Diversity and Policing in a Digital Age

25 August 2017

Policing by consent is as important in a digital world as it ever has been. Communities interacting with police online and offline need to feel confident that police officers and staff can understand and empathise with them.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Actor Urbain Hayo put it starkly recently when he said: “I don’t know if the police are here to protect me or kill me – that’s the reality for black men in Britain”.  Non-white people are less likely to say that the police would treat them with respect, or that the police understand local concerns. The Government has long recognised the importance of a building a representative police service. As Home Secretary, Theresa May argued that police diversity is central to the principle of policing by consent.

Discussions of the importance of police diversity often focus on the perception given to minority communities that the police do not look like them, so do not understand their communities. As ‘bobbies on the beat’ continue to reduce in number, and police increasingly work from behind computer screens, the decrease in physical police visibility may change the debate around the importance of diversity.

This is misplaced. Much of policing will still take through face-to-face interactions because plenty of crime will remain offline. Riots will happen, houses will be burgled and drugs will be sold. The roles of family liaison officers, interviewers, and response officers are as important as ever. These police must represent communities, to provide visible legitimacy and the reassurance that police will treat all people fairly, regardless of race or other minority status.

If these principles apply for officers and staff who directly interact with citizens, the question follows as to whether this extends to those who do not. Does providing advice online, receiving phone video evidence through apps, or even building algorithms require a diverse workforce?

The answer, of course, is that it does. Firstly, Dal Babu, former Chief Superintendent of the Metropolitan police, argues that BME officers are disadvantaged in progression to specialist teams, including technical ones. This is both an injustice and a missed opportunity to use talented officers. Secondly, the lesson from business is that diverse teams perform better. Thirdly, it would be a mistake to think that emotional intelligence and a wide set of experiences are less important for police officers and staff working on digital crime. Almost the whole range of ‘traditional’ crime can take place through digital channels, from theft to harassment to hate crimes, meaning the set of human skills police have always needed remain vital. A wider set of experiences and backgrounds will allow any team to serve diverse communities better. How to achieve this will be discussed in a follow-up blog.

Changes in crime and policing should in no way lead forces to reduce their efforts to attract more BME officers. As more crime moves online, and police become less visible on the streets, the trust in their fairness remains vital to ensuring that everyone feels protected.

Ruby Holmes, former Research Assistant, Reform 

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