'We can be better than this, we must be better than this' - the most senior BAME officer in the UK speaks out
Metropolitan Police Service Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu has made a personal plea for officers around the country to stand up to racists and be “a force for true change” in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
This message doesn’t come from the Head of Counter Terrorism Policing, an Assistant Commissioner of the Met Police, nor a representative of the National Police Chiefs’ Council. It’s a personal message from me to policing colleagues across the UK.
I have worn the badge proudly for 28 years. I also happen to be of mixed Indian and white British heritage, which means that I am the most senior BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) officer in the UK.
I joined the Met in 1992, just after a BBC documentary called ‘Black and Blue.’ It was powerful, depressing stuff, following the aspirations of young black and Asian police recruits – or more importantly how those aspirations were shattered. Friends and family thought I was insane and I wouldn’t last 28 minutes, let alone 28 years. But here I still am, and I would do it all again.
In 1993, as I took my first independent patrol, I had my doubts about the organisation I had just joined. Doubts that it would become the professional, open and caring institution it is today.
And just a few days later, a young black man called Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered in a racist attack in Eltham. It was senseless, and devastating for the family. Their grief was compounded many times over by our poor response.
Then came the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson. Few inquiries have received such attention or have been so transformational – exposing inequalities so familiar to BAME communities, and particularly the black British community.
It was particularly hard to be a BAME officer at that time, and less than two per cent of us were. For the failings of an organisation I love to be exposed so explicitly and publicly was painful.
Taking a knee was and is a powerful symbol of challenge and hope…but personally I see this as a time to stand up
The damning findings and recommendations of that inquiry are etched into the fabric of UK policing’s history – but the positive outcomes, hard won, are real. Our progress since has not been smooth, either, with missteps and setbacks along the way. Each setback is heart-breaking and despite how far we have come we must confront the fact that with many of our communities – especially the black community – we still have a long way to go.
The death of George Floyd horrified us all, and rightly so. All the good cops I know – regardless of heritage – were also horrified, but for many of my BAME colleagues I suspect this has been a particularly shattering week. At least, that’s how I feel.
The way George died represented the worst of policing and will forever be a totemic image of racial injustice in America. His last words… “I can’t breathe…” have become an anthem, and I desperately hope this is their moment for change, as Stephen’s senseless murder and the Inquiry by Macpherson were for UK policing.
It is not my place to criticise our colleagues in the US, still less to characterise the many with the actions of the few, or ascribe collective guilt. It is important, however, to highlight the differences between the UK and US – differences of structure, law, government and most importantly, culture. We are not the same, because unlike America we overwhelmingly police by consent, and not by force.
And so we cannot directly compare policing in the UK to that of our counterparts in the USA. But what we are seeing in America, and here in the UK, too, is anger directed not just at police brutality but the racial bias built into the very fabric of our institutions and society – perhaps best illustrated in the UK by the huge disparity in young black men in the criminal justice system.
Meanwhile, recent reports describe how BAME communities are not only more likely to die as a result of Covid-19, they have also been disproportionately affected by the way we have policed lockdown rules. This disparity is seen in education, in health, in the workplace – it’s everywhere – and it’s a daily lived experience for many.
So let us view the legitimate anger, manifesting itself now in different ways, with nuance and care. Yes, some people behave badly; yes, a tiny minority are no more than criminal opportunists, but the overwhelming majority are showing solidarity with George and what his death represents. They have a point. We need to listen to our communities, and our people, and focus on what we in the UK can do better.
I want to say a profound thank you to those officers policing these protests in the UK, and for the restraint, dignity and empathy many showed under real pressure. You walked the thin blue line with grace, and I salute you.
UK policing is built upon the values of courage, integrity, professionalism and compassion. But these words only carry meaning if we act on them. Professionalism, born out of experience, skill and training, prevents us from applying pressure in a dangerous way when restraining suspects and people in mental health crisis.
Integrity and courage means to speak up and act when we know we should intervene, with our peers, and even with our bosses. Indeed, it is precisely because one of our BAME officers had the courage to stand up and tell their bosses how they felt, that I felt inspired to write this. Above all, we must retain the key value so grimly absent as George Floyd died. Compassion.
So, in the days to come, if you’re working alongside a BAME colleague please take the time to check how they are. And if you are one of my BAME colleagues please know that whether you feel ok and able to get on with life, or you feel like you have been deeply affected – your feelings are valid. If you feel like you need help or support, please do not be afraid to ask for it.
If we want to honour George’s memory and leave policing in a better state than we found it, let’s hold our values close to our hearts, act them out, and be a force for true change.
Taking a knee was and is a powerful symbol of challenge and hope, and I was moved to see some of our officers do so. But personally I see this as a time to stand up – stand up to racists, to inequality and injustice.
We can be better than this, and we must be better than this. There can be no better sight than watching people of many different faiths, nationalities and colour, standing together in peace against injustice. At the height of probably the greatest fear some of our communities have ever known, this is a time to stand together.
Take care of yourselves, and one another.