In Depth

Racism claims and officers convicted of crimes: is UK policing due an overhaul?

Watchdog to investigate use of force against BAME groups as separate probe reveals criminal offenders in forces nationwide

Hundreds of serving police officers in the UK have convictions for criminal offences including assault, burglary and drug possession, an investigation has revealed.

Police forces across the country employ at least 211 officers and police community support officers (PCSOs) who have been found guilty of crimes, according to Freedom of Information (FOI) data obtained by Sky News.

The publication of the figures comes a day after reports that police in England and Wales are to face an inquiry to establish whether officers racially discriminate against ethnic minorities in their use of force and of stop and search.

For which crimes have officers been convicted?

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) told Sky News that having a criminal record has “never been an automatic bar to joining the police”, and insisted officers are vetted “throughout their service”.

Some officers have also been allowed to continue serving after being convicted while employed by forces. Their crimes include causing death by careless driving, assault and possession of a firearm.

And although only 211 officers are known to have convictions, the real number is likely to be much higher. Only 16 of the UK’s 45 territorial police forces responded to the FOI requests, “with many claiming it would cost too much to retrieve the information”, the broadcaster reports.

Among those that responded, North Wales Police admitted that 20 of its police officers and five PCSOs have criminal convictions, including assault, drug possession and cruelty to animals.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said 99 serving officers had received criminal convictions while employed by the force, for offences including death by careless driving, assault, harassment and possession of a firearm/drunk in charge of a firearm.

Offences by Kent Police officers include assault, criminal damage and drink driving - with five of those convicted ranked “inspector or above”. 

Other crimes by officers in police forces including Avon and Somerset, Dorset, Norfolk, Cheshire, and Devon and Cornwall include burglary, theft, obtaining money by deception, battery, possessing an imitation firearm in a public place, and data protection offences.

And the racism inquiry?

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is to investigate cases involving the use of force and stop and search to determine whether any racial discrimination was in play, according to The Guardian.

The police watchdog said said it would look for “trends and patterns which might help drive real change” and “investigat[e] more cases where racial discrimination may be a factor in order to develop a body of evidence to identify systemic issues which should be addressed”, the newspaper reports.

The inquiry comes amid renewed scrutiny on police forces worldwide in the wake of the killing of African-American man George Floyd during an arrest in Minnesota in May.

Police officers in England and Wales have repeatedly been accused of using stop and search powers disproportionately against black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people.

According to an analysis of Home Office internal data last year, black people are 40 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police in the UK.

The IOPC will also examine whether BAME people are being failed as victims of crime.

Are these policing problems new?

Although the protests triggered by Floyd’s death have fuelled calls to combat alleged racism within police forces, such accusations are by no means new.

“The policing of black British culture claims a long history”, wrote Lambros Fatsis, a lecturer in sociology and criminology at Southampton University, in a 2018 article on The Conversation.

“It might take another Black Lives Matter moment to wake up to police racism and recognise that when policing is part of the problem, it can’t also be the solution to violent crime,” Fatsis predicted.  

The Metropolitan Police force was infamously branded “institutionally racist” back in 1999 by retired High Court judge William Macpherson, who led the public inquiry into the fatal stabbing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

Little appears to have changed in the ensuing decades.

The Met “receives more than 250 complaints alleging racism on average each year and less than 1% are upheld”, The Guardian reports. 

Is it time for an overhaul of UK policing?

Police forces across the UK are under pressure to prove that they have listened to the voices of Black Lives Matter protestors.

Confirming the upcoming IOPC inquiry, due to begin this autumn, the watchdog’s director general Michael Lockwood said: “Evidence of disproportionality in the use of police powers has long been a concern which impacts on confidence in policing, particularly in the BAME communities.”

Experts say changing the way that officers work - whether through more socially conscious community policing strategies, better training and education, or changes to recruitment policies - is key to regaining public confidence in police.

The IOPC vowed that “it would not shy away from any conclusion if it found evidence to support it, including that systemic racism was at play”, The Guardian reports.

“We can then see if there is a need to change policing policy or practice,” Lockwood said.

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