The police deserve praise for a step towards true racial understanding

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The Independent Online

It will, no doubt, be criticised by all the usual suspects. The publication of a Metropolitan Police handbook, Policing Diversity, which aims to ensure that police officers are sensitive to the differences between London's many ethnic and religious groups, will be mocked for its alleged "political correctness". Nor is that the only problem. When the idea for such a handbook first emerged, many community groups were themselves suspicious, wary of being pigeonholed and stereotyped.

It will, no doubt, be criticised by all the usual suspects. The publication of a Metropolitan Police handbook, Policing Diversity, which aims to ensure that police officers are sensitive to the differences between London's many ethnic and religious groups, will be mocked for its alleged "political correctness". Nor is that the only problem. When the idea for such a handbook first emerged, many community groups were themselves suspicious, wary of being pigeonholed and stereotyped.

As The Independent reports today, the new guide is wide-ranging, covering everything from how not to cause offence when beckoning to a Somali man, to complications caused by multiple Chinese names. There will be contentious passages, and there is no doubt that it is occasionally woolly in its tone, more sociological than practical in the solutions that it offers.

The handbook deserves a warm welcome, however - not least because of the spirit of humility in which it has been published. PC Jonathan Wilson, the 33-year-old author of the new handbook, admits that the prospect of mistakes leaves him "absolutely terrified"; the Met has in advance offered an "unreserved apology" to any who feel that their beliefs or customs have been unfairly represented.

All of which makes a magnificently refreshing change from the attitudes which have been prevalent until now. For years, the idea of seeking to understand other communities was considered to be an absolute no-no. There was a one-size-fits-all attitude to policing, where inflexibility towards those with an "un-British" approach was the rule. Even in recent years, there was an eagerness to be perceived as "colour-blind" - which in effect meant seeking to pretend that differences did not exist.

In the years following the publication of the highly critical Macpherson report, which addressed the institutional racism so vividly revealed by the Stephen Lawrence affair, many policemen have seemed like frozen rabbits in the headlights, worried that whatever they say or do may somehow put a racist foot wrong. The handbook, though it doubtless has some gaps, is courageous in its attempt at least to address the problems head-on.

The paradox is that the police, who have in the past so often seemed dangerously insensitive to the needs of different communities, may now be better equipped to handle difficulties than others - teachers, probation officers, social workers - for whom an awareness of different approaches may be equally important. Harry Fletcher of the Probation Officers' Association is thus right to describe the publication as "unique and cutting-edge".

The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation has been cautious in his response, talking of the "sense of frustration" that will be felt because of the complexity of the job that police must do. But this grudging approach should be left behind. It is important that the handbook should not be seen as implying weakness in police attitudes; on the contrary, it should be perceived as a positive asset.

In the weeks and months to come, we will certainly hear further complaints about alleged inaccuracies or stereotypes, and about an excess of zeal to please. So be it. But the Met has tried hard, in one of the most difficult areas of policing. Even now, it remains ready to change further. For that, it deserves warm praise.

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