Positive Action: A reflection

by Adeeb Redman

It wasn’t until my 13th birthday that I really began to notice race as an issue in my own life’s journey. This was the first time I was stopped and searched. I was stopped by two white male police officers who claimed that I matched the description of someone who was interfering with cars. The description they gave was of a young Asian male. I was detained, searched and questioned. I vividly recall some of my neighbours witnessing my stop and search and how embarrassed the whole incident made me feel. I did not speak to my parents about what happened. I was scared that my parents would not believe me and assume that I had done something wrong to warrant being stopped and searched. In my culture being stopped and searched by police is frowned upon and my community would not accept that you had been stopped for no reason.

The Yemeni community at the time were very weary of Police and ensured they did not attract any attention from them as there was a massive distrust of Police. Especially, as some had experienced mistreatment at their hands having arrived in the UK as immigrants. Therefore, many assumed if you were being stopped by Police then you must have done something to warrant this. I recall the look of disapproval on my neighbour’s faces. They assumed I was a bad kid and this made hanging out with their son much more difficult for me as they felt I was a bad influence on him.

I wish that I hadn’t been stopped and searched because up until that point I was lucky to have grown up in a multi-cultural environment appreciating and embracing diversity. After this incident I began to notice ‘difference’ more and this was not the only occasion when me or my friends were stopped and searched. Upon reflection, it was clear that we were being racially profiled due to how we looked and dressed.

It is safe to say that I was a reluctant joiner to the police and I was ostracised by many in my community upon joining as they no longer trusted me. Many stopped trusting me as they felt I would be spying on my own community and working against them. Living in a deprived part of Birmingham, many of those I grew up with had a negative view and experience of the police. Those that became involved in crime had a reason to distance themselves from me as I would not hesitate in holding them to account. In my opinion, they were having a massively detrimental effect on the community I know and love. However, I had not anticipated the reaction of the wider community towards me.

I felt isolated from people I had grown up around in my community and at the same time being “different” was something some of my colleagues in the police ensured I understood through how I was treated and made to feel. I felt as though my colleagues were suspicious of me, e.g. I would often be asked for my opinions on some of the negativity being peddled by the mainstream media on Muslims and Arabs. I came very close to leaving the organisation I now care so much for on two occasions due to being treated differently than my fellow student officers. However, it was my determination to be a catalyst for change that kept me going. I wanted to prove to those that were treating me differently in the organisation that I would not be pushed out whilst also proving to my community that the Police could be trusted.

After working a number of roles, I applied to join Positive Action as it was in line with my values and meant that I could help the organisation in ensuring equality and fairness across recruitment and promotions processes. Positive action is about employers taking specific steps to improve equality for those disadvantaged due to their protected characteristics in the workplace. Whilst positive action is voluntary it supports an organisations compliance to the public sector equality duty and helps the police (specifically) move away from being perceived as institutionally biased towards certain communities or protected characteristics. Essentially, Positive Action ensures those from disadvantaged backgrounds have a “level playing field” when competing with other applicants as covered under the Equalities Act 2010 and it is vital that we get positive action right in order to be truly representative of our communities and build legitimacy, the core principle upon which British policing is set.
Looking at how our organisation operates is key to understanding legitimacy with our public and one of our key areas is around scrutinising data for stop and search which would indicate a discrepancy in how these powers are used with certain ethnic minority communities. Having a truly representative workforce will assist us in becoming more culturally competent and aware of different communities needs and challenges which will hopefully reduce racial and cultural profiling which is indicative of an absence of organisational understanding of diverse communities. This is where Positive Action can assist.

You may wonder if Positive Action is an obvious step in the right direction, then why is there still a resistance to it? Why does it appear that the service is scared of change? These are questions I have been reflecting on for a while. In my opinion, change will always cause people to feel anxious and this is exacerbated when people do not understand the change or are not included. I believe that these are reasons which make colleagues more resistant to change. In any case, I wanted to be part of any positive change for the future. I saw an opportunity for me to change the very culture within policing that so nearly pushed me out of the organisation. My experiences within the Positive Action have highlighted to me that the police service still has a long way to go as an organisation when it comes to race.

There has been some amazing work when it comes to positive action. But the appetite and support it sadly depends on the force you belong to and where the PA team sits within the organisation. When I joined the Positive Action team it was aligned to diversity & Inclusion (D&I) which is a natural fit for the team given the shared objectives it has with fairness in policing and the wider D&I agenda. I recall delivering inputs on what positive action is and how it is different to positive discrimination, the latter being unlawful. Positive action is more than just having an organisation that looks representative. In my opinion, Positive Action is about true representation of our communities within the workforce at all ranks and grades. This includes people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, which is not considered enough. I recall discussing recruitment strategies with an Inspector who was encouraging ethnic minorities from other force areas to apply to West Midlands Police. The challenge with this approach is that whilst minority ethnic personnel help make the force visually representative, there is arguably an absence of legitimacy. What I mean by this is that an individual from Leamington Spa will arguably lack the understanding of life experiences for minority ethnic communities growing up in Handsworth. To really connect with our diverse communities, we need staff that understand the lived experiences of our communities and the journey they’ve gone through with their police force. That is how trust and confidence is built. But Positive Action is a lot more than just recruitment. It should encompass retention, progression and departmental support to ensure equality and equity across the organisation. Some of the work I led on around supporting our student officers on their journeys, helping re-build the surveillance academy recruitment process and projects on internships with Hereward college or the successful kick start programme providing traineeships to long term unemployed graduates, have been invaluable in helping the service adapt to our staff and community needs.

Realising some of my own communities’ barriers I successfully delivered a Yemeni cultural event to West Midlands Police. Its purpose was to promote the history and culture of Yemen to the organisation and partner agencies whilst using the platform to promote careers in Policing to my community. It was hugely successful and has increased the organisations representation of Yemeni and Arabic speaking officers. Positive action, implemented correctly, is vital to an organisation’s legitimacy and legacy. For example, those I have recruited as a result of our Yemeni cultural event are now our very ambassadors for the force. This helps the organisation in future recruitment campaigns and ensures the cultural competence of our police family. Therefore, it is important that we adapt our approach to attraction, engagement and recruitment to the needs of each community. This includes recognising the identities and individualities of our communities, for example differentiating between Somalian & Jamaican communities who are currently subsumed under the generic banner of ‘Black’.

However, it became obvious to me that many across the organisation misunderstood what PA was all about and my role also highlighted to me that some colleagues simply did to want to understand it. My predecessors and counterparts from other forces had informed me when I first took up this role that Positive Action was a lonely place sometimes as a large part of the role entails challenging the culture of the organisation. Furthermore, at some point the West Midlands Police decided that PA should be aligned with recruitment and no longer be part of Diversity & Inclusion. There are several issues I have observed because of this realignment. The biggest issue is that recruitment predominantly tends to be numbers focused and this is in direct conflict with PA which is predominantly people focused. The PA role needs to be autonomous to remain truly effective but this is something that the focus on recruitment erodes. I have experienced the benefits of creativity that autonomy with PA offers. For example, my work with the Arabic speaking communities led to an increase of applications from these communities (specifically the Yemeni). My work not only helped to increase our numbers of Arabic speaking constables but changed the relationship they have with the organisation as trust and confidence has been built. Also, recruitment have less involvement with other aspects of positive action such as staff retention, which does not factor as a key performance indicator for the department but should as recruitment and retention are inextricably linked. In my opinion, the PA role was simply seen as an extension of the recruitment team and not a specialist team with its own skills and experience(s). Not allowing positive action to fulfil its function can be perceived as tokenism and risks undervaluing the contributions of diverse PA staff who do not feel valued or heard. This in turn impacts on the services ability to build legitimacy with under-represented communities, both internally and within force areas.

Another key consideration regarding the application of PA is that there are many managerial positions that are further complicating the recruitment process and having a negative impact on the candidate’s experience. This is because such positions do not add any benefit to the candidate journey as managers who occupy these posts often lack an awareness of matters relating to race and culture. For example, I recall when females from certain minority backgrounds were failing the entry fitness test. The assumption being made was that they were simply not putting the effort in when in fact there were cultural sensitivities which acted as a barrier to successful completion of the test. From my experience and feedback from candidates, the process has become more bureaucratic and complicated with many applicants becoming frustrated and giving up on pursuing their dream profession. This is a bigger risk for some of our ethnic minority applicants who already face challenges from their family, friends and community for wanting to join the police. There have been many occasions where PA have had to adopt a service recovery role to prevent the police service from losing diverse candidates. The role has become increasingly difficult in attracting applicants to join the service as the internal processes are failing our candidates and taking far too long. The lack of support and communication is pushing candidates away from applying or remaining in the process.

I believe a lot of the issues I have discussed are also due to many civilian managers within the organisation responsible for the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (ED&I) agenda being on short term contracts who will build on their portfolios and move on to promotion elsewhere external to the police. This means that there is no long-term investment in the organisation, specifically in relation to PA which requires a long-term investment to build relationships. This is a massive risk given the constant bombardment from the media and increased scrutiny around officers in general. Increased scrutiny and transparency around Policing is much needed but this should include departments such as recruitment, as the work they do carries a significant reputational risk. Not having managers that are committed for the long term on such an important agenda means that there is no real investment and police officer colleagues are instead being held accountable for decisions that were not made by them. The public do not see this and instead will assume the police service generally does not want to become more diverse. Having long term investment and the same scrutiny as other parts of the organisation would ensure that we are more invested in our communities and their representation within the service. Retention of staff should also be a measurable that recruitment is measured against. What would benefit our candidates is more recruitment staff and PA practitioners and not more managers on short term contracts.

There is no doubt that Policing is attempting to change and address the issue of (under)representation which will undoubtedly improve procedural justice. A determining factor as to whether we will achieve our ambitions is ensuring we have the appropriate governance and structures in place to allow PA to be successful. And there is no better time than the present to prioritise this work given the unprecedented challenges policing has and continues to face. The murder of George Floyd and its impact on police and community race relations, the prominence of BLM protests, concerns of misogyny following the murder of Sarah Everard and disproportionality regarding fixed penalty notices for Covid breaches to ethnic minority backgrounds have all further strained an already fragile relationship.

In my opinion, PA needs to remain with D&I as this is a more natural alignment to the function it provides. On a national level all our practitioners are part of the positive action practitioner’s alliance (PAPA) which is a useful platform to report on PA activity, share best practice and support each other. However, I quickly learned that all forces conducted PA business differently and some were more supported than others within their respective forces. This means that nationally we are not aligned and some colleagues were facing bigger challenges in delivering PA or getting support for initiatives than others. This is frustrating given the fact that all forces should be prioritising representation of their communities as well as retaining and developing diverse colleagues.

A way forward I believe is to have a more centralised and co-ordinated approach where PA sits under either PAPA or D&I within the College of Policing itself. PA programmes would be directed by this central platform and report into it, providing scrutiny, challenge and advice to forces. It will ensure that PA remains independent and able to influence effectively as the role can become exhausting for practitioners who currently experience many barriers. A centralised approach will also ensure consistency in delivery. The 43 forces will have different priorities, demographics and governance structures but PA can be adapted to the needs of each respective force. This will ensure that PA is seen as a separate and relevant entity and not just an addition when it suits. Any PA recommendations should be embedded into the D&I strategy for each force.

In a utopian world there would not be a need for PA, as there would be equality of opportunity for everybody regardless of their protected characteristics. However, we are a long way away from a utopia. In fact, the service is still seen by many as institutionally racist, a label that will remain unless the police service is more committed to change and valuing our practitioners. Only then can we succeed in becoming truly representative and building legitimacy within our diverse communities.

I often think back to my 13-year-old self being stop searched. No doubt, my experience would be different today as I truly believe that the service has become more professional. However, I was negative of the Police for many years due to my experiences. Seeing officers that look like me and understand my community would undoubtedly inspire those like me to at least consider the Police as a profession of choice. I should know, as I have been the inspiration for others to join. The hardest part is building relations with our under-represented communities, but it is just as important to ensure our internal processes and structures share the same passion for our public.

If you’d like to contribute to ICYou on any diversity and inclusion topic, head over to the ‘become an author‘ page.

2 thoughts on “Positive Action: A reflection

  1. Enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for speaking out about the struggles faced as a PA Officer. I eel very lucky to be supported within my force.
    West Mercia Positive Action Officer

  2. Thanks a great narrative and analysis of the current situation.
    I do think the aspiration in the COP printing and delivering PA is in realistic east they have very little power or influence on forces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *