'Changes come with a struggle' - the ordeal of PC Prem: Cal McCrystal meets the Sikh who won pounds 25,000 and an apology for discrimination

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The Independent Online
WHEN 'Joe' Prem turned up for work with Nottinghamshire Constabulary last week, most of his colleagues applauded, congratulating him on having received a formal apology from the Chief Constable, Daniel Crompton, and pounds 25,000 in settlement of his case alleging racial discrimination. But at least one police officer turned his back and walked away.

The story of Joginder Singh Prem, a Sikh constable, is as puzzling as it is disturbing. His background, attitude to society and approach to his job suggest an ideal policeman for Nottingham, a city of 300,000, nearly one-third of Asian and Afro-Caribbean origins. His semi-detached home is in Bramcote, on the outskirts. Apart from a few Asian reminders (such as a tiny picture of a Sikh holy man), it is very English: peonies in the back garden, children's toys on the patio, tea towels on the line, trellis on the garage, crystal in the living-room cupboard, chandelier on the ceiling, wall-to-wall carpet.

The question an industrial tribunal was asked to decide was: did officers of the Nottinghamshire Constabulary unlawfully discriminate against Mr Prem, unfairly blocking his promotion prospects? Three weeks before the tribunal was due to hear a submission on his behalf by a barrister for the Commission for Racial Equality, Mr Crompton formally admitted that the Sikh had been subjected to unlawful discrimination and acknowledged him as a valued officer in the force. The tribunal therefore did not have a chance to consider the detailed allegations, merely approving the settlement at a half- hour hearing last week.

A visit to Mr Prem leaves little doubt that he regarded himself as a victim of persecution almost as soon as he joined the force 10 years ago. At training college he was accused of putting too much starch in his turban and not cutting his hair.

Many fellow-recruits, he says, were embarrassed - even angered - by this state of affairs. But none risked speaking up for fear of jeopardising careers. At one stage, he approached a sympathetic drill sergeant, Roy Cochrane (now dead), and asked: 'Is it worth suffering all this humiliation?' The sergeant replied: 'Don't consider leaving. These are just little people.'

Mr Prem says he took the advice, but endured greater humiliation at the hands of the county force in the ensuing 10 years.

Plump-cheeked under a maroon turban, Mr Prem described his experiences without visible rancour. He was born in 1955 in the Punjab, where his father had served in the army of the Raj, and was brought to Britain at the age of 10, settling with his four sisters and three brothers in Bedford. After secondary school, he applied to join the RAF. 'There's a strong military tradition in my family - an uncle is a surgeon- lieutenant in the British Army. But the recruiting officer advised me to take a university degree first, before applying for a commission.'

At the then Trent Polytechnic he was elected chairman of the engineering society, took an engineering degree in 1980, then got a job at the Raleigh cycle factory and studied part-time for a diploma in management studies. He also involved himself in community relations.

'In 1981, after the Brixton riot, racial unrest spread to other cities, including Nottingham, and I remember what one eminent Christian churchman said on the issue of discrimination: 'Changes always come with a struggle.' What you have to do is join and participate, not attack and wreck. I considered becoming a teacher. Then a friend of mine who was in the Metropolitan Police said to me, 'If you're really interested in serving the community, join the police.' '

Mr Prem accepted this advice too. In 1983, he became the 16th 'ethnic' member of Nottinghamshire's 2,300-strong force (of today's 2,700, 45 are of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin). The only Sikh among the 150 recruits on his training course, he was not put off by early racist signals in the force. After the departure of a visiting official from the Commission for Racial Equality (who had talked about relations between police and the black community), an officer declared: 'We don't want a black bastard coming here to tell us what to do.'

Three weeks later one of two West Indian recruits - a woman - abandoned the course. 'She was disgusted,' said Mr Prem. Nevertheless he remained, undeterred by the words 'lacked discipline' in his training assessment report. 'I was 27 and mature and able to overcome these things.'

Worse was to come when his course ended. He says he was referred to as 'towel-head' and 'rag-head' at some official briefings. Afro-Caribbean officers were 'chocolate drops'; deportation of black people was approved on the grounds that they were responsible for violent crime.

Mr Prem is very articulate, yet when his nine-month appraisal was produced he found himself criticised for oral communication and grasp of English, alleged faults that nobody had mentioned before, he says.

He believes he was the target of a campaign of harassment. 'If a senior officer doesn't like you, he will decide your career. How do you rectify it?' According to him, one tormentor ridiculed him in front of probationers. Less experienced white officers were promoted over his head.

He organised seminars and tutorials for police officers at the local Sikh temple, but feels that these efforts were not reflected in his appraisals. Meanwhile, in 1987, racist leaflets appeared in the pigeon-holes of ethnic-minority officers: 'Give the traitors a nightmare, kick the fucking Niggers and Pakis out. They can eat bananas in their homeland.'

That year, Mr Prem passed the sergeant's examination. Subsequently he passed the exam for inspector and a Home Office course in interpersonal skills. Yet, while others less qualified rose in the force, Mr Prem has never been promoted. Part of his current job as a training officer at the Force Training School is to instruct sergeants on aspects of new legislation; yet he himself remains a constable, his pounds 18,000 salary pounds 4,000 below that of a sergeant.

In 1989, after performing acting-sergeant duties, Mr Prem received a favourable appraisal and was told he would be ready for promotion in 18 months. Discrimination persisted, however. Mr Prem became 'heavily stressed up', unable to sleep at night. His wife, Pretinder, who runs an arts and crafts shop, was increasingly anxious. 'Without the family I would be dead,' he said. 'I know some of my junior colleagues have also suffered, but not to the same extent as I did.'

The hurt seems to have come in an endless stream, particularly when he continually failed to gain promotion and was offered either no reason or given explanations that seemed to him then, as now, inadequate.

Mr Prem says he turned to the Assistant Chief Constable, John Culley, who acknowledged that his work record was 'above average' but was not prepared to accept a charge of racism. The officers named as respondents in Mr Prem's claims continue to deny allegations of victimisation.

Backed by the Commission for Racial Equality, Mr Prem finally went to the industrial tribunal, 'not for selfish need but with the honest intention of improving the system'. He says he will give most of the money to charity.

(Photograph omitted)