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Britain’s Most Senior Black Police Officer On Racism In The Met

The relationship between the police and Black communities across the UK has been fraught for years, even more so since the start of the pandemic and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Twenty-two years have passed since the Macpherson Report found that institutional racism marred the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and, despite the Metropolitan Police denying that systemic racism still exists within the force, some argue that not much has changed. The Met Police came under intense scrutiny last year after it conducted 43,000 stops in London in May alone, double the number of 12 months earlier. Black people were disproportionately targeted — it was found that they were 3.7 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched in the year to November 2020. While the public discourse has largely focused on young Black men and their relationship with the police, new statistics show a different picture when it comes to young Black women. The Joint Committee on Human Rights published its report “Black People, Racism and Human Rights“ in November 2020. The report revealed that the vast majority (85%) of Black people are not confident that they would be treated the same as a white person by the national police force and Black women (91%) are more likely than Black men (77%) to feel they would not be treated the same as a white person by police. Ninety-one percent of Black women are likely to feel they would not be treated the same as a white person by police. A number of high profile cases have added weight to these statistics. Neomi Bennett, an NHS nurse for 30 years who was awarded the British Empire Medal for nursing, was left traumatised after being targeted by police near her south London home in 2019. Officers tried to pull open the door of her parked car to search it without warning; she was then dragged out of the car, handcuffed and held overnight before being charged and convicted of obstructing a police officer. She was told the search had been instigated because the tint on her car windows was too dark. Bennett’s conviction was overturned last May when the prosecution declined to offer any evidence at her appeal. This is just one of a number of incidents allegedly involving excessive force which have renewed attention on police tactics towards the country’s Black population. Last summer, Labour MP and former shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler accused the police of being institutionally racist after she and a friend were stopped while driving in Hackney, east London. After taking the BMW’s keys and checking the registration, the officers admitted there had been a mistake and apologised, Butler told the Guardian at the time. The Metropolitan Police later said in a statement that an officer had initially entered the registration number wrongly into a computer system, and that neither the MP nor her friend were searched. In June last year, two Metropolitan officers were arrested on suspicion of misconduct after allegedly taking selfies next to the bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry after they were found dead in a park in Wembley. In June last year, two Met officers were arrested on suspicion of misconduct after allegedly taking selfies next to the bodies of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry after they were found dead in a park in Wembley. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said the pictures were allegedly “shared with a number of others”, adding that the Met was “handling matters involving those members of the public who may have received those images”. The sisters’ mother said at the time that she felt the Met Police “didn’t care” about “a Black woman who lives on a council estate”. In November 2020, the Metropolitan Police announced it would be recruiting 40% of new recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds, while officers will have to justify stop and search to community panels under new plans designed to quell the race crisis engulfing Scotland Yard. Ahead, we caught up with Commander Dr Alison Heydari, Britain’s most senior Black police officer, who joined the Metropolitan Police last year after serving almost two decades at Hampshire Constabulary, to discuss how to salvage the broken relationship between the police and Black communities across the UK, and what work the Metropolitan Police is doing to regain trust and best serve and protect the Black community. DashDividers_1_500x100 Hi Commander Dr Alison Heydari. Your career is really impressive. How different is the work of the Metropolitan Police from the work of Hampshire Constabulary? It’s more about scale. Wherever you go in the UK, policing is actually quite similar but a lot of it is due to the sheer scale in London. In Hampshire, I managed and dealt with similar things in the Met, such as community engagement, managing crime and critical incidents, but it’s usually a bigger scale in London and one of the most exciting things about working in a global city. I was born and bred in London so coming back here was a massive privilege on both a personal and emotional level. Joining the police was never a career I had considered, it was a result of the advert I saw. I joked with my husband about joining and he said I would be great. The rest is history — in all the time I’ve worked in policing, I think I have made a difference to victims, communities, my staff and it has been something that has made a huge difference in my life too. You have been called an inspirational leader and changemaker within the Met. In your Evening Standard interview this week, you said that the Met Police is “listening and working hard and doing a lot of work” with regards to salvaging the relationship between the police and the Black community in London. What work is being done? Prior to the Mayor’s Action Plan being published in November, there was a lot of work going on to build those community relationships via the Territorial Support Group (TSG). I am working very closely with someone in TSG. They are doing excellent work in schools and colleges to build these relationships and break down barriers, going out there to talk to Black communities about what they do, their concerns and bringing that back into the organisation. We have a lot of resources devoted to outreach, increasing communication and engagement with BAME communities. I’m personally leading on a couple of projects, such as Behind The Badge, where we look at how we can use diverse social media to break down barriers to talk to people about what it’s like being a police officer. Many of those who take part are from BAME communities and Black officers. We ask them why they joined and why they decided to take up a career in policing. Also, to broaden it out, policing is not just about police officers — there are so many careers on the spectrum to CSIs and criminal investigations. I have led work on a campaign called #Listen, looking at that cohort of young Black men aged 16 to 25 and working to engage with them and listening to their experiences. Mistrust is generational, it’s not something we can turn around in a couple of weeks. It’s hard graft and long-term stuff that we have to do. Mistrust is generational, it’s not something we can turn around in a couple of weeks. It’s hard graft and long-term stuff that we have to do.commander dr alison heydari According to the force’s own published data, Black people were 3.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. Forty-three thousand stops were made in London in May 2020 alone and Black people were disproportionately targeted. Why are these figures so high? I think some of these things come down to scrutiny and involving communities in what we do. One thing we have been doing in the last few months is looking at how Black communities can take part in stop and search training. We have Black people taking part in that scrutiny. As a researcher myself, it was around lived experience. It’s important for officers to learn about the experiences of Black people, it’s about power and it can be intrusive. Having communities on board serving that stop and search training and being able to give input allows officers to understand the impact it can have on people. It’s about Black people coming into policing. We have a lot of officers joining us on a monthly basis and part of their training is to have community engagement on the Basic Command Unit where they are placed. This means they understand using their powers, the impact of it and understanding the communities they are expected to police. It’s important for officers to learn about the experiences of Black people, it’s about power and it can be intrusive.commander dr alison heydari It’s been 22 years since the Mapherson Report found the Metropolitan Police “institutionally racist”. In your 20+ year policing career, what changes have you seen the force implement to restore this growing lack of trust? What has changed, as a serving police officer, for Black women? There has been a lot of change around the data in the last 10 years and the number of BAME Black people we have had join the force has increased. It’s moving in the right direction. There are things we have done around making sure we try to encourage more communities in recruitment. There are changes in recruitment in joining the police and when you think about what we’re doing around bringing people into policing. We have the three-year apprenticeship programme with a starting salary of £30,000 and that includes studying for a degree. So we pay you to work and get your degree, and at the end of that you can have a choice of a long-term policing career and good pension. Within policing there is a lot more support for minority groups in terms of mentoring and coaching, developmental programmes, and there’s a bigger need for Black officers and staff. There’s a lot more encouraging discussions around how Black officers feel, the pressures of being Black and in the office. I can say with all honesty that in my 20 years of policing, that scrutiny never really existed. We now use independent advisory groups, community monitoring groups and we have invitations for communities to scrutinise us. That’s not to say that the race around this has finished. There’s a lot for us to do. I’m one of many in the Met who are doing some work around how we can engage in a better way. As a Black woman myself, I feel very strongly about encouraging more Black women to come into policing. As someone from the Black community myself, I encourage people to join policing. If you don’t want to join policing, find ways to scrutinise our processes.Commander dr alison heydari The Joint Committee on Human Rights report revealed some damning stats regarding young Black women. A number of young women have told me about their negative experiences with the Met Police. One young person, who identifies as non-binary, claims to have been stopped and searched by the Met Police on two occasions and was misgendered. Another woman told me that she was left traumatised after she was strip searched against her will, with weak evidence against her. Both said that they were made to feel that they had to justify their being. We’ve also seen a number of high profile examples of Black women being targeted by the police, such as Neomi Bennett, Dawn Butler, Bianca Williams and the two officers who allegedly took selfies with the dead bodies of two Black women in Wembley. What is the force doing to ensure Black people, specifically Black women, don’t feel this way and are given the respect they deserve? I think we have instances of the things we have spoken about [and] that they should be held to account. We need to make sure we take notice of the reports, the experiences and make sure that we feed back that learning to the organisation. I understand that people are traumatised. Having grown up in London myself, I understand that completely. Officers wear body cam videos now. We have scrutiny processes in place, community monitoring, data quality groups, stop and search panels where members of the public can scrutinise body worn cameras, scrutinise and review it. That goes into the learning of the organisation. This is why I am here. As a Black woman myself, I feel very strongly about encouraging more Black women to come into policing. As someone from the Black community myself, I encourage people to join policing. If you don’t want to join policing, find ways to scrutinise our processes. As a role model, I’m very privileged to be sat here and be open to that conversation, that makes for more dialogue. We need more Black people to scrutinise us so we can improve and build trust. Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Black Lives — And Black Joy — MatterHow To Help Black People Today, Tomorrow & ForeverBAME Is Outdated. What Should We Say Instead?

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