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Chief: Service keeps failing to learn the lessons of history

Ahead of the National Black Police Association conference in Belfast next week, CC Jon Boutcher says forces cannot afford to rest on their laurels on race and diversity

The NPCC lead for Race, Religion and Belief says the police service needs to learn from the lessons of history and improve the number of officers from diverse backgrounds within forces.

In an exclusive interview with Police Oracle, Bedfordshire Police Chief Constable Jon Boutcher says some chiefs are wrong for mistakenly believing they do not have a race issue if their communities do not have a particularly large number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The former Metropolitan Police detective, who also worked on the Regional and National Crime Squad and Flying Squad, says he is determined to keep race at the top of the policing agenda.

CC Boutcher said: “The difficulty we have is the race agenda gets the profile it deserves but only periodically. When we had the Brixton riots – race was the headline news story. We get the Scarman report and some work is carried out. Then it drops down and people are really busy with other things taking priority. All of a sudden we’ll have another key incident and race rises to the top again – another one will be the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson review and report and the label of police being institutionally racist. We’ll do a little bit more work and some good work - a lot of people did a lot to try and improve things inside and out of policing - and then it drops down again. Another key moment might by the riots in 2011 and suddenly the race agenda is at the forefront but drops down again.

“It feels to me that policing, and society, keeps failing to learn the lessons of history. We have got to make sure that, because we live in such a multi-cultural society, the race agenda retains the level of primacy and priority it deserves. We need to make sure we don’t keep having these peaks and troughs around incidents where we got things wrong.

“If we fail to learn the lessons, you repeat the errors of history. Hopefully that is what part of this conference will be about.”

CC Boutcher has met resistance in some areas from chiefs who do not believe this issue should be at the top of their agenda and says he will continue to fight to ensure forces see this as a priority.

“Diversity within the police service has been improving year on year but it is a tiny amount nationally,” he adds.

“If you think simply about the factors of people retiring and then people joining the organisation, it is more likely today that people will join from diverse backgrounds than it was 30 years ago and that is what we are seeing – that is the bare minimum. But not enough police forces are doing enough to proactively recruit from diverse backgrounds. It is a real dilemma. Chief constables have a difficult job - although people won’t believe that – there is so much in the in-tray.

“But when I speak to some chiefs they say ‘Jon, race is not an issue in my force’.

“One chief said to me ‘race is not an issue at all because I have not got a particularly diverse community’.

“I get that - but what about county lines? We’ve seen some real challenges with diverse communities and CSE offences. Now CSE impacts every community, but we have seen some challenges around certain Asian communities. We have looked after children being moved from county area to county area from often deprived and diverse backgrounds. Cyber-crime, online crime – I could go on. For any chief to now say race isn’t an issue in my back yard, I think they are just out with the world today – it effects everybody and that is the challenge for me and others who have very much got this at the forefront of our thinking to try and bring people with us.

“It is always difficult when you have got 43 chief constables to win a consensus. Getting an agreement that race should be a priority - that’s hard enough on its own. Then whatever agreement you get is at the lowest common denominator of all of those chiefs, which often completely degrades what you are trying to achieve – that is a real challenge. The conference is an opportunity to talk about these issues and invite representations from diverse backgrounds."

During the interview CC Boutcher spoke of his honour of having the “best job in the world” but says he fears many people from diverse communities will not be able to embark on a similar career path because of their backgrounds.

He added: “I am approaching 35 years’ service – although it looks like I’ve got 90 years – and it has been a privilege being a police officer. Keeping people safe is an incredible honour.

“But it is also a sad reality that the police service has often been seen as out of reach for some in our communities and is or has been a job they would never consider.

“I see this as the best job in the world, the feeling that I have – I have changed somebody’s life for the better, I stopped that abuse happening or I have helped that family. But, we have also been a predominantly white, male service.

“Some of that is because of community issues we have had in the past. I was an officer in London where we had lots of different incidents and there have been some real challenges between black and Asian gang members and the police.

“We saw the riots following the Mark Duggan shooting in 2011 and the escalation that followed there in London and then nationally. What you will see there is the stereotypical line of white police officers facing members of the community - which will be faces of all backgrounds, colours, cultures and ethnicity.

“It feels to me that this profession of ours should absolutely reflect the communities we serve. How can we have the confidence of communities who we want to talk to us about FGM, honour-based crime or whatever else if we have not got members of the force from those communities to understand the background or context of it? Or even understand the culture that has allowed that to happen in those communities?”

Several years ago CC Boutcher “empowered” select officers with the target of improving diversity within the force and even faced the wrath of communities who had not always seen eye-to-eye with the service.

He added: “Having become a chief it suddenly struck me I was in charge and maybe I could do something about this.

“I took a couple of police officers who I knew would get this, empowered them and gave them the role of leading recruitment from diverse backgrounds into the force. I held public meetings with people from diverse communities encouraging them to join the force. I was told nobody would turn up but it was standing room only. The first meetings were challenging because there have been some real issues in Bedfordshire. We have had death in custody tragedies that have occurred and those people who have died have been from our diverse communities.

“There was a background, in Luton in particular, of mistrust but the meetings were really encouraging and people just wanted to listen. Of course at the first couple of meetings there was the usual criticism towards me, ‘the police is racist, why would we join a racist organisation’ but then they listened.

“I said: ‘If you’re saying that, why don’t you come and try and change it then?’

“Now when we now have those events we have tables of police officers who have got two or three years’ service, who were at those meetings at the beginning, listening to what I was saying, and now they sit there talking to those young people about their journey. They tell their story.”

Due to his push to improve diversity within his force – and nationally – the Beds Chief has also faced claims that he is anti-white or has lowered standards within the force.

He said: “I talk about changing the face of policing, not in a way in which I am critical of what came before, because I think the men and women who serve have always tried to do their best for the public and policing. But we haven’t got it right around the make-up of the organisation for the communities that often have got a level of concern about the way the police treat their communities.

“In Bedfordshire we are now officially second in our make-up of black and minority ethnic police officers. I think we are just over 10.5 per cent now. We started this work three years ago when we were just over five per cent. The Met is at 14 per cent and has been for a couple of years.

“West Midlands are third I think at ten per cent while 30 per cent of its community are BME, ours is 23.5 per cent and the Met is 40 per cent.

“I would expect us to be equal or beyond the Met at the current rate of progress. There have been claims that I am being anti-white or lowering standards by some officers who just see this as the wrong direction. It is not the wrong direction, it is the right direction but they have not seen the collateral of not getting this right.

“We have raised standards around recruitment. Normally we now have people from our diverse communities along with a senior police officer on our interviewing panel. There is the obvious concern that you recruit in your own image and often a recruitment board will be two white men, so we have changed that.

“Because of all that context, progression and retention is important. We have got to make sure we promote officers who are talented and should be promoted and we have got to help others progress into specialist areas when they are good enough to do that.

“That is also why I think this conference is really important. We raise the agenda around race to increase internal confidence of those from BAME backgrounds throughout the organisation.

“Lots of statistics show that there is a disproportionality around those from BAME backgrounds that face disciplinary hearings and those who leave the organisation so we need to understand that and, where we got that wrong, we need to address that.  This is part of the work I am doing and there will be conversations around that in and out of conference. It should also be a celebration of the work carried out by the National Black Police Association which has worked tirelessly to promote the issues that I feel very passionately about.”

A final area of improvement is the number of black women within the service. There are believed to be 13 forces who do not have a black, female police officer within their ranks.

CC Boutcher says attracting women from diverse backgrounds to the job is a difficult task but one he has experience in.

“It is a challenge – it is not just about placing an advert and speaking favourably about wanting to recruit from diverse backgrounds," he adds.

"You have got to live and breathe it, you can’t just talk the talk, you have to get out and walk the walk. Macpherson was all about leadership, stepping in, we’re all leaders – everybody in the organisation.

“When people come along to look at Bedfordshire Police they know it is not cosmetic, notional or short term - this is a way of life for the force.

“There is a concern over the lack of black females in policing. There are a number of forces, 13 I believe, who do not have a black female officer. We need to understand the challenges, the issues.

“We had a young Asian woman who was in a police staff role and I spoke to her about becoming a police officer. She said she could not become a police officer because her dad didn’t realise what she did and, because of her culture, her father would not be comfortable with her interviewing men. He would not accept her arresting men, interviewing men, and having significantly dealings with men.

“I offered to talk to him and she didn’t think that would help. She is now a police officer and this reflects, even in the last two or three years, the reality of the situation. Her reality. Some will say that is just ridiculous but that is her reality and these are the challenges she has faced to join us.”

The National Black Police Association conference and AGM is being held in Belfast from October 9-11th.