Paul Atkinson: Policemen are racist because they can get away with it

Atkinson spent six years in the force and was a producer on 'The Secret Policeman', the BBC film that exposed racist recruits. Here he argues that it's time his former employers bridged the gap between training and practice in race relations
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The Independent Online

I joined Greater Manchester Police in 1988 and spent six years working in the Moss Side and Longsight areas of the city. When I began working on The Secret Policeman - the BBC documentary that last week exposed racist trainee officers in the Manchester force - I didn't really know what I expected to find almost 10 years on. But from the outset it seemed that little had changed.

It was the same kind of training, delivered in the same kind of way. Policies were expressly spelt out; racism, sexism, homophobia were all forbidden. And they were all reinforced by the threat of dismissal for breaking the rules. The rationale for this policy appears reasonable. People are defined by the language they use. And for police officers, a sensitive and respectful use of language is particularly important. With the power to take away the liberty of fellow citizens comes the responsibility to act without fear or favour.

Some officers say the police service reflects society. They say a racist society explains a racist police service. But the reality is that chief constables have a legal duty placed upon them by the Race Relations Amendment Act to weed out the racists. Chief officers have a responsibility to ensure their staff do not behave like PC Robert Pulling, the officer who resigned from the police service on Wednesday with four fellow officers after the broadcast of their racist views. And if officers behave in a racist manner, the chief constable must take responsibility.

When the Human Rights Act came into effect in 2000, Greater Manchester Police ensured their policies complied with it. A team of officers was assigned the responsibility. Yet nearly three years after the Race Relations Amendment Act became law, Greater Manchester Police have still not fully incorporated it.

The difference in the way these two Acts of Parliament have been implemented was identified this year by a senior officer from Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabularies, who exposed a serious failure in senior management. It is what Sir William Macpherson was talking about when he described collective failures in policy, example and leadership in his report after the death of Stephen Lawrence. It is institutional racism.

This perceived management failure provided the backdrop as Mark Daly, our undercover reporter on The Secret Policeman, and the other new recruits joined Greater Manchester Police in January 2003. And it wasn't long before they rubbed up against the effort to combat institutional racism. On their first day these impressionable new recruits were told never to use the words "Paki", "nigger", "wog" or "coon". If they did, they'd be out of a job.

A day and a half later, Daly and his colleagues were addressed by a Police Federation representative. He also told them not to use the forbidden words, but was a little more forthcoming. He said that if they did use the words, the Federation would represent them. He gave the example of an officer who had used the words during his training. The officer was disciplined but did not lose his job. He was fined a few days' pay.

This was the first time Daly and the other recruits saw the divergence between policy and practice. The job said one thing but the reality was different. The training package provided by Greater Manchester Police conspired to undermine its own policies on race relations and equal opportunities - the very foundation of its strategy to tackle racism.

But it was the treatment of one Asian officer, out of 120 on the intake, which revealed most about police racism. Most officers who joined with Daly went through a six- to 12-month selection process. They were proud of the efforts they had put in, and annoyed they had had to wait so long to join the force.

The Asian officer from North Wales Police said he had been fast-tracked through the selection process in three weeks. The police service in general is significantly under-represented by black and Asian people, therefore the law allows forces to help such candidates in their preparations for selection. It does not allow forces to discriminate in favour of people from ethnic minorities within the selection process.

The positive action of North Wales Police was interpreted as favouritism by most officers filmed by Mark Daly - under-the-counter positive discrimination. They resented the Asian officer's speedy entry into the police service, and, in one form or another, blamed the officer personally.

The legitimate and appropriate actions of North Wales Police in facilitating the entry of black and Asian staff (it's the only way to get a representative police service) made many of the white officers feel that ethnic-minority colleagues received preferential treatment, when the evidence pointed strongly to the contrary. Take the police disciplinary system. The Home Office recently conducted a study into the treatment of black and Asian staff. In this unpublished report, these people were shown to be twice as likely to be suspended, twice as likely to be arrested and twice as likely to end up in court and prison when accused of committing the same offences as their white colleagues.

And inequality doesn't only exist in the discipline system. In 2000, Greater Manchester Police commissioned a study into the treatment of its own black and Asian staff. The results revealed shocking levels of racism. Researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University were brought to tears when they heard some of the so-called "banter" that ethnic-minority officers are subjected to daily. The report still remains unpublished, despite assurances to the contrary when it was first commissioned.

The behaviour of the officers featured in The Secret Policeman brings shame to the uniform. Racist officers are allowed to exist and flourish because they figure out early that as long as they are careful, they will never get caught by a system which relies upon one officer turning against another. Figures show that officers are rarely brought to account for their racism, even though in the light of the evidence gathered by the BBC, there seems to be a lot about.

The failure to tackle this racism is felt most in the delivery of policing services to the community. If what the BBC found is true - and having watched every second of material shot at the training school over the 15 weeks, I believe the case to be overwhelming - then black and Asian people are stopped and searched more often than white people because a minority of racist officers target them. Similarly, there are more deaths of black and Asian people in police custody. The BBC filmed a number of officers who could not wait to get on the streets and put their prejudices into action.

A small number of racist officers can do a great deal of damage in an organisation struggling to deal with its own racism.

Greater Manchester Police say: "We are committed to equality of opportunity, both in providing services and as a major employer. We are also committed to removing unfair discrimination and we believe that all people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. We will make sure our staff are fully aware of this policy and keep to its requirements."

It is now time to turn these words from GMP's race relations and equal opportunities policy into action. The people of Manchester have waited long enough.