Police are losing legitimacy in minority ethnic communities because many believed they are biased against them, two police leaders have said.
The remarks represent a significant shift in tone after policing was convulsed by the Black Lives Matters protests, controversy about stop and search, and the use of police force.
Paul Griffiths, the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, said the situation was now so serious that the “next national emergency facing our country” was diversity and inclusion.
Addressing the virtual annual conference of superintendents, who manage much of policing, Griffiths said: “Our workforce is not representative of our communities and our services are not being delivered with legitimacy when it comes to ethnicity.”
The killing by US police of George Floyd in May triggered mass anti-racism protests in the UK, which, alongside controversy about racial bias in how officers use their powers, plunged police into a race crisis.
Griffiths said: “As individuals and as members of our service, we stood alongside all those appalled by the shocking death of George Floyd in America. Our outrage was clear and authentic.
“Yet we also stand within an establishment that is still decades behind where it should be in terms of understanding, representing and serving the rich and diverse communities of which it is part.
“This cannot continue and we are past the stage of simply talking about this.”
Policing numbers are to increase by 20,000, which Griffiths said was a once-in-a-generation chance for change after decades of warnings stretching back to the Brixton riots in 1981. “Indeed, if we don’t address the diversity issues within our workforce as part of the police uplift programme, and at such a pivotal time for significant opportunity for change, we will face another 40-year problem.”
He said there was an urgent need to “re-design policing”, which was still disproportionately white, and said: “As a white male officer, like many of my colleagues, I do not have the lived experience of colleagues from under-represented groups, so we can’t possibly claim to have the answers. This is, for me, one of the biggest areas where we get it wrong.
“We risk making assumptions from a completely misaligned background and experience. We may have every intention of doing the right thing, but we cannot speak for people when we do not fully understand their perspective.”
Deputy chief constable Phil Cain, who leads on workforce representation and diversity for the National Police Chiefs’ Council said recent opinion polls showed big majorities of minority ethnic people, especially black people, believed policing was biased.
Cain said: “These figures are saddening for a modern police service. We are 27 years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson report that followed. And yet many of our ethnic communities still feel that the police is biased against them in some way.”
For years the police have been accused of denying they had a continuing and serious race problem which meant sections of the public were treated more harshly as suspects, or failed as victims. The institution’s leadership would defend it, claiming much had been achieved while accepting more needed to be done.
The two speeches were among the first significant public contribution from policing’s leadership since more than 250,000 BLM campaigners took to the streets across the UK, despite coronavirus restrictions.
The men’s positions are not universally accepted among police chiefs or rank and file officers, and a battle is being fought for the future direction of law enforcement.
Police chiefs are still working on plans for reform but it remains to be seen whether they will convince those who believe policing is biased, or change official figures showing racial disproportionality in the use of force and powers such as stop and search.