The Home Affairs Select Committee concluded in its 2016 report that “urgent and radical action” was necessary to address the lack of representativeness in police forces across England and Wales. Recently, the Guardian underlined a similar theme, noting that progress in workforce diversity has been “glacial”, with small increases in black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) officers within the ranks of policing not being able to keep up with changes in the ethnic-makeup of the wider population.
Responding to this apparent lack of diversity within the ranks of our police, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s (NPCC) Policing Vision 2025 has been built on the foundation of creating a more representative and diverse police force, promoting inclusion and equality across the nine protected characteristics. Why is it so important for the police to be representative of the community it serves?
To inform the future diversity agenda, the Police Transformation Fund Team commissioned us to review the evidence base on diversity in policing. The research also included two rounds of focus groups with key stakeholders (representatives of staff support associations; human resource managers; and strategic leads).
We found that the current diversity agenda in policing pays little attention to community engagement. Instead, the focus remains strongly on workforce diversity. However, our research underlined the close link between workforce diversity and community engagement.
Although some forces have positive practical measures in place that ensure regular engagement with the community, there were clear challenges and barriers in promoting diversity within policing, and in working towards building a more recognisable, relatable and legitimate police force.
Key challenges and barriers
1. A lack of financial resources poses a challenge to the future of community policing. The decline in the number of Police Community Support Officers – roles with a high intake of women and BAME citizens – illustrates the scale of this challenge in the context of austerity.
2. Rapidly changing demographics in some local communities bring challenges that the police need to respond to in order to retain confidence and cooperation and facilitate communication. This requires a competent understanding of cultural differences, for example in relation to faith.
3. It is likely that police practices such as stop and search are perceived by members of the local community to target minority groups, which increases negative perceptions of the police, in turn acting as a disincentive to some potential BAME recruits.
While there cannot be a “one-size fits all approach” to diversity due to local differences, three factors underline the importance of increasing diversity within police forces across the country for effective community engagement.
1. A police force that is representative of the community it polices increases public confidence, as members of the public see themselves represented in the force. This is likely to lead to an increase in police legitimacy and lays the foundation for effective engagement and cooperation with the public.
2. A diverse police force may showcase the police as a more attractive career path for BAME candidates, and can alter perceptions of the police as unwelcoming and exclusive. An ethnically diverse police force, for instance, could be at the forefront of tackling a more general lack of BAME individuals in key public institutions across England and Wales.
3. A more representative police force may facilitate access to harder to reach groups and build community relationships. This is facilitated by police officers having the necessary lived experiences and empathy to understand and relate.
Taken together, a representative police force is more likely to understand the communities it serves and engage more effectively with members of the community, something that is particularly important for social cohesion at a time of sharp divisions in British society.