In August 2022, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion where we would talk about the policing system in the UK. The conversation, which took place at South London’s Asylum Chapel, was also recorded for the YouTube series, Bridge the Gap, which is a show that aims to “bring two groups together with opposing viewpoints with the goal of finding common ground between them.” The subject we would tackle was certainly a delicate one. Just a month prior, tense protests erupted in Akron, Ohio, in response to the release of video footage showing a number of police officers chasing down and fatally shooting a young man with over 60 bullets.
Yet in this “pro-police vs anti-police” exchange, I chose to support the former. A brave or naive move, given the public’s long-held negative perception of law enforcement, both domestically and internationally. Yet, the experience was not as tense as I had anticipated; the cordiality of all of the other panellists, as well as the venue’s atmospheric and edgy design, turned what could have been a volatile and uncomfortable situation into something rather enjoyable and memorable for me.
There were six of us on the panel, three representing each side of the debate. Shaun Flores, a podcaster, and Demetrius Washington, a policeman, debated alongside me. Demetrius had been a constable for five years, primarily serving the Birmingham area. With over 4,500 knife crime offences committed in this region in 2022 alone, the UK’s second city is far from easy to maintain law and order. But I had the impression that Demetrius both loved and took his job seriously, not only because he told me so numerous times prior to filming but also because he made a point to attend the show fully attired in uniform.
We covered a wide range of topics during the discussion, including whether the police were the biggest gang in the UK; whether we felt safe or unsafe around them; and whether they had become enforcers rather than protectors. Most of our time was spent exploring whether or not the police force needed more Black officers, a topic that has been hotly debated many times beyond those chapel walls. There have been calls for institutional reforms to entice more Black people to join law enforcement, serve their communities, and help promote trust. Neil Basu, the most senior ethnic minority officer in Britain, recently made one of these calls. Apart from imploring the organisation to admit that institutional racism “blights policing”; he also explicitly advocated for positive discrimination as the only way to improve diversity within the establishment.
But is this really the only way? Surely there must be other methods for combating discrimination besides using discrimination itself. At a time when it seems so easy and convenient to lay all of the blame for any group disparity at the feet of institutional racism and systemic practices, we should resist the temptation to overlook the role that individual and community-level efforts can play in resolving many of these persistent problems. Changes at the structural level are desirable, but they can only go so far if the deeply ingrained anti-police sentiment in some communities is not eradicated or, at the very least, acknowledged.
The sad and largely ignored reality is that within the “Black community”, no one appears to be more reviled than a police officer who happens to be Black. At times, it seems like lawbreakers are regarded more highly than law enforcement officers. The UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities reported in 2021 that potential recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds are often dissuaded from pursuing a career in law enforcement out of fear of criticism and alienation from family and friends, with some believing they are dishonouring their community by joining the “other side”.
During the Bridge the Gap debate, PC Washington spoke of times he was called a traitor simply for doing his job, and he is by no means an exception. Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn explained that being called a sellout, coon, and a race traitor by members of his community is the “hardest part“ of his job as a Black cop. And this animosity towards Black public servants does not exclusively come from “their own people”. One can recall a White protester berating a Black officer during the 2020 BLM demonstrations in Washington, DC, and saying the most deplorable things to him, including calling him the n-word. Progressives and social activists readily abandon their virtuous cloak of anti-racism, inclusion, and tolerance whenever they encounter a Black person who has “stepped out of line”.
Problematic aspects of culture should always be highlighted. It is not a sign of “internalised racism” or self-hatred, nor does it make someone a bigot, xenophobe, or racist. Seeking out and addressing the systemic policies, practices, and attitudes that have a detrimental effect on different populations is noble and reasonable. What is unreasonable, however, is placing all blame and responsibility on the “system” without holding some individuals or groups accountable for their role in propagating the false narratives or problematic ideologies that contribute to or cause many of these social inequalities.
The historical legacies of discrimination and racism, combined with recent events like the Chris Kaba shooting, are major impediments to mending the fractured relationship between many communities and police departments. Yet, we must continue to confront this issue because without the trust, respect, and “consent of the people” it is extremely difficult for enforcement officers to prevent crime and protect members of the public and their property. A multi-ethnic society should have a multi-ethnic and representative constabulary, but many claim to value diversity in theory while mistreating and denigrating Black police officers in practice.
A great cultural shift is needed, not just in our nation’s institutions but also and especially within our communities. The first step is to remove the societal stigma associated with being a Black police officer so that their profession is viewed as dignified, respectable, and admirable rather than an embarrassment or betrayal.
Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.
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