UK police chief who declared her force ‘institutionally racist’ says culture is changing

<span>Crew accepted it had been difficult for many officers and staff to hear their force described as institutionally racist.</span><span>Photograph: Barbara Evripidou</span>
Crew accepted it had been difficult for many officers and staff to hear their force described as institutionally racist.Photograph: Barbara Evripidou

A chief constable has said her acknowledgment that her police force was “institutionally racist” unsettled and hurt some officers but insisted it has allowed the force to make vital changes.

Sarah Crew, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset, described her declaration a year ago as a “step towards” communities who believed the police never listened to them, and she said it had helped the force deal better with a series of high-profile killings in the past 12 months.

A series of changes have been made, including changes to the force’s stop and search policy, the introduction of alternative ways of dealing with young people accused of crime, and the running of cultural awareness training programmes for officers.

Crew accepted it had been difficult for many officers and staff to hear their force described as institutionally racist. “Some officers and staff have been unsettled and hurt, feeling that the organisation they hold dear is under attack,” she said.

The chief constable said the vast majority of officers and staff worked “incredibly hard” and had not “got a racist bone or a discriminatory bone in their body”, and that to many what she had said had felt like a distraction. She said their reaction had been: “What’s the chief done?”

But Crew said: “The dial’s changed a bit. I think the resistance still resists, but the group of people that gets it is increasing. Culture change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time and you will eventually get to a tipping point.

“It’s a bit like Covid. Initially you can trace the transfer and it’s small, but when it hits community we know what happened. That’s what I’m trying for. I’m trying to get to that community transfer, and I think we’re close to doing that.”

Crew’s acknowledgment came shortly after the 30th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder and was also informed by the high-profile killing of the Iranian refugee Bijan Ebrahimi in Bristol in 2013, whose complaints to police had long been ignored, as well as the stun gun shooting of a community elder and race relations adviser, Judah Adunbi, in the city in 2017.

She said that to make changes the force needed the community behind it. “To get the community to really meaningfully engage, we needed to take a step towards them.”

Crew said two crucial policies had been introduced. One was the “Chance to Change” deferred prosecution scheme, launched last month, under which young people suspected of certain offences get a chance to engage with a programme rather than being forced into the criminal justice system. An app has been created to make this process smooth and quick.

The second, also brought in this summer, is a bespoke stop and search policy put together with the newly created 70-member Race Matters community network. “It reminds officers what the purpose of stop and search is. Most people say it’s to find things – well actually, no, it’s to avert the need to arrest people,” she said.

The force has made the recording of vehicle stops mandatory, which it wan’t before, and introduced changes to spot which officers are using stop and search disproportionately.

Crew has won plaudits for her force’s attempts to put rape suspects’ credibility and not their victims’ at the centre of sexual offences investigations, and she said the plan was to take lessons learned from that to try to improve how it served victims from Black and ethnic minority communities. “Do we need to have a particularly enhanced kind of response if you’re a minoritised victim of crime? That could be quite controversial, so we are getting some legal and ethical feedback.”

Under the Race Matters programme, 1,500 frontline officers have received training. The force has also run “safe space’ sessions for more than 1,200 staff in which participants are encouraged to ask questions in a safe, non-judgmental environment about incidents, issues or use of language.

It is also looking at bringing in more Black and minority ethnic officers. One move has been to make it easier for recruits to join without a full driving licence. “Getting a licence is really expensive and that’s a real barrier for some of our poorer communities,” Crew said.

There have been a series of fatal stabbings in and around Bristol in the past 12 months. Crew said she believed her openness had made them easier to investigate. “Without the acknowledgment and the work we’ve done, I think we’d been in a very difficult, very different place.

“Had I not acknowledged that institutional racism exists, I’m sure the communities most directly affected would not trust us. Without trust there is no consent, and without consent we no longer have legitimacy to police.”