moved faster and further than we have. It is time to catch up if we want the trust and confidence of all communities in 2022.

Individual chief constables should listen to the experiences of their staff and communities of difference, examine the disproportionality in their own data, and make an individual decision of conscience on whether they accept that institutional racism is still an issue for their force. Those who don’t accept it must try hard to implement this new plan. They will have to, if they are to prove they are antiracist.

I would expect Andy Cooke, our new chief inspector of constabulary, to be as rigorous in his inspection of our diversity performance as he will be on our crime performance. Nothing less will do.

Sir Michael Barber, in his Strategic Review of Policing, says it will be 20 years before policing is representative of gender in England and Wales, and 58 years until it is representative on race. The current policing uplift programme is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change that, but we may have already missed the boat. The dial has barely moved, especially for young black men and women, who clearly don’t want to join us.

Even when they do, it’s harder for them to get promoted and they disproportionately leave early. No one I know with protected characteristics wants positive discrimination – I didn’t 30 years ago – but I am an assistant commissioner now, not a PC struggling to be recognised. It worked in time-limited circumstances in Northern Ireland, and it may be necessary in the rest of the UK. Barber recognised it and we should too.

By delivering on the NPCC race action plan we will encourage the young black community to see that this is a career where they can be valued and make a difference. It will also show everyone that we are dedicated to being a service that represents the whole of the community we serve.

The Home Office and the police and crime commissioners must be tough on us. If the Home Office and our locally elected overseers don’t care, why would we? They must hold us to account and make it clear that, in a post-George Floyd world, this plan for policing to raise the trust and confidence of black communities is both necessary, urgent and long overdue.

Its success will pave the way for a wholesale change in policing culture. The black community is not the only part of society that is losing trust and confidence in us. The actions we take in this plan are transferrable.

We can and must reconnect with the public, as Robert Peel wanted when he first said that the public were the police and the police were the public. Back then, in 1829 when he was establishing the Metropolitan police, it was an idea ahead of its time. In 2022 it is an ideal we have yet to realise in full.

  • Neil Basu is assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, the former Met assistant commissioner specialist operations and NPCC’s national lead for counter-terrorism, and in 2021 the service director of the College of Policing’s most senior leadership programme


Neil Basu

The GuardianTramp

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