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Racism; Society and the Police

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Once again racism in the police is making headlines. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - in an article in the Independent (16 April), kindly refers to a letter I wrote to the newspaper. In the short letter I made the point that police officers do not just appear out of thin air - they come from our society and reflect its views and share its shortcomings.

Of course officers should be held to account for corruption, bullying and racism because this behaviour erodes faith in the criminal justice system, leads to injustice and alienates sections of the community making it more difficult for them to fully participate in society.

However - why are we surprised that racism occurs in the police when we know police officers come from a society that has come nowhere near addressing the challenges of different cultures and ethnic groups living together? We cannot even talk about racism without feeling very uncomfortable because the term has become so politicised that rational discussion is almost impossible. The subject is seized upon by particular groups as their territory but in reality the problem and the responsibility for finding a solution belongs to all of us. Racism is wrong, but so is not doing our best to address it.

As a society - we tend to ignore people from different cultures and so we don't learn much about each other - we don't learn the words required to communicate with people who are different. Police on the other hand cannot ignore people from different ethnic and cultural groups, but they are often not equipped to bridge the gaps in understanding that exist.

This is not an original thought but racism is - at least in part - the result of a lack of understanding of other people from different cultures and a lack of understanding of people who have a different perspectives and traditions and who may look different from us. We miss what we have in common with them and can treat them as different and not worthy of respect. I believe we are all capable of making this mistake - but to admit even the possibility is career suicide for many so it does not get discussed.

Why do we expect all police officers to have the skills and knowledge few people in the wider community possess at even at a basic level? A few hours of diversity awareness training for new police officers and some wishful thinking will not do the job. Getting by and ignoring the issues of difference is not good enough when you are required to police all parts of society.

I do believe that police forces, at the senior level, do want to deal with this problem - why wouldn't they? It makes their jobs much more difficult - but they do not have the resources to tackle a problem which exists throughout society.

In my experience racism was not part of the day to day police culture - there was no open racist canteen culture - at least not the canteens I went into in west London, even in the early 1980s, although of course others will have had different experiences. Whilst pockets of racism obviously do exist in the police, the culture itself is not necessarily the problem - it is not the breeding ground of racism which some people assume.

The majority of us ignore the potential problems of living in a diverse society in everyday life but hold the police to a much higher standard. Perhaps this is necessary, but it will not solve the fundamental problem.

In most cases we need a police service that reflects society - except in this. Hold officers to account of course - but do not use them as a lightning rod for all of society's ills.

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