Leroy Logan knows all too well what it is like to live on the receiving end of racism, growing up in London during the 60s and 70s, the son of Windrush parents, before joining the Metropolitan Police as a young black officer in 1983 at a time when very few minority ethnic people did so.
The institutional racism he experienced shocked him but despite all the challenges, he stayed for thirty years and eventually saw long-awaited change after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
He writes powerfully of his experience in his new book, Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop, which has just been published by SPCK.
He talks to Christian Today about the reality of racism and why he fears the Met is going backwards, not forwards.
CT: In your book, you speak with affection about your family's Christian faith. Did that faith background play into your decision at all to join the force?
Leroy: Not in a direct sense, but more in terms of my values and principles, and my understanding of right and wrong. My mother was always singing hymns and I've still got her Bible. What she and my dad really instilled in us was a sense of proper conduct and boundaries; that whatever we did, our faith should be the moral compass to make the right choices. But I was also motivated by this fear of embarrassing my parents. The thought of embarrassing my parents or making them ashamed of me was much more of a fear factor for me than the police or my friends.
CT: How much was racism a part of your life before you joined the force? Was racism just a fact of life for you as a black man growing up in London?
Leroy: It was, yes. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and it was 1983 before I joined the force. Throughout that time, I was subjected to all forms of racism. There was a lot of casual racism - people using the 'n-word' and the 'w-word'. When you hear it so often, you grow accustomed to it. It wasn't always directed at me; sometimes it was directed at other people, but it was just as hurtful no matter who it was directed at.
My parents, for example, experienced a lot of hostility when they came over from Jamaica with the Windrush generation. They couldn't get a home, they couldn't rent a room, there were signs that said 'no Irish, no blacks, no dogs'. For them, it was so challenging.
Black people grew accustomed to this kind of treatment, which is a sad indictment of British society 30 or 40 years ago. Fortunately, we withstood it all and despite the challenges, we really grafted hard and worked tirelessly to achieve our true potential.
As far as my parents were concerned, excellence was the best deterrent. Their attitude was: whatever you put your mind to, do it to the best of your ability because invariably that will shine through and push back against anyone's attempts to redefine you. Those values were instilled in me from a young age and are still with me to this day.
CT: When you joined the force, you write that for some people in the black community this was seen as a betrayal. Why was that?
Leroy: I think because of the treatment black people received from the authorities going back to the fifties. As I said, my parents arrived into a hostile environment. To join the authorities, you were seen to be betraying the cause of black people who had been a victim of racism, and injustice and inequality. That feeling has been passed on from generation to generation.
But I was inspired to consider the police as a profession after I spent a few years in Jamaica in the early to mid-60s. While there, I saw black cops, black teachers, black prime ministers and so on, so I didn't see joining the police as a betrayal. I felt the need to be part of this organisation in order to change it.
My close friends stuck with me, but more distant acquaintances fell by the wayside and called me Judas. As I say in the book, if you want to reduce your Christmas card list by 99 per cent, join the police force! Some people even threatened me and there was some verbal aggression.
But having said all that, I wasn't a teenager when I joined the Met. A lot of people who join the police go straight from school. I was different in that I had got my degree and had worked as a social scientist by this time. I was also married with my first child on the way. So I wasn't naive, I had had time to mature, and so I could withstand a lot of the hostility from my peers. That equipped me to deal with the culture of the police.
CT: Do you feel like perceptions of black people towards the police have changed since that time?
Leroy: Sadly, no. There was a time, shortly after the Macpherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, and the subsequent report in 1999, when there were a lot of changes, and there was real progress in holding chief constables and the commissioner to account. There was independent oversight under the Stephen Lawrence Steering Group, chaired by Jack Straw and subsequent home secretaries, who monitored progress and this was important because what gets measured gets done.
But unfortunately, a lot of that progress has been eroded and many of the recommendations have been sidelined. Progress isn't being monitored independently as it used to be and consequently, policing has suffered to the extent that the look and feel of policing today reminds me of the pre-Macpherson era. It's become very aggressive, it's creating barriers, and it's not really understanding how to treat people with respect and dignity.
I've been running a charity called Voyage Youth since 2001 and there's never been a time when the young people I work with don't tell me that they feel over-policed and underprotected, or that officers don't respect them or treat them with dignity.
That feeling persists to this day and that's why, almost 20 years on, I'm still very passionate about these issues. I want to see significant and sustainable change.
CT: How about attitudes among young black people towards joining the force? Do they see the police as somewhere they could have a meaningful career?
Leroy: Despite all the bad press the police get, maybe 20 to 30 per cent of new recruits are from black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups. But unfortunately the retention rate of these officers is far below their white counterparts. In fact, BAME officers are four to five times more likely to leave the police force in the first two years than their white counterparts.
Some of that could be down to the job that they're doing but a lot of it is down to the occupational culture. It can be very hard hitting and very toxic at times, and a lot of it is in the name of humour. That humour doesn't appreciate the fact that there's someone on the receiving end of the joke - whether it's about the colour of your skin, your accent, the type of hair you have, your gender.
Black officers are also two to three times more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts. I was investigated for a minor administrative error which was leaked to the press and it was trial by media over an £80 hotel bill. White officers made the same admin error and they weren't even given some advice, much less having something about them leaked to the press.
I could see these disparities and that's where the problem lies. It's not in recruiting BAME officers; it's in keeping them, and that requires valuing and nurturing them. In reality, the plight of a minority ethnic officer can be very tough and you need to have that strength of character to withstand it. Having said all that, if you feel that sense of calling and a desire to make a change, I would encourage anyone to join the police. Hopefully the book will give them a lens through which they can survive and navigate all the traps.
CT: You say in your book that when you first joined the force, the culture was hostile. You went on to serve in the police force for 30 years. Do you feel like the culture within the force is still hostile now to BAME officers?
Leroy: Sadly, yes because after the Stephen Lawrence Steering Group was dissolved in 2009, all of the performance indicators to health-check the institution disappeared. So for the last 10 or 11 years, the police force has become a lot more hostile and that's shown in the number of officers leaving or taking out employment tribunals or civil actions against the force, and speaking negatively about it in the press. The very people who could be ambassadors and advocates for the police, advocating for the organisation as a laudable profession and employer of choice, are sadly saying the opposite because of the experience they've had.
CT: You mention a close friendship you formed with another minority ethnic officer while serving in Islington. Did you feel a sense of solidarity with other BAME officers because you were in the same boat?
Leroy: That sense of solidarity was there from the very first day of my initial foundation course at Hendon training school. They had been doing a recruitment drive for ethnic minority officers and so there were about 15 to 20 of us in training together at any one time. We would stick together even though at times white officers would frown on us for walking together and talking together. There always seemed to be this suspicion that we were plotting and planning something, as if we couldn't be trusted to talk together.
But we realised very early on that we needed to have that social network and social capital to help us stay strong in the organisation, and to strive to achieve our true potential. In many ways, that led to the formation of the Black Police Association (BPA) because we were subject to this hostile environment and weren't getting our voices heard. Inequalities and injustices persisted from when I first joined, and we could see how the police were engaging with the black community and other minority ethnic groups. It was quite clear that we needed to speak up, advocate for people and speak truth to power. That's what led myself and two other BPA members to give evidence at the Macpherson Inquiry.
CT: Going back to your comment earlier about increasing aggression in the force, do you think that's why there's been such a reaction from the black community here in the UK to the death of George Floyd in the US?
Leroy: Absolutely. As the saying goes, when America sneezes we catch a cold. We can see even now with Covid how that has laid bare the inequality and injustice in society. In fact, a learning ground for us when we were setting up the BPA was to hear so many similar stories from American enforcement officers and what they were going through.
What was happening there in terms of institutional racism and systemic failures, and the black community being on the receiving end of very hostile policing, was so similar it could have been superimposed on the situation here. It was clear that we weren't just making this up; it was being verified on the other side of the pond. And that similarity is still there now.
That's why when George Floyd was literally tortured to death so many people here were thinking: hang on, this could so easily happen here. In fact, a few years ago a young black man died after being restrained by a white officer. The suspicion was that the man had swallowed drugs but this wasn't the case. The inquest said it was a lawful death but I think it was an avoidable death.
People here will identify with what's happening in America and the death of George Floyd, and I think that's why Black Lives Matter (BLM) has grown in stature. People are talking about renaming statues and buildings, and institutions are being challenged. I think BLM is making significant changes and I hope it will continue.
CT: What do you think needs to come out of these protests?
Leroy: I like to think that police officers, in particular the Commissioner and other Chief Constables, will recognise the importance of policing by consent and what that actually means. I would like to see the Met go back to the Peelian principles of policing. When Sir Robert Peel set up the first police force in 1829, he said that the police are the public and the public are the police. That means that there's a contract, a partnership, between the community and the police.
You can't police in isolation; you need the trust of the community. The police need the community to work with them because the public are our eyes and ears. The police can't just rely on CCTV, automatic number plate recognition and all these other IT systems to solve crimes. We have to work with people and for that to happen, they need to feel safe and secure with the police.
When people believe the police are a public service, they will be more than happy to give a statement or go to an ID parade, or go to court and give evidence and so on. That's what we need the black community to be doing but at the moment that's not happening because in the black community, the trust in the police is so low. They don't give information, they don't even want to give a statement, and so, likewise, solving crimes is at an all time low too. We need to re-instill that sense of partnership and the police need to acknowledge the systemic failures of the past, show ethical leadership, and make sure that officers are held to account. All of that needs a strong narrative from the top - from the Commissioner.
At the end of the day, people need to see things being done. It's when nothing is being done and the police just keep saying that everything is fine and there's nothing to worry about that people feel like the police are just insulting their intelligence. If the police continue to act like this, then we will still be talking about these issues in 20 or 30 years from now.