The death of George Floyd in May sent shockwaves across the world, and sparked fierce worldwide debate about racism and its ongoing impact on modern society. When I first saw the news, I compartmentalised Floyd’s death as just another episode in America’s ongoing problem with the use of excessive force by law enforcement. Here was a police officer, kneeling on a man gasping his last breaths, lying on hard concrete, and taking the weight of that officer’s body on his neck. Regardless of skin colour, I was appalled on a human level.
As the Black Lives Matter movement grew around the world I’ve felt a growing internal tension, and the outcry at Floyd’s death forced me to examine my own past, present and future as a Black man in Britain, and to reflect on my experiences as a Black police officer over more than two decades in the Metropolitan Police Service.
My first encounter with police was at the age of six or seven, when my older sister and I ran from our White City estate to call for assistance for my mother during a violent episode with my late stepfather. The police arrived quickly, and quelled the altercation. Even though I had later experiences of being needlessly stopped by uniformed officers, I think this early experience framed my attitude to the police as an institution you can rely on when you seek refuge, as opposed to racist agitators.
My mother, full of pride, will tell anyone within earshot that her son is an officer of the law. I grew up in White City Estate and was there until my early twenties. Her pride armoured me to shake off taunts from some sections of the community when I first joined the Met; when kids, white and Black, shouted out “coconut!” or “Babylon!” as I made my way to work, like I was some kind of traitor for joining the ‘Feds’.
“As a new recruit I never explained my worries to my supervisor about the fact that I had joined the police two years after the Macpherson report had branded the Metropolitan Police Service as being institutionally racist.”
Who was I a traitor to? Murderers? Rapists? Robbers? Only after moving away did my younger brother reveal the countless violent altercations he used to have on the estate, defending my name. There had always been a tension between police and some sections of the Black community. But now the police have truly become a symbol of oppression to Black inner-city youth and the chants are less subtle: All cops are bastards! Defund the police! No more racist police!
As a new recruit I never explained my worries to my supervisor about the fact that I had joined the police two years after the Macpherson report had branded the Metropolitan Police Service as being institutionally racist, or that some family members had warned me against this career for that reason. I remember laughing off an incident where a custody sergeant assumed that I was a criminal when he saw me in custody with a hoodie on, waiting to book in my prisoner. Nor did I challenge an older PC as a young probationer, as to why he suspected that myself and a black colleague were trying to break into my colleague’s car, parked in the police yard. Equally, I wish I had thanked the custody sergeant who insisted on charging the white female suspect who called me the n-word whilst being booking her into custody.
In my years as a detective, I moved from quiet acceptance into challenge mode. When a white defence barrister who jokingly asked what special golden path I had taken in life to not find myself in the dock as one of the six Black youths accused of robbery – a case in which I was the lead detective – I explained that I found her lack of social awareness worrying and questioned her suitability as the accused’s defence barrister. She apologised.
On another occasion when I was stopped three times in one week in different parts of London driving my girlfriend’s second-hand Rover, I explained to the third officer that if there was a marker on the vehicle that indicated that the driver should be stopped, this should be removed henceforth or I would be forced to submit a complaint. I don’t know whether I was racially profiled, because this was not something that myself or my colleagues practiced when I was in uniform, but I was not stopped on a fourth occasion.
“I am not writing this piece to try and paper over any cracks. Evidence suggests that there is a disproportionate amount of Black people stopped and searched compared to other ethnicities.”
I am not writing this piece to try and paper over any cracks. Evidence suggests that there is a disproportionate amount of Black people stopped and searched compared to other ethnicities. There is currently a lack of senior leaders of colour within policing and the representation across all police ranks, of non-white officers is at least 30% short of where it should be in London.
Statistics around crime, race and social injustice make for sobering reading too. The highest percentage of victims of crime are Black. The largest proportion of homicide child homicide victims are Black. Some 40% of prisoners under 18 are Black or of mixed ethnicity. Government ethnicity data states that Black people are most likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act, and the Black African ethnic group had the second lowest rate of home ownership and the highest rate of ‘statutory homelessness’ and drug dependency.
During my long career in the Met I have seen officers give life-saving resuscitation to a black boy stabbed during a gang fight, I have worked alongside colleagues who spent the best part of their shift trying to find appropriate housing for Asian victims of honour-based violence, I have led teams in the missing persons unit to trace elderly victims of colour who have found themselves wondering the streets, and I have been part of murder investigation teams where colleagues routinely sacrificed time with their own families to follow a lead or assess reams of CCTV footage in order to find vital evidence to provide justice for Black families. These examples are a microcosm of the work done by police every day to keep all Londoners safe. To focus on stop and search and use the disparity in figures to label the whole organisation as institutionally racist is, in my view, misguided. And those that seek to exploit the tensions between the police and the Black community do so at the expense of the most vulnerable within that community.
The truth is, every major social system is failing economically disadvantaged families, and Black families appear to be at the sharpest end. Our education, health, law, employment, social care and prison systems are all culpable – and all roads lead back to the successive governments, of various political persuasions, who have set the tone and provided the funding, or not in some cases. Police should, of course, be held accountable for any failings, and face scrutiny – but that must come as part of a holistic approach which does not demonise the law enforcement personnel whose sole purpose is to protect the community they serve.
“There has never been a safe space where officers could express their views around ethnic diversity, or have uncomfortable discussions around cultural clashes in the workplace or wider community.”
Over the past few months, I’ve reflected on the fact that I had never had any in-depth discussions about racial incidents with any of my colleagues or line managers in my 19 years as a police officer. Race was always something discussed at close quarters in hushed meetings, or that resulted in disciplinary action. There has never been a safe space where officers could express their views around ethnic diversity, or have uncomfortable discussions around cultural clashes in the workplace or wider community.
But senior police leaders have made clear their ambitions to nurture an environment within the police that is inclusive, that captures all strands of diversity, and where all staff feel more supported in the workplace as well as those in minority groups. And there is extensive pressure to improve police processes that adversely affect certain groups within the community and I know that leaders are responding to this pressure in urgent fashion.
Time will tell how effective those measures will be. What is clear is that the UK economy is officially in recession and, post-coronavirus, unemployment is set to escalate. London and the rest of the UK, will need a police force that is ready and willing to take on those challenges. And to be ready, it’s important we have the backing of all its people, from all parts of the community.
Rasheed Alawiye is a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police Service. He began his career in Islington borough in 2001, where he started as a uniformed police constable before progressing into the Criminal Investigations Department (C.I.D). Between 2010-2015 he worked as a detective in the Homicide Command and moved to his current role based at Scotland Yard in 2018.
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