‘Disproportionality’ is currently a hot topic and the nemesis of effective community policing. Controversies about the proportionality of stop and search, use of force, and other police tactics are rife. Like the ‘war on drugs’, it seems an endless battle. Some communities feel as though they are being unfairly targeted, particularly in relation to race. While policing still harbours racist officers, most cops feel like they’re proportionately targeting their actions against crime.
For aspiring leaders, it’s important to understand the concepts involved and have a view on such controversial subjects. Not least, because you may be asked to deliver a themed presentation, potentially as part of your police promotion board. Consider the following example promotion question:
“As a newly promoted leader, how will you communicate our values of fairness and equality so that they are felt and experienced by different communities?”
This blog takes a wander across this minefield which few dare to assess objectively, to spark ideas and constructive debate about how disproportionality should be assessed. We’ll map out the warzone, iron out the common misunderstandings, while offering an alternative more meaningful method to define what’s ‘disproportionate’. My blog on diversity, equality, and inclusion provides useful background information as to terms and DEI context.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle
As an aspiring police leader, I encourage you to read deeper on these subjects which affect policing, as part of your rounded leadership CPD. You may agree or disagree with points made in this blog; if so, great! It shows you can consider different perspectives; an essential skill in inclusive leadership and of course fundamental to the impartiality value of policing itself!
The Touchpaper is Lit
“The Met has become unanchored from the Peelian principle of policing by consent set out when it was established.“ – Casey Review finding
Policing is regularly criticised for treating parts of the community unfairly. Whether it arises from complaints from the public, internal conduct investigations, snapshot opinion polls, under fire from the media, or formal reviews by official bodies.
For example, 2021/22 IOPC complaint statistics show over 7,000 complaints relating to use of force. Nearly 4,000 complaints related specifically to discriminatory behaviour (3% of all police complaints), with over half of these relating to the protected characteristic of race.
The media often shine the spotlight on ‘disproportionality’. Whether it’s to do with use of force, stop search, or the more invasive strip-searches reported in recent weeks, the police are often criticised about disproportionality. Nearly all the criticism revolves around the protected characteristic of Race, particularly comparing black minority groups against white groups.
Such criticisms clearly can’t be ignored. As the Casey Review found, if there’s a bullying culture within policing which doesn’t treat its own people fairly, how can the public themselves have trust (including “pranks” involving bacon and Muslim officers)? Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley has openly warned the force has “hundreds of people who shouldn’t be here”. This goes to the heart of policing’s legitimacy, a core tenet of the UK’s Peelian Principles.
Equally however, the criticisms should be targeted and actionable. Otherwise, vast swathes of legitimate policing activity get caught in the crossfire, leading to conflict and poor community relations. Whether it’s taking knives off the streets via Operation Sceptre (with similar operations elsewhere in Garda), investigating crimes, or apprehending (often violent) offenders by force. This leads to well-evidenced measures at keeping the public safe becoming collateral damage of misguided debates and ‘culture wars’.
Here’s just one example of successful intervention via stop and search, tweeted recently by the eminent Vernal Scott. There’s hundreds more being found every day, reflecting the ongoing wars being fought between rival gangs for control of Britain’s streets. Cynics might argue that as shocking as this is, soft sentencing policies means that even when convicted, such individuals will be back on the streets in no time.
A Conflict Driven by Poor Intel?
Disproportionality against the background population, such as the examples listed above, is immediately equated by most commentators as ‘racism’. For example, consider the long-standing Hackney MP Dianne Abbot’s reaction to the recent reports of strip-search disproportionality among black girls:
“It is… compelling evidence of blatant racist discrimination.”
The logic of these typical misunderstandings and knee-jerk critique can be summed up as per the graphic below. In essence, it says that if certain groups of people are disproportionately represented (i.e. over-represented) in relation to police action, when compared to their demographics in the general population, that means the police must be unfairly discriminating against those groups. Conversely, if things appear to be in proportion, everything must be fine.
But this is quite clearly dangerously flawed logic, which becomes evident with just a moment’s thought. It all comes down to what should be considered ‘normal’ proportions. The general population demographics are used as a target benchmark. But clearly, crime doesn’t happen in such neat proportions among the between demographics of the general public.
Further, you may have noticed that this logic only seems to get used when discussing Race. More specifically it is predominantly made for Black vs. White comparisons, completely excluding the whole spectrum of ethnicities, countries of birth, languages, and such demographics, which are equally-protected under the Race characteristic (yet don’t happen to feature as often in recording systems or reports).
This logic falls apart spectacularly when you apply it to other protected characteristics. Consider for example that police should be labelled as sexist for ‘disproportionately’ targeting males. After all, men are 4X more likely to be subject to police use of force than women. Men are also overrepresented in the wider criminal justice system, when compared to their 49% rate in the general population. The reality is that few complain or comment about this, because most people know instinctively that using the general population as a police fairness/discrimination benchmark for the Sex characteristic, would be absurd.
Similarly, for the Age characteristic, there would be uproar should the police start using force and searching the very elderly at the same rates as younger people. There’s already been outrage among media outlets that the police must occasionally strip search children. While arrests and searches of the elderly would be proportional to the general population demographics, things would not be OK. That would at best be a negligent application of authorised practice or evidence-based policing. It would be in all legal senses be a disproportionate course of action and a waste of police time.
“The primary purpose of stop and search powers is to enable officers to allay or confirm suspicions about individuals without exercising their power of arrest.” – College of Policing APP, Stop and Search
Few working in policing attempt to dispute this flawed logic; maybe fearing they will be labelled ‘racists’ for daring to point at the naked emperor. After all, Professional Standards Departments are being encouraged from the sidelines to watch their every move.
It is of note that these PSD functions in England & Wales are now staffed with double the number of police officers they had just 10 years ago, despite austerity biting, now standing at nearly 1,500 officers (half of whom reside in the Met’s PSD). That means there’s now 5x more police officers policing other police officers than there are policing the public. The Met Police are adding 90 more, taking them away from tackling serious crime. Serious crime is an area which “matters most to Londoners” according to the Met’s latest business plan. This is just one small snapshot demonstrating how Chief Officers have prioritised their limited resources over austere years, an overlooked part of why frontline response and investigation functions have been decimated.
Even official UK figures show that differences exist between crime types, and that disparities reduce when comparing ‘apples with apples’. For example, it finds that “controlling for offence mix across ethnic groups showed reduced disparity in Average Custodial Sentence Lengths and Custody Rates”.
All protected characteristics are equal under the law. Whether male, female, pregnant, 25 or 85, black, white, Asian, heterosexual, lesbian, neurodiverse, Polish, Indian, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, or transgender. One does not trump the other, legally speaking.
So why do people draw upon this faulty logic when it comes to Race? Is Race a unique characteristic in which all denominations happen to commit crime evenly and equally, with no differences in offence types which might attract actions such as stop and search (e.g. drug offences, knife crime) or use of force (e.g. violence)? Or are there differences, but people are reluctant to discuss openly? What do you think?
The logic graphic above is the lazy way of thinking. That’s the thinking done by those with plenty of criticisms, but few ideas or solutions. Knee-jerk, clunky, loud criticisms then unsurprisingly lead to knee-jerk, unspecific ‘strategic improvement plans’. You know the ones. They take the form of well-presented word-salads, dressed generously in blather, to give reassurance that ‘something is being done’.
But that’s no way to effectively manage performance and improve public service. Only by understanding differences and nuances can all partners identify smarter solutions and fixes, be that within policing or wider society. Maybe there’s a fundamental problem comparing proportionality to the general public? It’s time for peace talks and a smarter way of looking at disproportionality…
Enter a New Concord…
In times of war, ceasefires allow parties to regroup and discuss solutions to end the conflict with a clear head. Similarly, parties need to take stock and agree clear terms on what is proportionate action. The legitimacy of policing itself is at stake.
The ‘Police Race Action Plan: Improving Policing for Black People’ was drawn up by the College of Policing and NPCC as just one such potential treaty. This is another of the important reads for police promotion candidates. Unfortunately however, it too makes all the same misguided and ill-thought-out errors on defining what ‘disproportionality’ actually means.
The problems arise when we compare against general population demographics to indicate apparent fairness. So clearly, the solution must lie in finding a more meaningful comparator of proportionality.
Let’s first get clear on what proportionality actually means, because it seems to have been lost in the emotive crossfire. In UK and EU law, it broadly comes down to the principle of striking the balance of means used and intended aims when exercising powers. The EU also helpfully breaks proportionality down further into four stages:
- there must be a legitimate aim for a measure
- the measure must be suitable to achieve the aim (potentially with a requirement of evidence to show it will have that effect)
- the measure must be necessary to achieve the aim, that there cannot be any less onerous way of doing it
- the measure must be reasonable, considering the competing interests of different groups at hand (e.g. personal rights vs. public safety)
Decision-making oozes out through these definitions, as does evidence-based and intelligence-led policing. Is there evidence to assume criminality is blandly uniform across all protected characteristics and for all the hundreds of different offences? Should we just carry on picking and choosing which protected characteristics are appropriate to compare based on their sensitivity/political correctness? Or should we take a more intelligent approach?
It seems obvious general population demographics aren’t an appropriate comparator for police action. The tricky part comes in defining a new benchmark for apparent fairness, especially when it involves the clearly more sensitive characteristic of Race. Most people simply can’t be bothered to think of a more relevant comparator base population, than the everyday understanding of what ‘population’ means (i.e. derived from the Census).
In essence, this means stop and search and use of force demographics should match the demographics of the groups being targeted. Policing doesn’t tend to target the general population in proactive and intrusive crime prevention measures. Therefore, here are some alternative example comparator populations and food for thought:
- When targeting drug offences, compare those searched against demographics of people known to commit drug offences.
- When removing weapons off the streets, compare those searched against demographics of people known to carry weapons.
- When using force, compare this against the demographics of violent offenders.
These are just some ideas; maybe the universities involved in force police degrees could support by investigating further options? The key throughout though, is to tailor the base population to the intelligence-led and legitimate aims being sought.
- Can you think of any more?
- How do you think proportional police action should be measured?
- What does better look like, sound like, and feel like?
- How can this be achieved with courage and compassion to better serve communities?
If you’re an aspiring leader in policing, this is exactly the kind of ground upon which you must be well-researched and have a view on. It cuts to the heart of policing by consent. As the Met Police recruitment campaign states: If not you, then who?
I hope you’ve found this essay interesting, respectful, and thought-provoking. If you have any thoughts on this issue and would like to write a guest blog, I’m happy to share my platform with you (as other leaders have previously done). Please get in touch to arrange.
Kind Regards, Steve
Want to go further right now? Hit the ground running with your promotion preparation. Get your personal digital promotion toolkit, and/or my Police Promotion Masterclass. You can also contact me to arrange personal coaching support. If you first want to explore completely free content, I have a collection of videos, eGuides, a podcast.