‘The weight of the uniform’ as a black police officer and why representation is key
Written by Hitmix News on 5 June 2021
Demetrious wanted to be a police officer from the age of eight years old – but as a black man, he says he understands that this is not the norm.
“When you are eight, you don’t quite have a grasp of the bigger, larger social picture,” he says.
But as he grew older and understood the challenges that awaited him as a black man, he became “acutely aware of the responsibility that it carries”.
Image: Demetrious had wanted to be an officer from when he was eight years old Image: Demetrious is ‘acutely aware of the responsibility that it carries’ being a black police officer
This realisation has been impossible to ignore over the course of the past 12 months.
May 2020 saw cities around the world erupt in protest in response to the shocking murder of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man who was killed by police.
His death forced the world to acknowledge institutional racism in all aspects of society – starting with the police.
More on Black Lives Matter
For Demetrious, who’s been a police constable in the West Midlands for four years, it made him more “aware of the weight of both the uniform, and where you come from”.
He described Mr Floyd’s murder as “heart-breaking” but he says for himself, and other black officers, it was more than that.
“It kind of feels like the candle is being burnt on both ends,” he says. “You feel the pain from the black community, seeing someone you recognise as a friend, a cousin, a brother – or even yourself.
“But then you also have the professional disappointment of ‘I know how it is supposed to be done’.”
This is why he says representation is key.
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Black people in the UK are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched, four times more likely to have the use of force used against them, and even during a pandemic – they were more likely to be fined for breaking lockdown rules.
For black officers, they say this is problematic and causes stereotyping on both sides.
I joined Demetrious on a community walkabout with his colleague Superintendent Karen Geddes, the most senior black woman in West Midlands Police.
They walked through the lively streets of Lozells, a community with a large black presence.
The officers popped their heads through barber shop windows; chit chatted with people in the local Caribbean restaurants, before stopping to appreciate the reggae music blaring through a car speaker, striking up a conversation with group of men who praised Karen for her “positive attitude”.
The only noticeable difference from the officers and the people they spoke to were their uniforms.
Image: In the West Midlands, 35% of the population are from ethnically diverse communities
“It’s a conversation starter,” Demetrious says, as he explains that this is the usual response.
“I think people feel like if they speak to you about their issues you’ll understand. They don’t have to spend the first couple of minutes explaining, they feel you understand their position and you will have your voice heard.”
And perhaps because of this, almost of all of those stopped mentioned their distrust for the police.
“What we have to understand is that what people hear is the word ‘police’ and its one of these words that when you look at it in any country it doesn’t change very much in its spelling, or its meaning,” says Karen.
She says that while policing is different in the UK in comparison with the US, she says it is “incumbent” for police in the UK to recognise and respond to fears here too, and believes George Floyd sparked real conversations about the need to be “diverse and representative of the community”.
But this is challenging, when black people are often reluctant to pursue a career in policing.
Image: Superintendent Karen Geddes is the most senior black police officer in West Midlands Police
In the West Midlands, 35% of the population are from ethnically diverse communities. West Midlands police say they are recruiting 17% from these backgrounds.
At the height of protests last summer, Karen’s boss, Chief Constable Sir David Thompson, apologised for historic misdeeds committed by the force, which he said had led to a lack of trust from some communities.
He also set up a series of “inclusion” events to promote the diverse staff and pledged to hire an additional 1,000 officers from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
But the number of black officers still remain at 1.3% – that’s an increase of just 0.3% in the past decade.
For Karen, this has been hard.
“I have always been the minority,” she says. “We have tried organisationally to promote it to our community but there is still a reluctance.”
And Demetrious echoes her sentiments.
“I would like to look back on my career and really notice the change,” he says. “To see more black officers in the room. To not be the only one in the car. For young black boys and girls to have this as a career aspiration.”
He thinks once this happens, everything else will follow.