Chinese names, Gypsy customs: The knowledge that is designed to end colour-blind policing

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The Independent Online

When the Metropolitan Police first hatched the idea of a race handbook, the plan was received with suspicion. Some Irish groups were astounded that the force was genuinely trying to put together such a document. Members of the Romany community were wary that the exercise was a front for prising out information about illegal activities.

When the Metropolitan Police first hatched the idea of a race handbook, the plan was received with suspicion. Some Irish groups were astounded that the force was genuinely trying to put together such a document. Members of the Romany community were wary that the exercise was a front for prising out information about illegal activities.

Policing Diversity: The Metropolitan Police Service handbook on London's religions, cultures and communities will be issued next month to all 25,000 officers and civilian staff employed by the Met, in response to the Macpherson report on the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in south London in 1993.

The very idea will be anathema to some officers who have spent years trying to apply a "colour-blind" approach to policing, treating people the same regardless of background. Gaynor Thorne, the manager of the diversity training support unit at the Met's training college in north London, said: "It has gone the other way now. It is not about treating everybody the same, but about treating people according to their need."

Glen Smythe, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, warned last night that some officers might find the handbook daunting because it underlines the full diversity of the public they serve. "It could be useful, but it will also add to their sense of frustration by showing the complexity of the job we have to do. Being able to understand it all is extremely demanding of them. This is a good idea, but the problem will be getting the time to read it and understand it."

The author, Constable Jonathan Wilson, 33, is fully aware of the sensitivity of the project. Gaffes in the handbook could destroy its credibility, outrage communities and expose the Met to further scorn for its ignorance and lack of sensitivity.

PC Wilson himself would appear to be the embodiment of post-Macpherson policing. After a decade on the beat in west London, he took three years away from the job to tour the world and take a degree at the University of Sussex's School of African and Asian Studies, where he studied colonialism and cultural differences.

However, he said: "The prospect of mistakes leaves me terrified, absolutely terrified. It is the sort of thing that could ruin your career. This is why this handbook has been over 12 months in the making."

To cover its back, the Met has printed a foreword with an "unreserved apology" to anyone who feels their beliefs or practices have been unfairly represented.

Some conspicuous omissions could lead to complaints. London's large West African communities are strangely absent from the handbook. So is Rastafarianism and the delicate issue of that faith's belief in the sanctity of cannabis.

But PC Wilson said the handbook was intended to be a "living document" that can be expanded and amended at the suggestion of officers and members of the public.

Some communities had actually wanted the handbook to mention the disproportionate numbers of people they had with alcohol and mental health problems. But the proposals were rejected to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes.

The handbook covers cultural details and carries a separate section on dealing sensitively with people with disabilities. The issue of diet contains numerous pitfalls that could cause offence to people held in custody at police stations. Orthodox Jews, for example, might ask for food to be brought from home and be willing only to drink from a paper cup.

Names are also a potential minefield. Romany families often do not use surnames, but call themselves, for example, "Mary, the daughter of Frank". The name of a Somali woman might have nothing in common with that of her husband.

The Chinese use a variety of naming systems. PC Wilson said: "It may look as if they are avoiding immigration rules or trying to commit a criminal offence with a credit card. But in reality there could be a perfectly innocent explanation."

The handbook also contains information explaining the presence of various immigrant communities in Britain. It records that some African Caribbeans arrived to work in munitions factories in the Second World War, and others were later recruited "with promises of a higher standard of living in Britain, to fill the labour-scarce sectors of industry".

Many Indians in Britain originate from Gujarat, where the British East India Company had a trading post in the 17th century. One Gujarati to come to Britain was Mahatma Gandhi, the handbook notes. Many Sikh families who came here had "a historical connection with the British Armed Forces," it says.

Since the Macpherson report, many officers on the beat feel they are walking on eggshells, with the public demanding a degree of cultural awareness not expected in most other occupations. Few have been adequately prepared to exercise the skills of social and community workers as well as carry out their more traditional crime-fighting roles. As a consequence, most officers who have seen the handbook have reacted positively, revealing a hunger for the information it contains.

But, within the ranks of the 25,000 Met personnel, some form of backlash against the perceived political correctness of the document is inevitable. Significantly, the lack of a section on "the English" has already been questioned.

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