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Black Lives Matter: Racism in UK policing ‘reflects an imperfect society’, senior officer says

‘No organisation can say there are not people who potentially hold racist views,’ says chair of National Police Chiefs’ Council

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 24 June 2020 17:28 BST
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Black Lives Matter billboard unveiled in London

A senior police leader has denied that racism is “rife” in British policing and said officers “reflect an imperfect society”.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), told MPs that forces were listening to ongoing Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US.

“I very much refute the allegation that racism is rife in the police service,” he said in evidence to parliament’s Home Affairs Committee.

“No organisation can say there are not people who potentially hold racist views.

“The police service is no different and we reflect the imperfect society that we come from.”

Mr Hewitt was giving evidence on Wednesday to the committee's policing and race inquiry, which marks 21 years since a landmark report on the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Last week, a former senior officer told the committee that racism was “alive and kicking” in British policing and accused leaders of taking a “tick box approach” to combating discrimination.

Mr Hewitt said police and wider society had “moved on enormously” since the Macpherson Report exposed institutional racism.

“We have improved in many ways but are we where we need to be now? No,” he added, saying the NPCC had commissioned a “plan of action”.

It will look at the representation and treatment of black and ethnic minority police officers, as well as community relationships, the use of force and powers including stop and search.

Concerns have been raised about the disproportionate use of force, including Tasers, against black people as well as the way coronavirus fines have been handed out.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, criticised the NPCC for wrongly claiming that fines had been ethnically proportionate in the early part of the lockdown.

She accused Mr Hewitt of making a “basic mistake” by failing to take account of the fact that ethnicity has not been recorded for almost a quarter of the 18,000 fines handed out.

Ms Cooper said police had been warned of potential racial disproportionality in the emergency powers but did not put adequate protections in place.

She added: “You didn’t have built-in data or systems you could easily draw upon to find whether or not these fines were being used disproportionately.

“Your initial analysis made some really basic insensitive errors that meant you claimed something was proportionate, when it clearly wasn’t … doesn’t this reveal something really serious about the police response to race and ethnicity?”

Mr Hewitt said the statistical mistake had been corrected and denied the allegation, adding: “I don’t think that’s an entirely fair challenge.”

He added that police had to create the system for unprecedented coronavirus fines “from nothing within literally 36 hours” following Boris Johnson’s lockdown announcement on 23 March.

The Home Affairs Committee asked for an ethnic breakdown on the fines issued by each police force in England and Wales, but the NPCC has refused to publish the data until it is analysed.

“I think there’s a real concern that this isn’t just being made public so everyone can debate and discuss the context publicly, as opposed to the police spending a very long time doing so,” Ms Cooper said.

Figures released so far by the NPCC show that between 27 March and 8 June in England, 79 per cent of fines were handed out to white people in England, 12 per cent to Asian people, 5 per cent to black people, 2 per cent mixed-race and 1 per cent other.

Kent chief constable 'takes a knee' at Black Lives Matter event

The figures exclude the 23 per cent of fines were ethnicity was not stated - a group that campaigners believe contains many more black and ethnic minority people.

According to the 2011 census, 86 per cent of the population of England and Wales is white, 8 per cent Asian, 3 per cent black, 2 per cent mixed and 1 per cent other.

Mr Hewitt argued that regional police forces had been enforcing the coronavirus lockdown “in their own context” and had experienced different issues based on issues including whether they contain cities or beauty spots.

The NPCC “plan of action” will also look at the use of force and powers including stop and search, which has rocketed in London during the lockdown despite plummeting crime.

Mr Hewitt promised to “engage with critics” but admitted that several members of the national Taser stakeholder advisory group quit in April, accusing the NPCC of failing to take racial disproportionality seriously.

He said: “The last few weeks have caused some real reflection, and to take a really hard look at ourselves. That hard look says we need to do more and we need to do it quicker.”

According to the latest figures, 238,000 people have joined around 834 protests held across the UK since Mr Floyd’s death.

The numbers cover Black Lives Matter demonstrations and counter-protests by right-wing groups and people claiming to “defend” statues.

There have so far been almost 300 arrests and 100 officers have been injured.

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