Time to prevent our UK police service morphing into a US-style police force

Policing by consent is the foundation on which a ‘service’ style of policing dominates over an ‘enforcement’ style.

 In the United Kingdom, the institution of policing is praised around the world for its service style of policing. Yet evolving changes in the language and style of policing in the UK are shifting that style towards more ‘enforcement’ than ‘service’ for Black people. Under the current conditions, it is a matter of when, not if, the next death in custody will occur.


The heart-wrenching images of the killing of George Floyd on 25th May 2020 in Minneapolis, United States of America, has become a powerful driver for change in the way Black people are treated by the police around the world. In the UK, some people console themselves that such a barbaric act would not happen here because of all the checks and balances in place to prevent that level of police misbehaviour: from political ‘control’ in the form of Police and Crime Commissioners to independent bodies such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire & Rescue Services and the Independent Office for Police Conduct. I would hope not, but we should not be complacent because it is often claimed that we are usually a decade behind the USA in adopting social changes that happen there.

The police organisation is a powerful social institution that can have a positive impact on the lives of individuals and wellbeing of communities. The engine of this social institution is the many brave and courageous men and women who work tirelessly and selflessly to meet the demands from the public. The fuel for the engine is ‘police culture’.

An automatic reaction to the words ‘police culture’, is often negative with mental images of police misbehaviour, malpractice, and indiscipline. In ‘The Politics of the Police’, Robert Reiner argues that the ‘core’ characteristics of police culture, such as ‘mission’ and ‘action’, engender in officers the belief that policing is not just a job but a way of life. It is the reason why police officers rush towards danger when others run away.

In a 1981 research paper by the Canadian criminologist John A Lee titled ‘Some Structural Aspects of Police Deviance in Relations with Minority Groups’ he describes a characteristic of police culture that he termed police ‘property’. He explained that “modern police forces emerged out of the need to protect dominant communities from dangerous classes” and as a consequence “police soon learned to distinguish the ‘public’ they were supposed to serve and protect from the ‘public’ they were supposed to control and punish. (i.e. blacks, women, Indians, and others)”. Minority members who flaunt their status or become militant along with others who lack power in society’s major institutions may become police ‘property’.

So, in essence, “a category becomes police ‘property’ when the dominant powers of society (in economy, polity etc) leave the problems of social control of that category to the police.”

Reiner adds that police ‘property’ are “low status, powerless groups whom the dominant majority see as problematic or distasteful. The majority are prepared to let the police deal with their ‘property’ and turn a blind eye to the way this is done.”

Today, the concept has become a powerful reality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a serving police officer. Not simply because of the killing of a Black man by a serving police officer (which we have seen reported too often in the last few years), but in the callous and casual way it was done: hands in his pocket with a knee on a dying man’s neck whilst the officer surveyed all around him in triumphant nonchalance. People present at the scene watched, and many screamed at him to stop, seemingly powerless to physically stop what they were witnessing, and the world watched from afar, disbelievingly.

Why did those people present not take any physical action to stop the killing of George Floyd? Was it that they feared for their personal safety from the way the other three officers present might have reacted? And of those three officers, why did  they not stop their colleague, who knelt on George Floyd’s neck, hands in his pocket, for nearly nine minutes? Surely, they had time to assess the threat that Georgem Floyd posed to them and the public and, therefore, sufficient time to encourage their colleague to ease up his restraining pose (a technique that some senior-ranking US police leaders have stated is not taught by their forces). Instead they stood guard whilst their colleague exterminated their police ‘property’.

The initial response from the police organisation, arguably, also supported the idea that George Floyd was police ‘property’:

They sacked all four officers, leaving them free to go about their daily business instead of doing what was obvious to any reasonable person; arrest all four of them, immediately.

As a police officer for 35 years who has worked in three forces in the United Kingdom and with police organisations in the United States of America, Brazil, Sweden, Germany and Nigeria, in my experience the majority of officers in all these organisations are professional, dedicated and committed people who uphold the ideals of public service. In this case, these being the ideals of ‘serve’ and ‘protect’, which are embodied in the oath that they took on becoming police officers. However, I have seen and experienced biased decision and dysfunctional actions, at different ranks of serving officers and grades of civilian personnel that have been racially motivated.

So the question is, how has such a powerful and respected social institution allowed the contaminated parts of its fuel to drive the dysfunctional parts of its engine that has steered it to moments of unimaginable depravity and brutality, and irrational activity?

In the sense of irrational activity, there is one police activity that has been problematic for the police in its relationship with some communities: The misuse of ‘stop and search’ exemplifies the notion of police ‘property’

The negative impact of stop and search has been well documented: from the report by Lord Scarman into the Brixton Riots in 1981 that identified excessive use of stop and search during Operation Swamp as a significant cause of the riots to more inspection reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC). This was part of the conclusion of an HMIC inspection on stop and search in 2013:

“The power to stop and search, amongst the most intrusive of police powers. Using an estimated time taken for a stop and search encounter as 15 minutes, and the hourly rate of a four-year qualified police officer as £15, this would equate to a cost of £3.7 million per year. From our survey of 19,078 people, the majority (80%) believed that the use of stop and search powers helps the police to catch criminals, and over half said its use made them feel safer…. However, we found that, with a few exceptions, forces were not able to demonstrate an approach to using stop and search powers that was based upon a foundation of evidence of what works best to fight crime. A good example of this was that we found little evidence that police leaders were focusing stop and search activity towards priority crimes in their areas. Most forces had priorities in acquisitive and violent crimes, and in some urban areas this included the use of weapons by gangs. However, about half of stops and searches in 2011/12 were focused on drugs, the vast majority of which were low-level possession offences. Too many forces could not explain what they achieved from their use of stop and search powers.”

Today there is a growing practice (as often posted on social media and according to anecdotal information I hear from accounts of police training) of officers handcuffing young Black boys who have not been arrested and are not resisting or showing any signs of aggression, before they start searching them. This happens whilst white friends that are with them are searched without being handcuffed.

This is a worrying development of a practice that seem to reinforce the stereotype that conflates Blackness with dangerousness: Black boys are considered ‘dangerous’ and so have to be treated differently (restrained), and in a way that is humiliating and degrading, without a rational justification. Black boys are treated as police ‘property’ whilst their white friends that are with them are treated very differently, with courtesy and respect.

Using 35 years of policing experience to support my opinions that as Black people are pushed up the police ‘property’ list the service style of policing in the UK, which has helped the institution of policing maintain legitimacy, is now being eroded by the drift towards a more enforcement style (in both language and action) against the Black community. In the following sections I want to offer some thoughts on how we can halt the increasing enforcement against Black people and consequently the damage and destruction of Black lives. So, what can be done?

Recruitment and progression

An often-articulated statement by police officers is that people from BAME background do not want to join the police. True, not ALL people from a BAME background want to join the police but enough do. My plea to senior officers is work to reduce the rate of attrition for those that do join, because to not do so can create an assumption in the minds of the workforce that when a Black person joins the police service, they may not be totally committed to the job because they never wanted to join in the first place. This subtle negative assumption influences the career journey of a Black person in the police service from recruitment through progression, discipline and even retirement: For example, Home Office data (March 2019) suggests that 23% of recruits to MPS were people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, so joining at a higher rate BUT the same document shows that voluntary resignation is 26% BAME and 17% white officers. Interestingly, 2.6% of BAME officers are dismissed compared to 1.2% white officers.

The journey for many Black officers (my experience is that the BAME category fair better collectively) can thus be said to be comparable to them running a 400 metres stable chase alongside their white colleagues who are running a 4×1 400 metres sprint relay. Consequently, throughout their career most Black officers never realise their potential, because the hurdles they must overcome grinds them down and saps away their energy.

Offence rates: Senior police leaders often respond to a question of why there is disproportionality in crime statistics, such as in stop and search and recent figures on the issue of fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID 19 lock down rules, by saying that it is because officers are working in high crime areas. The unintended message could be that people from some ethnic group are more prone to criminality than others and/or that certain geographical areas experience more crimes because the majority of the people living there are from a particular ethnic background. Such language feeds a mistaken stereotype that Black people offend at a higher rate than non-Black people. Self-reported crime surveys have shown that criminal behaviour is not more prevalent among Black respondents.

Over the years, we have watched police officers use excessive force against Black people in the US, UK, and other civil democratic countries. Should police officers use reasonable force to stop individuals threatening violence to protect others?

Absolutely YES. Should police officers use excessive force? Absolutely NO. Police officers are public servants and when they use excessive force, they should be held accountable, because such deviant behaviour dishonours the integrity and dedication of many of their law-abiding colleagues. It destroys Black lives. It reduces the integrity and legitimacy of individual officers and police organisations.

The police are the ‘gatekeepers’ of the criminal justice system and although some individual officers’ exercising of discretion has disproportionately filtered Black people into the criminal justice system, the solution does not rest solely with punishing dysfunctional individual officers. In my view it is time that senior police leaders take the issue seriously and lead the change that is necessary, and society hold them to account for the deviant behaviour of officers under their charge. There is a pattern of behaviour that appears remarkably consistent across different countries and continents.

Society gets the police it deserves. Whatever our colour, race or social standing, society needs the police. So, what type of police does our society want?

If we are genuinely going to address racism and its destructive effects, every one of us need to look at ourselves and ask two questions:

what do I need to do to take Black people off the list of police ‘property’? And how can I make this happen?

The answer is to stop stereotyping Black people as low status, unintelligent, aggressive, dangerous, self-destructive, and sub-human, and recognise the privilege I hold of being able to decide when I want to make a stand for the barbaric injustice to Black people that is prevalent and consistent across countries and continents and the comfort that comes from remaining ‘silent’.

Every person advocating for change must make a commitment to empty the police ‘property’ list so that Black people and others subject by the majority to negative stereotyping and as ‘low status’ do not die in police custody.