Growing up, we didn’t feel as if the police were there to protect us. We were always fearful of the police; we couldn’t walk around in large groups because that would attract them, and we were often subject to the “sus” (“suspected person”) law.
When I joined the force in 1983, it came as a total surprise to my parents. I knew people from my background would see me as a sellout for joining the organisation that made us feel unsafe. A lot of my friends were very hostile towards me, whether they’d had experience with the police or not.
At the time, many police officers were very militaristic. The first few months at Hendon training school were a real culture shock and I felt as if I was questioning my sanity. I found it really difficult to comprehend that the police were meant to be a public service. I started street duties as a constable in Islington, in north London, where I had grown up, and I got more of a sense of comfort with the community than working with my colleagues. It was an us-and-them mentality and I found the police to be quite insensitive to the community, especially the black community.
Initially, they didn’t really want me, as a black police officer, to express my individuality. You had to be part of the team, you had to assimilate, not integrate. They didn’t want me to use my cultural understanding of the community; they wanted me to put that to one side.
When the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was published in 1999, it was a watershed moment that led to a cultural change and a lot more informed thinking within the police. There was a reduction in casual racism and explicit comments. I remember once going for a job on the crime squad when I was a PC and someone told me my face “didn’t fit”, for example. If you complained, they would say: “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t join.” Sometimes I feel like we have gone back to that era.
When I first saw the video of George Floyd being killed, I was disgusted, especially because it was a police officer who did it. It looked like sadistic torture, so slow and deliberate. It is one of the most brutal acts I’ve seen from a police officer. Derek Chauvin let down all the current officers around the world and even the retired ones like me. I felt devastated; it actually made me cry.
I wasn’t surprised that Floyd’s death created such an outrage and a sense of social injustice around the world. People want to ensure that their voices are heard – and it is a diverse group of people too. It reminds me of when I was a youngster, in the 1970s, when the National Front was big. On marches, people would sing: “Black and white unite and fight the National Front.” It brought black and white people together to protest and it’s the same thing now.
Most of the people in Bristol who dragged down the Edward Colston statue were white. They want to get rid of those images, sites, buildings and statues that show the inhumanity of the past and the inequalities it has caused. I don’t want to condone creating damage or committing crimes but you have got to understand what’s behind it: people are putting social justice before social distancing.
In the UK, we have a different style of containment to that of the US. When I attended the march on Wednesday 3 June, the police stepped back. When we started the march from Hyde Park to Parliament Square, and then up to Trafalgar Square, there didn’t seem to be any officers controlling the junctions or walking alongside – they held back and left people to their own devices. By Saturday, gathering together to march had been deemed unlawful, but people still turned up. It created more of a siege mentality between the protesting public and the police.
In 2017, we had a case in Hackney, where I used to work as a sergeant, that also resonated with me. A young man called Rashan Charles was chased into a shop because an officer felt he was involved with drug supply. He died after the officer restrained him on the floor. The jury ruled his death to be accidental, caused by an obstruction to his airway “by a foreign body during a period of restraint” [a half-swallowed packet of caffeine and paracetamol]. Charles’s great-uncle, also a former police chief inspector, branded the inquest “a farce”. Not all such cases spark an uprising the way the shooting of Mark Duggan did in 2011, but we are far from out of the woods.
I used to tell officers: “Every single time you encounter someone and you don’t treat them with respect and dignity, that is another person who resents us. That’s another person who might not work with us to solve a crime, that’s another person who might not want to go to court.” I set up a youth leadership program called Voyage Youth almost 20 years ago. Every single year, the youngsters taking part would say they felt overpoliced and underprotected. The current protests could be another watershed moment in Britain – I hope Boris Johnson is paying attention.
• This article was updated on 12 June 2020 to explain the foreign body that blocked Rashan Charles’s airway.