Merit, and not ethnicity, must be the basis on which we select police officers, argues David Green
The College of Policing, which oversees professional standards within the police force, recently declared its commitment to the idea that the legitimacy of the police depends on its ethnic composition. At present about 14 per cent of the population is from an ethnic minority, compared with only 5.2 cent for the police.
Richard Bennett, assistant chief constable at the College, feared that the police would lose “a degree of legitimacy” if in future years the police had only 10 per cent black and minority ethnic representation when the national figure was 25 per cent or more. And yet, the police have never been representative of the social or ethnic breakdown of society. They have been selected because of their personal qualities.
So long as that remains true, then every officer is entitled to respect, whether black or white, male or female, gay or straight. The legitimacy of the police has nothing to do with the racial composition of the force.
It has to do with impartial enforcement of the law.
If there were not even one member of an ethnic minority, the police would still be legitimate so long as officers owed their allegiance to impartial enforcement of the law.
The best safeguard for legitimacy is for policing to be seen as a vocation. Police officers are people who have been chosen because they deserve to wear the uniform, not because of their ethnic status.
They are individuals who deserve to be part of a profession that upholds the law without favour or affection, malice or ill-will.
Proportionate representation is sometimes justified in the name of efficiency. Some ethnic or religious groups are happier to be policed by people from their own identity group. Already some Muslims have let it be known that they do not like being given instructions by women. It’s the same with some West Indian men. Some senior officers take these concerns into account.
But it can never be accepted that we are entitled to be policed only by our own kind. There are tensions in parts of England between Sikhs and Muslims. Some Muslims regard Sikhs as infidels, even lower than Christians and Jews.
Are they entitled to refuse to respect a Sikh police officer? How far should we take it? Why is race the vital criterion of legitimacy? What about gender, religion and sexual orientation? What happens when ethnic status grants an officer legitimacy with one group but not with another? Is a gay man, for example, expected to grant legitimacy to a Muslim police officer who strongly disapproves of homosexuality?
The confusion started with Lord Scarman in his report on the Brixton Disorders in 1981. He upheld the importance of police independence:
“Neither politicians nor pressuregroups nor anyone else may tell the police what decisions to take or what methods to employ...The exercise of police judgement has to be as independent as the exercise of professional judgement by a doctor or a lawyer. If it is not, the way is open to manipulation and abuse of the law, whether for political or for private ends.”
So far, so good. But he also said, “There is widespread agreement that the composition of our police forces must reflect the make-up of the society they serve.”
His remark that the police should reflect the make-up of society is profoundly wrong. For one thing it never has. Moreover , no one thought it undermined legitimacy until very recently. If we ask ourselves, how we can best encourage friendly relations between groups from different cultures, the answer is never going to be by magnifying differences and multiplying complaints.
Increasingly , ethnic groups are not objective categories, but artificial communities based on grievances. We all have one identity. We are citizens who live under the same laws that apply equally to all.
Police officers should never be selected because of their ethnicity. If they pass their exams and can swear the police oath in good faith that should be good enough: ‘I do solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that I will well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people...’
The next Conservative Home Secretary must make it clear that police recruitment should be based on equality and not racial preference.
Dr David Green is the founder and Chief Executive of the think tank, Civitas