Around five months ago, the world was rocked for a second time this year. If 25 May doesn’t ring an immediate bell, the name George Floyd will. The date marks his tragic and significant passing that sparked a global swell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, in the midst of a life-changing pandemic. Protests around the world ensued. Incidents of police-conducted violence in America were caught on camera and here in the UK a seismic shift was felt too, as conversations about racial equality began taking place – with many joining in for the first time ever.
At every British protest, from the streets of London to smaller northern towns, police officers are likely to be in attendance too – but statistically, only 2% of them will be a woman from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background (according to Home Office figures from March 2019). As it stands, 93.1% of the full-time force is comprised of white faces, with 70% being male. Given the scarcity, how does it feel to be a Black woman standing on the front line and serving proudly when all eyes are on you, for a newly added to list of reasons? What’s it like walking into work, knowing there’s a good chance nobody else in the room will look like you? And how do you bridge the gap of being from a community that historically distrusts the police, while being in uniform yourself?
For LaToyah Hall, a 28-year-old mother of one and response officer based in Newtown, Birmingham, the latter is something she’s had to navigate from day one. Partway through her Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA), with plans to become a detective one day, when she first joined up LaToyah chose not to keep the decision quiet some family members. “Growing up, we were burgled a lot and I’d watch how police officers would come and take statements. They were kind and supportive,” she says. “From childhood I had a strong idea that I’d like to do a job that helps people, but when I eventually took the plunge to join the police, I didn’t tell everyone in my family right away.”
She explains: “Some of my family are pro police, some are anti due to incidences dating back many years. It’s disheartening to hear when somebody has had a bad experience with one officer and then thinks, ‘None of them care’, when that’s not true.” LaToyah adds that Black Lives Matter has led to many more labelling police as ‘all the same’ here in the UK but hopes her presence can go some way to helping change their minds. “Every person is an individual with their own motivations for joining. You can’t tar everyone with the same brush.”
Encountering resistance from the public is something LaToyah says she’s faced prior to the recent protests too. “Some people don’t want to speak to me based on how I look, but I’d say that’s usually more to do with gender than it is race.” She adds, “Sometimes when speaking to males you can tell they’re not listening to you, but if my male colleague steps in, their demeanour will change and they’ll engage more.”
Working on cases involving racial discrimination can be difficult too, she notes. “Sometimes when taking statements, it can feel hurtful, but you have to remain impartial. You can’t ever put your emotions into a work situation.” The same goes for when answering domestic violence calls, no matter how heart-breaking the situation she’s confronted with upon arrival at a home may be. “I’ve spoken to victims, some with children, who don’t see themselves as victims or want to press charges. It can be challenging sitting down with a woman in those circumstances and trying to help her see the bigger picture.” But when she is able to secure an arrest, it’s all worthwhile.
For LaToyah, her own bigger picture is to one day work in investigations. “There are so many teams to consider joining within the police, from those dealing with murders to burglaries to assaults." So far, a year into her policing career, LaToyah has already made arrests, learnt how to diffuse difficult situations and responded to calls about people brandishing weapons. "You never know what will happen in a day’s work,” she says.
Fighting for change
About an hour’s drive away, situated across Walsall and Wolverhampton, is Karen Geddes – a Detective Police Chief Inspector who has been in the game for almost 30 years. Some twenty-eight years ago, while working for KFC, she spotted a news article calling for new police recruits to join up. Karen, who describes herself as “from Wolverhampton via Jamaica via Wolverhampton again” is to the point about her experience of racism and sexism within the sector. “Racism does exist within policing, simply because you can’t have an organisation with humans and say it doesn’t exist – but at least now things are being challenged more.”
She adds that the harrowing death of George Floyd has accelerated conversations within white communities that Black communities have been having for years. It's something she hopes – “emphasis on the word hope” – will change policing, and the world at large, for the better. “Within policing, I’ve never had a Black woman as a role model, so in that respect I’ve always been chasing my own tail.” But for Karen, seeing is believing, and like LaToyah, she hopes her presence can start encouraging other Black folk to consider a career in her industry. “How can you be something you can’t see?”
As chairperson of the Black and Asian Police Association (BAPA), a lot of the issues surrounding race that are prevalent today are themes she’s been discussing since the 90s. “Some of the weight has been lifted recently, as it feels like the responsibility to tackle inequality and find solutions has been shared. Things like why are Black officers more likely to be reprimanded, or struggle with career progression. There’s still a nervousness when it comes to discussing race, in and out of work.” She adds that senior management in her experience were slow to recognise that the events surrounding Floyd’s death could have an impact on the mental health of some staff members. “I didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath for so long until after it happened. There was definitely a process of heavy mourning.”
Karen, hasn't attended any BLM protests as a member of the community - but has been present at them in working capacity. “I’ve not experienced any violence at the protests, our job during those scenarios is to be invisible and give others the space to have important conversations and grieve.” She notes that there’s been a conflation between UK and US police, but that the forces are different, with their respective problems needing individual attention. “American forces are more politically and financially lead. We have a better community base here in the UK and the majority of officers are not armed, we rely on people being complicit.”
As for her hopes of seeing more women – Black women especially – follow in her footsteps, Karen says her feelings at this point in time are mixed. “Hope is the key word here, Black female police officers are an endangered species. I have fifteen months left of service; I’d love to see more women like me joining up before I retire.” Her advice to any considering it? “Don’t be afraid to be different, come into work with natural hair, reach out to relevant networks and find others like you. As humans, we want to be comfortable and seeing others who look like you at work is part of that.”
Leading by example
London-based officer, Sinead, is six years into her career with the Met Intelligence team. She joined aged 25 and in her role deals with public order and communications – it can see her work on missing person cases (trawling their social media for clues), kidnappings, murders and thefts. “My grandmother’s brother in Jamaica is a superintendant and hearing his stories motivated me to join. Horrible things happen to people all the time and I want to help them. We’re there for the lowest points of people’s lives.”
Her experience differs to Karen's; she says her colleagues are a diverse mix “across all spectrums, we have a mix of languages and backgrounds on our team.” Sinead's family are proud of her career choice, she adds, commenting that she loves seeing the look on people’s faces when she deploys some of her more unique skills – one being her ability to speak Russian. “I overheard a distressed member of the public use the word ‘advokat’ meaning lawyer in Russian and was able to converse with them. Jaws dropped.” Her language skills were developed through a course offered via the Met.
With regards to BLM protests, Sinead has been actively avoiding working at them. “I’ve spoken to numerous colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds; some have been heckled and had racist abuse thrown at them. Others have been asked, ‘Why are you standing there when you should be with us?’” As a Black person in uniform you can be portrayed as a traitor, she says. “But that’s not what it’s about. I don’t want to be a part of people hurling abuse, it [this movement] should be about education and better representation – and sometimes, you have to be the change you want to see yourself.”
She says that leaflets about mental health have been distributed around her station for staff and that they’re discussing racism ‘like adults’. “Irrespective of colour, people are talking. White officers have mixed race children, the conversation has been started in a democratic way, but let’s not forget we’re still in the middle of a pandemic too.” Sinead's outlook on race and the future is clear: “For me, I’ve always tried to treat everyone fairly and equally, trusting that they’ll do the same back.”
For LaToyah, Karen and Sinead, one thing is for certain – every day when they wake up, put their uniform on and head into work, their presence alone makes a statement. One they all hope is of positive change.
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