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  • Iain Donnelly

Institutional - What's in a word?

The argument over whether the Metropolitan Police Service, (or for that matter, British policing) is or isn’t institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic shows no sign of abating. Sir Mark Rowley, the Met Commissioner, remains stubbornly resistant to accepting those particular conclusions from the Baroness Casey report, leading to the inevitable accusation that he lacks the will or the stomach to transform the standards and culture of his organisation.

In an interview in the Guardian yesterday, the Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, Steve Hartshorn, stated that he now agrees with the charge that the police are institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. This will generate heated debate among the rank and file of policing, many of whom will see it as a betrayal, suggesting that he has caved into political pressure.

I respect Steve very much. He’s a good guy, and he completely has the best interests of police officers at heart. I also get it. I get why he has said what he has said. There’s a huge amount of pressure to draw a line, accept the accusations and perhaps move forward into a better, happier place where policing can regain the public's trust.

However, I disagree with that position. Moreover, and more importantly, I have serious doubts about whether anything can or will change by accepting the unhappy term ‘institutional’.

Why do I think that?

Firstly, let’s agree on a definition of the word ‘institutional’ because everyone seems to have a different understanding of what it means. Language is important. Many of those who denigrate UK policing use language at best in a lazy way and at worst in a dishonest and disingenuous way. They believe that words can subjectively mean whatever they want them to mean, and history teaches us that this is the route to ideological possession.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

George Orwell (1984)

The Collins English Dictionary states that;

“If someone accuses an organization of institutional racism or sexism, they mean that the organization is deeply racist or sexist and has been so for a long time.” defines Institutional as;

“relating to or noting a policy, practice, or belief system that has been established as normative or customary throughout an institution or society, particularly as perpetuated in institutions of a public character, as schools, courts, or legislative bodies”

It’s therefore easy to see why Mark Rowley refuses to accept the terms ‘institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia’ as they apply to the Met police, because he (like me and tens of thousands of others) spent a very, very long time actually working in the Met and we did not see or experience an organisation that was “deeply racist” or one where racism, misogyny and homophobia was “normative or customary throughout”.

It just wasn’t, and I will continue to say that and believe that to my dying day.

It's an incredibly clumsy and unhelpful word when it’s applied to an entire organisation and everyone in that organisation, and no amount of self-flagellation on the part of some senior officers or Police Federation leaders will make it less clumsy, unhelpful and….here’s the main point…


It’s unfair to the overwhelming majority of people who make up that organisation who do a difficult and horribly stressful job that literally no one else understands, even one tiny little bit, unless they’ve done it for a reasonable period of time. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that police officers experience more human trauma in a single week than most members of the public deal with during their entire lives. 169 UK police officers took their own lives between 2011 and 2019, and one in five past and present suffer from varying levels of PTSD.)

The racism accusation is unfair, and it achieves nothing. In my book, Tango Juliet Foxtrot I said;

“After the Macpherson Report, police officers found themselves (and still find themselves) in an impossible position in respect of issues of race in Britain. They are vilified if they stop and search or arrest too many minority ethnic offenders, but if they fail to deal robustly with those same offenders they are vilified for ‘tolerating’ crime committed against minority ethnic victims. So, what does the average 23-year-old police officer do when confronted with this situation when policing our streets? Sometimes, it’s just easier to ignore things because, in the current climate, getting involved can end very badly for police officers.”


“Professor Larry Sherman leads the Cambridge Centre for Evidence-based Policing. Research he conducted in 2020 into UK homicides found that murder rates across the UK are between 200 per cent and 800 per cent higher in black communities than they are in white communities. Even more shockingly, in the 16–24 age group young black men are twenty-four times more likely to be victims of homicide than white men of the same age. Sadly, the majority of these victims will be killed by other young black men. It is therefore clear to me why young black men are disproportionately impacted by police use of stop and search and I have no doubt that many young lives have needlessly been lost as a result of politicians undermining the use of this tactic by police.

There needs to be more of an open and honest discourse about this issue and an acknowledgement that, for all sorts of complex reasons, young minority ethnic men in some of our major cities are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violent crime. The police can either deal with the situations they find themselves in or they can ignore them. What should they do?”

So, I’ll ask that question again. What should they do?

Young black men from some of our most deprived communities are disproportionately coming into confrontational situations with police officers due to efforts to remove weapons from the street and thus prevent violent mayhem. But what is the alternative to this?

Yesterday evening Labour ex-parliamentary candidate Ali Milani, interviewed me on his ‘Politics Uncensored’ radio show. ( ). Also in the studio was self-styled Women’s rights activist Patsy Stevenson; she of the Sarah Everard Clapham protest arrest. Remember that? How could we forget the sight of her basking in the media spotlight for her 15 minutes of fame like an attention-seeking teenager? This was the protest where female police officers reported;

“During the incident, I distinctly remember multiple women coming up to me throughout the incident, wishing I was raped, with one female saying words to the effect of: ‘I hope you get raped, so you know what it’s like’. Another woman also said words to the effect of ‘I hope you get murdered and that your face is all over the news once you’ve been murdered’…”



It makes a change from the usual things said to police officers like ‘I hope you die painfully of cancer’ or ‘I’ll find out where you live and rape your kids while you’re at work’.

It was crystal clear from the outset that neither of them wanted a grown-up conversation about policing. They didn’t want to hear about Prof Sherman’s research or answer my question about what police officers should do in the face of serious youth violence and knife crime. The best that Patsy could come up with was that we should ‘defund the police’, but Theresa May already did that in 2010, and I think we all know how that’s working out for UK public safety.

No doubt they will both snigger about the interview back in the green room, about how they made the cop squirm (they didn’t), but it illustrated how it has become impossible for the media to talk about policing in a sensible, nuanced way.

Blanket allegations of bullying, misogyny and homophobia are equally unfair, so let me point out a few facts that nobody seems to care about, because it doesn’t fit the current prevailing anti-police narrative.

In the latter part of my career, I witnessed and personally experienced some truly dreadful bullying and bad behaviour by a hard core of female senior officers towards men. I left one job because of it, and I know many male officers whose working lives were made completely miserable by bullying women.

I also saw terrible behaviour and bullying by a different hard core of senior female officers towards other female officers whilst blatantly flirting with men in meetings. Often the behaviour went way beyond flirting and turned into full-blown sexual innuendo towards men who found that experience deeply uncomfortable.

I also saw and experienced the bad behaviour of a hard core of senior gay women in the police who ganged up as a collective on men and women who were not in their particular clique. If you upset one of them, you upset all of them. One of my colleagues wryly referred to them as the ‘masonettes’, because they exhibited the same boorish and exclusionary behaviour as certain men had historically done who were members of the Masonic Lodge in years gone by.

I also once had a very senior Asian officer try to bully me into dropping a criminal investigation into a fellow Asian police officer. He suggested that the victim was lying and needed to be ignored.

I didn’t drop the case. Obviously.

So, you see, it’s never as simple as lazily saying police officers are all a bunch of women-hating, gay-hating racists…which is pretty much what the word ‘institutional’ infers

Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, regardless of who it comes from or why, and anyone who thinks bad behaviour is unique to the occupation of policing is either naive or wilfully blind, as Dominic Raab today found to his cost.

Finally, this never-ending argument risks deflecting attention from a much more serious problem, i.e the current state of UK criminal justice and public safety, which by any definition is in complete disarray.

Huge numbers of police officers resigning early in despair over excessive work pressure, poor pay and weak leadership. Chronically poor mental health. Crime investigation in crisis due to a national shortage of detectives. Courts with huge backlogs. Woefully low charge and conviction rates.

So let's all stop bickering about language and start thinking about how we fix problems that are making all of us, including Ali Milani and Patsy Stevenson, very much more unsafe.

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