“I wouldn’t join the force again”: British Police officers’ experiences of bias, prejudice and ‘hate’

“I wouldn’t join the force again”: British Police officers’ experiences of bias, prejudice and ‘hate’

Irene Zempi

Since the Macpherson Report (1999), there has been pressure on the police to increase representation from minority ethnic, female, and gay and lesbian groups. Although the British Police have recently recruited greater numbers of minority police officers, they still remain vastly outnumbered by their white, heterosexual, male counterparts. To this end, minority police officers might be seen as ‘outsiders’ in the police world where the ‘in-group’ is white, heterosexual and male.

On the face of it, the new working climate in the police is based on standards, which are free from discrimination, bias and prejudice, and includes paths of recourse for those who fail to achieve the desired level of professionalism (Smith et al. 2015). However, despite considerable improvements in the working environment for minority officers, evidence shows that racism, sexism, homophobia and intolerance towards ‘difference’ are still evident in British policing.

Drawing on data from qualitative interviews with 20 police officers based in a force in the UK, we examined officers’ experiences of bias, prejudice and ‘hate’ internally in the police (Mawby & Zempi, 2016). Although there is a good deal of research focusing on police officers’ experiences of racism with the force, other aspects of their identity remain under-researched. In this study, we utilized the concept of intersectionality (the presence of, and relationships between, multiple aspects of identity) in order to examine participants’ experiences of bias, prejudice and ‘hate’ in the police. The findings show widespread hostility, discrimination and exclusion, especially towards those with multiple minority identities.

Participants described incidents of verbal abuse, intimidation and hostility perpetrated by their colleagues and supervisors. Key aspects of participant’s identity such as race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender (and the combinations of these identities) were cited by participants as central to their victimisation by other police staff. For example, female police officers described an atmosphere of all-consuming sexism. They felt undermined and intimidated by their male colleagues and in some cases they felt that they were ignored and excluded in their teams.

Raksha, one of our participants, stated: “Because I’m female and young, he [sergeant] talks to me in a patronising way”. In some cases, male supervisors participated in sexist behaviour such as belittling female officers or commenting on their age and physical appearance. Another female officer stated: “My sergeant used to make jokes about my age. He would say ‘you are the oldest’, reference to age was a big thing for him. Reference to me being small, height was the butt of his joke all the time, other officers around the sergeant laughed, no one challenged him. This was an everyday thing”.

As the research shows a masculine ethos dominates the police workplace (Souhami, 2014). In the present study, gay and lesbian police officers described negative experiences resulting from colleagues. For example, Mark, a gay officer, stated: “I know of cases of lesbian policewomen who had property damaged by colleagues. Personally, I have been targeted for being gay”. Mark recalled that before coming out he was in a pub with his partner and a colleague saw him; from then on, this colleague refused to work with him.

This kind of experience has led some gay and lesbian officers to conceal their sexuality at work. A gay officer stated: “Before I came out, I almost had two lives, two different worlds and the two would never meet. Living in secrecy can have a damaging impact. It was very tiring emotionally. I know colleagues who gave their same sex partner, opposite’s gender name in conversations with other people to make it easier for them”.

Furthermore, participants reported that there were ‘double standards’ in all employment areas such as probation, training, deployment and progression. Male and female BME officers described how their probationary periods had been monitored more strictly, how their progression had been held back and how their supervisors had shown preferential treatment to their white colleagues. Other BME officers described being discriminated against due to ‘double standards’ across the areas of retention, progression and performance management. Paresh argued that: “It’s more difficult for BME to progress. BME are up to sergeant level. There are one or two inspectors here and there but 98% of higher-ranking officers are white. Why? Why is it harder?”

Concerns about ‘double standards’ were not reported solely by BME participants in the study. White and/or heterosexual police officers who took part in the study also felt discriminated against due to the need for the organisation to proactively support the progression of female, LGBT or BME colleagues. For example, Matt stated: “If I was female or had a different colour skin I would have better chance of promotion” and Thomas argued: “My friend submitted two applications one as ‘bisexual’ and one as ‘heterosexual’. The former was accepted, the latter rejected. Many stories circulate of people getting on if they are diverse”.

An occupational ‘rule’, albeit unwritten, was that both victims and witnesses were expected to abide by the ‘code of silence’ masked as ‘loyalty’ to the police family. In this regard, they were expected to ‘keep quiet’ about their experiences of discrimination, bias and prejudice in order to demonstrate solidarity with their colleagues. Some participants described being reluctant to take it further for fear of the repercussions. This was because of fears about being left out of the group and/or apprehensions about their career prospects if they spoke up. Many participants feared retribution and stated that they would be marked as ‘troublemakers’ if they reported their experiences.

Participants argued that they were encouraged to report the behaviour of colleagues/supervisors, who they considered to be prejudiced, biased or racist, only to discover that they themselves would then be investigated for misconduct, which served to ‘keep them in their place’. Preeti said: “I am afraid that if a complaint comes for me, they will do my legs, it is like ‘we will get you’. That is a real threat to me. I have upset a lot of people by refusing to be bullied. I will stand up for my rights. If a complaint comes in, they will milk it”. Shiva stated: “They say if you see or hear anything inappropriate, always report it but what I find is that they will push things under the carpet”.

In some cases, participants felt inclined to make a formal complaint in order to register their objection to their colleagues’ behaviour. However, when participants did complain, their victimisation was not recognised, understood or addressed in internal investigations and/or tribunals. In some cases they were threatened by their supervisors and felt that they had to resign. This meant that participants felt doubly victimised. Meera stated: “My sergeant told me I had to resign if I were to go to the tribunal [regarding a case of sexism and racism] but I told him ‘why should I resign? I have not done anything wrong”.

Some participants felt extremely depressed by their experiences, whilst others felt demotivated and had lost enthusiasm for their work due to occupational burnout and emotional exhaustion. Some participants reported feelings of withdrawal, with comments that they were no longer willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for the force. Ibrahim stated: “I question whether I am in the right job. I feel demotivated, I don’t look forward to work”. In some cases, there were negative implications for participants’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being. Meera stated: “It has affected me mentally. I have been on anti-depressants. It affected my home life, it affected me […] they told me I would be ruined because of the complaint I put forward”.

At a time when the police are attempting to build a diverse and representative public service, the problem of discrimination, prejudice and bias internally is a pressing issue as it damages trust and confidence within the police. Not only for the purpose of addressing internal divisions, but also in the interests of creating a representative police service which enjoys the trust and confidence of minority communities. If a career in the police is to become a more attractive proposition for individuals, regardless of their minority or majority status, concerns about racism, sexism, homophobia and intolerance towards ‘difference’ need to be acknowledged and addressed.

Dr Irene Zempi is a Criminologist based at Nottingham Trent University. She is the co-author of the books Islamophobia: Lived Experiences of Online and Offline Victimisation (Policy Press, 2016 with Dr Imran Awan) and Islamophobia, Victimisation and the Veil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 with Dr Neil Chakraborti). Irene is also a board member of Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), Nottinghamshire Hate Crime Steering Group and Leicestershire Police Hate Crime Scrutiny Panel. Additionally, Irene has extensive experience as a practitioner working with victims of hate crime, domestic violence and volume crime at Victim Support.