British Police Hobbled by Their Own Prejudice

Law enforcement in England could borrow from lessons learned by U.S. police during the civil-rights movement, says Joseph McNamara, a former police chief.

08.09.11 10:36 PM ET

The current violent riots in England remind me of my experiences in American policing, as well as those with the English police. As a police veteran of many riots, I applaud the strong condemnation in England by police and political leaders of those criminals destroying the neighborhoods of the very people they claim to represent. To be effective, however, the condemnation of thugs and violence must come from the minority community itself. But denunciation of criminal violence will not come until neighborhood leaders are convinced that political and police leaders are committed to equal treatment.

In the late 1980s, I was forced to take extended medical leave from my job as police chief of San Jose, California. I was bored out of my mind and jumped to take the opportunity to serve without pay as a visiting professor at Bramshill Police College, located 30 miles southwest of London. Every officer hoping to rise in rank from within England’s 56 county police forces was obliged to successfully complete courses at Bramshill. During my long career in American policing, the British bobby had been frequently held up as the model of professionalism and the example for policing free from prejudice, so I greatly looked forward to the opportunity to observe and learn.

While serving three months in England, I found many of the good things that I had expected, but there were some nasty surprises. The English spirit of maintaining a stiff upper lip and traditions of patriotism which had enabled this tiny island to establish a farflung empire upon which the sun never set, came with a highly discriminatory class system which greatly exacerbated racial divides. The English coppers were exceedingly polite, if a bit formal, but they only truly accepted me after they realized that, despite my Irish face and last name, I was really a “Yank,” whose parents had been born in New York City and had never even visited Ireland. I downed my share of pints with the ranking officers in pubs and accepted their generous offers to visit their homes on weekends. Only then did I hear references to “N-----s” and their bloody knives.

When I gave a lecture at the College on the success I had experienced as chief of police in reducing crime by implementing outreach programs acquainting officers with minority cultures and encouraging minorities to view the police as their protectors and work with them as partners in keeping neighborhoods safe, it was greeted with stony silence by high- ranking students and their police instructors. The professional academics who made up half of the teaching corps were privately enthusiastic, however, telling me that the police were in denial. Later, I inquired why there were so few minority police. “They don’t apply,” was the chilling nonanswer from the police brass.

Some of the academic instructors at Bramshill arranged for me to lecture at two public universities where I met with a couple of young bobbies of Indian extraction. Separately, each of them told me similar stories. Applying for police appointment, they met with recruiters who seemed more interested in turning them down than recruiting them. The recruiter asked the young men, “How do we know that after we put you through all of our expensive training, you won’t return to your own country?”

“You mean England? As you can see from my birth certificate, I was born in London,” each of the applicants replied.

The same feeling of exclusion feeds the present distrust of police and the tacit acceptance of violence fueling the current riots.  England, for decades, has looked down on the United States because of its racial discrimination. But, as the demographics of England have changed and many people of color have emigrated to the country from throughout the former empire, integration has faltered, and racial segregation and discrimination parallel the class system and the bitterness it evokes.

During my tenure at Bramshill, the English police were vigorously training in crowd-control techniques. But it is clear to me that the English society could profit from the hard-learned lessons of the American civil-rights movement on the necessity for racial inclusion and equality.