Not a giggle could be heard. Then the next officer - a man: 'I've laughed at racist jokes. I've even told racist jokes.' There was a silence.
Then in a gentle voice the equal opportunities training officer asked: 'But would you laugh at a racist joke now?'
No, no, was the answer. Oh no.
In the room were 17 police trainers, half-way through a six- week course on equal opportunities. At the end, they will be sent back to their area to set up a 'training package' for training officers. Some courses will last half a day; others two. But the objective will be the same: to train officers to be aware of their own racist attitudes. Why? So that 'clients' (members of the public) get 'fair treatment'.
Last week saw the launch of a pounds 1m race awareness programme aimed at judges. Like the police, the judiciary is anxious to keep up appearances. All circuit judges, recorders and assistant recorders will attend, the Lord Chancellor has ordered. Why? So the system can be seen as 'racially and culturally neutral'.
'Awareness' is the buzz word of today - awareness of difference and an appreciation of difference. For some time local councils and other public bodies have utilised the services offered by equal opportunities consultants. Now private businesses are anxious to prove their credibility.
'Managers are discovering that race awareness is not a bleeding-hearted liberal invention,' said Jerome Mack, 49, co-director of Equality Associates, which is running the police course in Bedfordshire. 'It is a business.'
Consultants are cottoning on. 'Two years ago there were only 15 race awareness consultants listed in our directory,' said Mary Gray, editor of the New Directory of Equal Opportunities Consultants and Trainers. 'Now we have 25.'
The recession is partly responsible for the change in attitude. Employers are concerned to get the maximum from staff.
Consultants charge up to pounds 2,000 a day to run courses for top management, falling to pounds 200 a day for lower levels of staff.
The police at the hotel in Turvey, Bedfordshire, thought they were getting value for money. 'This course has taught me how to treat the person on the street fairly - irrespective of race and sex,' said Pete Brooks, 36, a trainer for Hertfordshire police.
The course starts by forcing officers to confront their own racism. This can often be painful for the participants, said Francesca Mack, who with her husband teaches on the course. Students are shown how seemingly harmless racist comments - such as a joke - are only a step away from more hurtful manifestations of racism.
But Mrs Mack said: 'Our trainees have to be careful not to be over-zealous in their political correctness. In the past, officers have been so fired up that they have alienated people with their hand-wringing 'woe-is-me' attitude. They have to be realistic: they cannot change the world, but they can tackle a small part of the problem.'
Mrs Mack is particularly good at administering 'political correctness' in small doses: she encourages her students to admit to 'racism' without letting them feel guilty. The grander the confession, the more compassionate her response. When one man proudly exposed the 'ugly' behaviour of his old- fashioned parents, Mrs Mack said: 'Oh dear - how difficult it must have been for you.'
'I was a racist before I married my husband,' Mrs Mack said later. She is white, Mr Mack is a black American. 'I was not particularly interested in race issues until my husband asked me to work for him. I was a primary school teacher.'
With four years of officer- training behind her, Mrs Mack is doubtful about how far the course can change institutionalised racism.
'Training is not the answer to everything,' she said. 'Take the case of judges - you can give knowledge, skills and awareness, but unless you appoint more black judges, institutionalised racism will remain.'
But Mr Brooks's enthusiasm for his new-found interest was unbounding. 'I only volunteered because I felt it was the easiest route to promotion. I used to make racist jokes. 'Smile or I won't be able to see you]' I used to say to a black person if it was dark outside. Only now do I recognise how racist I was.'Reuse content