Happy Valley shows how policing should be done – how come the BBC gets this, and not the Met? | Dal Babu

From the diversity of the top brass to Sgt Catherine Cawood’s model of best practice, the BBC drama should be essential viewing for senior officers

  • Dal Babu is a former chief superintendent in the Metropolitan police

I’m not usually a fan of police dramas. After 30 years working for the Metropolitan police, in a career that spanned working in firearms, hostage situations, murders, riots and domestic violence, I’m usually frustrated with how inaccurate TV portrayals are of policing (I know, this is sad). But then Happy Valley has come along again, and instead of resisting, I decided to watch it.

What have I learned? Aside from the fact that unrealistic police procedures still abound on television (mobile phone data analysis missed; a survivor of a kidnapping and sexual assault joining the force and being allowed to work in the area in which the offences recently occurred), what struck me most was that the writer, Sally Wainwright, and the BBC commissioners have grasped something the police still haven’t: that diversity matters. I was the only person of colour out of 300 new officers when I joined the force in 1983, and you could count on one hand the number of Black and Asian chief superintendents even when I retired in 2013.

What a joy it was to see Ramon Tikaram playing Ch Supt Praveen Badal in Happy Valley – the man in charge of the Basic Command Unit that Sarah Lancashire’s lead character works for. It is worth noting that currently the Met does not have a single BCU commander of colour. Although I did notice that in series two the wardrobe department got his shoulder epaulettes wrong – superintendent instead of chief superintendent – it is still thrilling to see this representation on screen.

Sgt Catherine Cawood (played by Lancashire), meanwhile, is a lesson in the realities of policing, and showing how it should be done. Take her monologue in the opening scene of the first season of Happy Valley. She is speaking to Liam, a young man standing on a park climbing frame who is threatening to set himself alight. “I’m Catherine by the way,” she says. “I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with my sister – who’s a recovering heroin addict – I have two grownup children. One dead and one who doesn’t speak to me.” It is brilliant, and human. It also shows how police officers, like so many of us, have challenges in our private lives that can cause conflicts of interest.

But these can also make us better at our jobs. Catherine saves the young man long before the highly trained hostage negotiator (in my experience, usually a white man) arrives.

In season two, Catherine has been awarded the Queen’s police medal – nominated by senior officers. Serving senior officers would do well to look at this episode and reflect on it – far too often awards like this go to their senior officer mates, rather than rank and file on the frontline. As part of their homework, senior officers might mull over the beginning of season three to see what hardworking officers really think of them.

We see Catherine being met by a senior officer and a pathologist from the Home Office, who ask her, laughing, “What’s his favourite sandwich?”, when she gives them details about a body dredged from a reservoir. She retorts with full details of who the body is, based on her deep knowledge of the community and the fact she’d nicked him once so would recognise his teeth anywhere. She leaves the men agog, muttering under her breath “twats” as she walks off.

Then we come to the storyline of Catherine being investigated over racism after an Asian officer is encouraged to apply for a fictional role working on alien spacecraft that senior command have asked her to appoint for. This demonstrates how police leadership not only often fails to apply common sense, but as a result gets embroiled in bureaucracy while ignoring the glaringly obvious.

Take, for example, the number of Met officers accused of racism, and the epidemic of sexual violence perpetuated by male officers towards women, both in their private lives and at work. Rampant homophobia in the police, meanwhile, is leading to the tragic loss of young lives. Troubled forces, the Met included, could learn a lot from programmes such as Happy Valley.

I was told 40 years ago, working for the Met, that I was naive and did not understand how the world worked when I wanted to see senior officers of colour. Well, I do not apologise for criticising the glacial pace of change in the police. If the writer of Happy Valley and the BBC can see clearly what the next generation of the police and its leaders should look like, why can’t forces such as the Met do the same?

  • Dal Babu is a former chief superintendent in the Metropolitan police

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Dal Babu

The GuardianTramp

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