Copping it

What's the point of outing a few racist policemen on TV?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

At the time of writing, three police officers have been suspended and five have resigned after they were filmed making racist comments by an undercover BBC reporter.

The Secret Policeman, screened on 21 October, set out to find whether measures introduced in the wake of the Macpherson Inquiry into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence had succeeded in stamping out racism in the police force. In spite of the furore, what the programme showed was that overt police racism is as rare as it is elsewhere these days – as undercover reporter Mark Daly said, he found the vast majority of officers were ‘good, non-prejudiced ones’ (1).

The racist officers’ comments, which included expressing support for Hitler and calling for violence against Asians, were shocking. But it is perhaps no surprise that Daly managed to find a few coppers who, after a few drinks and in the apparent privacy of Daly’s bedroom at the police training centre, expounded racist views. The officers’ racism had some impact on the way that they did their job – one said that he had nicked an Asian man for a traffic offence, but had let off a white woman who had committed the same offence. This might be wrong – but it is a far cry from the violent police racism of the past.

However, this kind of exposé will do nothing to reduce racism. You can’t get rid of racism by naming and shaming racist individuals; racism is the result of political and social relationships, not a handful of twisted or ignorant coppers.

Rather than genuinely reducing prejudice, the consequence will be to encourage people to watch what they say – to keep a check on themselves and avoid particular words and phrases, even when they are among friends. In fact, Daly’s report showed the impact of diversity policies: most people had learnt the approved terms to use in public, whatever their private views. But enforcing this kind of personal etiquette won’t help to reduce real racism, and indeed may increase resentment of ethnic minorities. The film certainly showed how setting targets to increase recruitment of ethnic minorities can foster ill-feeling: white officers reacted angrily when an Asian recruit’s application was fast-tracked ahead of theirs.

Daly’s desire to expose unguarded comments of racist individuals, though, is completely in tune with the measures implemented in the wake of the Macpherson Inquiry. Macpherson’s report discussed racism as a kind of ‘unwitting’ individual behaviour, that people had to be trained out of.

It is for this reason that the police have been so eager to learn from the BBC investigation. While police officials at first criticised the methods of the documentary, after the film was shown they issued grovelling statements. Deputy Chief Constable Alan Green of Greater Manchester Police said that more must be done to prevent ‘these type of people’ from getting into the force. ‘We recruit from ordinary members of the public’, he said, ‘some of whom have very extreme views’ (2) – intimating that racism was a problem of working-class scum. Green himself is clearly not one of these ‘ordinary members of the public’: in his statement, he said that ‘like all right-minded people’ he was ‘personally offended by all racist and discriminatory behaviour’ (3).

Green also called for ‘rigorous’ tests for discriminatory views among recruits to be made even stronger. Home Office minister Hazel Blears said that 4.9 percent of recent recruits had failed these tests for discriminatory views, a number because of comments that they had made ‘in the corridors’. This shows that the force already employs ‘undercover’ methods to vet its officers – perhaps the police should pay Daly to spy on more of its new recruits.

These witch hunts will clearly have a corrosive impact – you cannot run a police force on these lines. Daly at least was aware that spying on his colleagues was a betrayal of the traditional police ethos: ‘It is the most heinous act an officer could do. You never turn your back on a colleague. There is a special camaraderie between police officers, like a brotherhood.’

More importantly, however, this affair reinforces the widespread notion that people throughout society should be judged and punished according to what they say in private, rather than what they do in public. This Orwellian spirit encourages prying into individuals’ thoughts and unguarded comments – while diverting attention from the issues that matter in our public life.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) My life as a secret policeman, BBC News, 21 October

(2) Officer resigns over racism film, BBC News, 22 October 2003

(3) See A message from the Chief Constable

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Topics Politics


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