Imagine your first day in a new job and the blokes in the office decide to turn you upside down so they can have a laugh at your expense by “branding” your bum with the office rubber stamp. It sounds horrific, even scarcely believable.
But that was just the first in a catalogue of sexist and racist incidents Parm Sandhu – one of Scotland Yard’s most senior ethnic minority officers – says she experienced in her 30-year career there. She resisted the initiation ceremony, but it was an ominous harbinger of the battle she’d fight throughout her working life. It was a battle which was to see her sue the Metropolitan Police.
Last night, on Channel 4 News, she spoke out for the first time since taking her employers to a tribunal and agreeing a financial settlement. She told me that, contrary to Met commissioner Dame Cressida Dick’s denial of institutional racism, she believes the force is now more racist than directly after the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence.
It might be easy to dismiss the bum branding as something that belongs to a chauvinistic past. Likewise the incident when a member of the public racially abused Sandhu while she was on patrol. The fellow officer with her intervened – to tell her abuser: “Only we’re allowed to call her a P***.”
But her accusations against Scotland Yard are shockingly contemporary, too. In 2018, after she applied to become a chief superintendent, she was called to a security “vetting” interview to “discuss your Indian heritage”. The implication, she told me, was that – despite being born and bred in Britain – her background somehow placed a question mark over her loyalty to her home country. The Met has since apologised to her.
Sandhu’s mantra throughout her career has been: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” But despite her financial settlement with the Met, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the bastards might have won. Having risen to chief superintendent level, she’s left the job she loved, and, according to Sandhu – although “there are a lot of police officers who are good, who are kind and who are there for the right reasons” – there is “a core of police officers who are racist”.
But now she’s getting her own back, raising her voice to the rafters to shame those who she says stood in her way. And she reserves her harshest criticism for Dame Cressida herself. “I think that she’s so far removed from reality, so far removed from real operational policing, she doesn’t know any more. She either doesn’t know, or she chooses to ignore it: institutional racism exists in the Metropolitan Police, and it’s alive and kicking and is worse now than straight after the Macpherson Inquiry,” she told me.
That’s quite a claim, and I asked Sandhu for evidence to back it up. She cited the sheer number of ethnic minority officers who find themselves under investigation. “If you’re a black officer, you’re about three times more likely to be investigated internally,” she said. She herself faced gross misconduct charges for lobbying on her own behalf to receive a Queen’s police medal. She was cleared after an investigation.
Last night, the Met told Channel 4 News in a statement: “Parm Sandhu is a successful former Metropolitan Police officer. Prior to her retirement, she was one of our most senior operational leaders, promoted through the ranks to chief superintendent. The commissioner’s record on issues of race and discrimination speaks for itself and she is deeply committed to continuing to build a service that reflects those it serves. The legal matters between the Met and Ms Sandhu are private. The Met has made no admissions of liability in respect of claims of discrimination against Ms Sandhu.”
Dame Cressida, despite her denials of institutional racism, is clearly aware that something has to be done to regain the confidence of the communities the Met is supposed to keep safe. The Met has the most ethnic minority officers of any force, but also the biggest race gap. London’s population is 40 per cent ethnic minority, while the Met’s ranks are less than 16 per cent.
The commissioner has agreed to hire 40 per cent of new recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds and yesterday it emerged that she wants the law changed to enable her to use positive discrimination to increase the number of ethnic minority recruits.
But according to Sandhu, Dame Cressida has missed the point: “I think she’s got enough people of colour who are joining the police service. [But] people are joining for a year, two years, five years, 10 years, and then they’re being forced out or they are leaving because it’s too difficult. It’s that revolving door she needs to stop.”
Perhaps the first ethnic minority Met commissioner could bring that revolving door to a halt. Sandhu said, only half jokingly, that her old bosses could pick up the phone if they wanted to ask her to make history once again. She was also full of praise for assistant commissioner Neil Basu, who’s often been tipped for the top job. But she’s not confident either scenario will happen in her lifetime.
In her memoirs, Black and Blue: One Woman’s Story of Policing and Prejudice, to be published next week, she recalls her mum’s advice: “All those years ago my mother warned me never to buy a house of my own because people would break my windows. I chose not to believe that… In the end it turned out that my mother was right. If you come from where we come from there are always people who want to break your windows.”
The Met needs to prove her mum wrong.
Cathy Newman presents ‘Channel 4 News’, weekdays at 7pm
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