by Kamal Mashjari of the Al-Ghazali Centre in Liverpool

Policing has always been and will always be a hot topic for all sections of society. Policing plays an important role in the fabric of our lives that is hard to avoid. However, in many places in our country police forces have remained unchanged for decades with little or no accommodation to the changing reality of the communities they serve.

In Merseyside our police force has remained much the same it has been for decades. The recent census told us that the BME population is now up to 10% in certain areas such as Liverpool but Merseyside Police has a BME workforce of just over 3%. Some will say ‘so what’, sometimes that is the way things are and with time this will change. However the bigger picture tells a different story. A police force that is unrepresentative of the communities it polices is less understanding of those communities. With a lack of understanding come huge problems – where police and community mistrust each other, over a period of time this builds up a level of resentment that acts like a torch paper. It then doesn’t take much for small incidents to get out of hand on both sides.

The recent riots of the summer of 2011 in Liverpool clearly shows this level of resentment against the police. Many of the rioters did not care about social issues effecting their communities or even about stealing property and goods, they just wanted a fight with the police. Those involved were not just BME but white working class as well. Many travelled by taxi from areas like Croxteth and Norris Green to join in the battle. These two communities, BME and white working classes, are the two that have the most issues with policing and feel the police are not representative of them or their communities. They feel very strongly that Merseyside Police does not understand them and that due to this lack of understanding, police are over-zealous in how they deal with those communities.

Among the most contentious issues faced by both BME and white working class communities is the issue of stop and search. It isn’t simply an issue of being stopped but the manner in which police stop members of the community and the reasons they are stopped. Some officers have no idea how to deal with the people they are stopping which causes enormous resentment from those stopped. Why do many police officers act in such an unfriendly manner when dealing with some of our communities? I believe the reason is a lack of understanding of some of the communities they police. Police officers do not work with many BME people in the police force and their only engagement is usually when dealing with crime or stop and search.

How do you change the perception of police when dealing with BME communities? You do it by employing more BME police officers to help police those communities. You make your police force more representative from top to bottom and not just in a token way. Only when large numbers of police officers are engaging with BME officers and communities will they have a better understanding of those communities than they do now.

All of the blame cannot be left with Merseyside Police but also with our own communities. Why aren’t BME people applying to join the police when recruitment is open? During the first PCC elections in November 2012, the turnout was poor everywhere in the country especially from BME communities. Imagine if the BME communities had engaged with the candidates on a large enough scale to raise the issues effecting them and then went out to vote in large enough numbers, they would have decided who won on that historic night. Instead the BME communities stayed at home disinterested.

It is now more important than ever that BME communities engage with the police services across the country, especially in those areas like Merseyside where there are large disparities in the numbers of BME police officers to community size. We must organise ourselves and open channels of communication with those police forces affected to insist that they introduce policies to encourage BME people to join the police when opportunities arise and they must ensure that they are able to retain those BME officers after they join. When BME numbers are sufficient we will likely see much less mistrust of police by BME communities and police of BME communities. Also, we need young people to join the police cadets program and also for a significant increase in numbers joining the police as Special Constables and PCSOs as this is likely to be one of the few routes into policing for our communities in the future.

To help raise this very important issue, we are organising a conference called Equality in Policing. I hope you are able to join us – Now is the time to act.