Police need to think about diversity in a new way
The government’s aim to make police forces representative of diverse communities is not being met. Only 5.5 per cent of officers identified as black or minority ethnic (BME) in 2015, compared to 14.4 per cent of the overall population.
Simple steps can be taken by forces to improve the chances of BME applicants. These will not solve everything on their own, however, especially as too few BME people want to join the police service.
The first step is to remove biases from recruitment methods. The Behavioural Insights Team argues that the online situational judgement test is the stage with the highest gap in success rates between white and BME applicants. BIT found that adding a few sentences to the accompanying email asking candidates to “reflect on what might make them a good addition to the force, and what significance that would bear in their community” improved BME applicants chances of passing the test by 20 percentage points.
Vetting processes can similarly be updated. These may disadvantage BME candidates who are more likely to have relatives living abroad who are hard to check, and are historically more likely than white people to have been stopped and searched. An approach that made conscious judgements of the risk posed by each case could prevent potential officers being rejected by not relying on a set of criteria that automatically excludes some applicants.
While they are clearly important, diversity goes further than descriptive characteristics and for the police to be the public means more than simply looking like them. Brian Langston QPM, former Assistant Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, argues that the police should focus on ‘cognitive diversity’, prioritising emotional intelligence and varied thinking. He emphasises that race and gender are at best imperfect proxy variables in the search for people with the skills and attitudes needed to police communities that are diverse in ways not captured by protected characteristics.
This is not to say that the time spent trying to improve demographic diversity is wasted. There is no trade-off between descriptive and cognitive diversity – forces have a responsibility to do both to ensure that all citizens feel represented and have positive interactions with officers. It serves as a reminder, however, that the responsibility to police all communities fairly and with respect belongs to all officers, not only those from minority groups.
Even a perfectly representative force will not in itself make the police legitimate if old habits or attitudes persist among white officers. Changing these attitudes, and being seen to do so, is a critical way to attract more BME people to the police, and build trust in all communities.