Avon and Somerset Police has committed to joining a national anti-racism plan, but stopped short of admitting there is institutional racism within the force.
Police chiefs in England and Wales have announced a plan for forces to become ‘anti-racist’. They have said policing still contains racism, discrimination and bias, and that low levels of trust and confidence among Black people in the police, and the disparity in how Black people are treated by officers, must be urgently addressed.
Avon and Somerset’s chief constable Sarah Crew said many people still believe policing to be institutionally racist and they have grounds for this view, but that even though the lived experience and evidence of how people are treated differently was real, it was important to move beyond the term and focus on tangible action.
But a racial justice advocate who has been investigating the issue for Avon and Somerset Police said he would have liked police forces to admit institutional racism as a way of reconciling with communities who are still dealing with their damaging past experiences with the police.
The emotionally-charged conversation about how people of colour are treated by Avon and Somerset Police (ASP) was reignited again in recent weeks by the assault of 12-year-old Black boy Antwon Forrest. The police’s decision to initially take no further action sparked outrage, which prompted them to re-open the investigation.
This comes after years of incidents that have drawn accusations of racism about the force. In 2017, a report by the Safer Bristol Partnership found that both the council and ASP had failed Bijan Ebrahimi, an Iranian refugee who was brutally murdered in 2013. The report concluded there had been institutional racism from both institutions, who accepted the findings.
In 2018, an officer was cleared of assault and misconduct after Tasering the force’s then race relations adviser Judah Adunbi in a case of mistaken identity. The incident provoked a lot of criticism of the force, who apologised. Last year, the Cable spoke to a young man who was violently stopped and searched. He alleged racial profiling and officers involved were placed on restricted duties.
A case of racism towards those within the force came to light earlier this year. The BBC reported that a south Asian officer was subjected to “toxic” racist abuse by colleagues at ASP a number of years ago. He was mocked for his accent and left a guide book on how to speak English for foreigners by officers. He wanted to take his case to a tribunal, but said he was then threatened by the force with £30,000 in legal fees if he lost, so withdrew his complaints.
Earlier this year, the Avon and Somerset Lammy Review Sub Group published a report on disproportionality in how people from ethnic minorities experience the criminal justice system. It sets out evidence of the disparity and recommendations to address it in the areas of stop and search, youth justice, prisons, and diversity within the force.
The national Police Race Action Plan was published on Tuesday and will be scrutinised by an independent board before being finalised later this year.
Key measures in the plan include mandatory training to help police officers and staff understand Black history, racism and anti-racism, a national attempt to help forces tackle racial disparities in their use of traffic stops, stop and search, Tasers and other types of force, and reducing racial disparities in misconduct and complaints processes for Black officers and staff.
Other actions are to minimise racial disparities in recruitment and promotions, address criminal exploitation of young Black men, ensure a good police response to missing persons from Black communities, and try out new methods for Black people to have more of a chance to raise concerns and provide feedback.
What is Avon and Somerset Police going to do?
Avon and Somerset Police Chief Constable Sarah Crew said she welcomed the national Police Race Action Plan, which will be built into the local strategy.
“As well as implementing the steps laid out in this national plan, I am leading the response to our locally produced and recently published Identifying Disproportionality in the Avon and Somerset Criminal Justice System report.
“We have already started to implement a number of the recommendations in this report around stop and search and HR and recruitment, listening to people directly affected by the disproportionate use of our powers and using the power of their lived experiences to drive through change.”
The Cable asked about concrete action and the force said the first meeting to develop their anti-racism strategy, which will be led by an assistant chief constable, will take place this week.
The force added that a chief inspector will be analysing disproportionality in stop and search, a youth scrutiny panel will meet for the first time next month to collect feedback on recent stop and search cases from young people in the city, and there will be more engagement with diverse communities to strengthen relationships.
They said a Stop Search and Use of Force Internal Scrutiny Panel has been set up to ensure searches and uses of force are being used legitimately, identify best practice and suggest areas of improvement. Other recent measures included introducing mandatory recording of traffic stops and a pilot to record details of the people stopped, including their ethnicity.
Is the police institutionally racist?
While announcing this action plan, police chiefs have said policing still contains racism, discrimination and bias, but stopped short of admitting forces are institutionally racist, a move considered in recent months.
The Cable asked Sarah Crew if she believes that ASP and other forces are institutionally racist. In response, she said: “The challenge for police reform, set out by Lord Macpherson almost a quarter of a century ago in the wake of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, cannot be said to have been unambiguously answered. Many people still believe policing to be institutionally racist and they have grounds for this view.
“We cannot dismiss the power and meaning of those two words. The lived experience and statistical evidence of disproportionality that underpin them are real and credible. But, we must also move beyond those two words. We need to now place new focus on the real and tangible actions we must take to ensure everyone is protected, respected, involved and represented in policing.”
Desmond Brown, the independent chair of Avon and Somerset Police’s Lammy Review Group, which recently published the report of racial disparity in the the criminal justice system, told the Cable he welcomed the anti-racist strategy but would have liked police forces to admit institutional racism.
“I’ve had conversations with groups within the police in Bristol who really don’t want to accept that label of institutional racism, such as the federation. Without that admitting of institutional racism, without that reconciliation, it’s hard to move forward.
“I speak to Black men who have been stopped and searched, it’s about the trauma they’ve been through, it’s systemic, there’s vicarious trauma through families and friends. We’ve got to understand the history.”
He said a lot of good work was happening off the back of his report and that it was important to scrutinise this through forums such as the Committee on Race Equality.
He added that the force needed to get better at promoting ways for the community to get involved. “People from affected communities need to be a part of it. I understand their reluctance, but we have to get involved, if we’re not in the room we can’t make the decisions. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“The good work needs to be seen on the ground,” he said. “Look at the Antwon Forrest case. Until we see tangible evidence of change on the ground, people aren’t going to trust the police.”
“There is a long way to go but I have been impressed with what Sarah Crew has done so far, I do think she gets it. There’s a lot of lip service that we in the community are used to hearing. We need meaningful outcomes on the ground, not just in nice meetings.”
How diverse is the force itself?
Data analysis by the Cable shows that the number of officers from ethnic minorities at ASP has increased by 50% in the last five years, but they remain underrepresented in the force.
As of March 2021, there were 103 FTE officers from ethnic minorities compared to 66 in 2016. But this is just 3.7% of nearly 3,000 officers in total. By comparison, an estimated 6.7% of people in the force area are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Recruitment of officers has been boosted by the government’s uplift programme, which aims to create 20,000 new police officer roles across the country by March 2023. As of March 2022, there have been 296 officers recruited through the uplift programme against the target of 456. In the last two years, 29 out of the 528 new officers recruited have been from ethnic minorities – which represents just 5.2%.
These officers are also underrepresented in more senior ranks. As of March 2021, the most senior officer who wasn’t white was one chief inspector. There were eight inspectors, 12 sergeants and the remaining 82 were constables, which is the lowest rank. There are now three chief inspectors from ethnic minority backgrounds.
However, there was some improvement in the last five years, with the number of officers from ethnic minorities holding the rank of inspector or higher increasing from 4 to 9, and those at sergeant or higher rising from 12 to 21.
A spokesperson said that more “absolutely” had to be done to make the force more representative of the area it covers in order to maintain the confidence and consent of the public.
“We have a committed and dedicated outreach team who work tirelessly to engage with diverse communities to promote policing as a career of choice, supporting applicants through the recruitment process,” they said. “They attend many events in the communities we want to reach and will continue to do so.
“We know that in order to recruit a more diverse workforce that better reflects all of the communities we serve, we must first accept people’s trauma and understand their lived experiences. It is a top priority for us to improve these experiences and close the confidence gap which exists between Black and white people in the police.”
Desmond Brown said representation really matters, but is worthless without cultural change. “With Antwon Forrest, people feel they get different treatment, so why would you want to join an organisation like that? My fear is you can’t go to work with your authentic self as a Black self, you have to conform to the institution, so if it’s racist, that’s a problem.”
The Cable will be investigating the topic of institutional racism in Avon and Somerset Police further. If you have been affected by the issues in this article, you can contact us in strict confidence via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or WhatsApp (07710195565)