Britain’s only ever black chief constable has warned that a George Floyd-style killing could happen here, with police embroiled in a crisis over racial justice they were failing to address.
Michael Fuller told the Guardian that stop and search was leaving black people feeling “humiliated”, “alienated” and that their human rights and dignity were not being respected.
Fuller was the chief constable of the Kent force after serving in the Metropolitan police tackling gang and gun violence in London.
He said that cutting crime without widescale use of stop and search was possible, and that the crisis was not inevitable. He added it was proven that building better trust with communities led to better intelligence about serious criminals.
Fuller has expertise in policing and the criminal justice system. After serving as chief constable of Kent from 2004 to 2010, he was chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, and is also a qualified barrister.
He said both British and American black communities were enduring bad experiences of policing, and rejected the assumption it was better in Britain: “In both societies there is racial injustice and social injustice in the way black communities are treated in both countries. The issues are the same.”
He went on to point to the review of the criminal justice system by Labour MP David Lammy, which was commissioned by then prime minister Theresa May.
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The study found a disproportionate number of black people in the criminal justice system, with black people experiencing disproportionately higher stop and search, imprisonment rates and victimisation from criminals. Other official reports into deaths in custody also showed worse outcomes for ethnic minority people, which for Fuller showed “evidence of systemic racism”.
Questioned about UK policing compared with the US, he said: “We have our problems here, there have been mistakes made and we have had our tragedies.” Asked if an atrocity such as the killing of Floyd could happen in the UK he conceded: “It could happen here. We have had equally appalling incidents.”
Floyd, 46, died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Footage of the arrest on 25 May showed a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he was pinned to the floor.
Asked for an example, he said if proven, claims about officers taking selfies at the murder scene in a London park where two black sisters lay dead, would be “equally horrendous”. The allegations, first revealed by the Guardian, are currently the subject of a criminal investigation.
The long-standing flashpoint between police and ethnic minority communities is stop and search, with black people nine times more likely to be stopped than white people, with most being innocent.
Commenting on the issue, Fuller said: “The evidence does not support that it is effective in controlling or reducing crime. I support stop search but it needs to be of the right people and based on intelligence rather than being indiscriminate.”
“The evidence shows that 80% of people stopped are innocent, which suggests it is not being used efficiently or effectively. Those people can feel inconvenienced, alienated and humiliated.”
He added: “There is a perception within black communities that the whole community is being profiled and targeted by the police. That perception is there and it is very strong and that is something the police need to deal with.”
Police’s leadership needed to do more, said the former chief constable, with a worrying gap growing between law enforcement and young black Britons: “Young black people do not feel their human rights and dignity are being respected by the police and that they are getting due protection under the law.
“It is the default use of handcuffs when people are stopped, that never happened when I was PC, and the perception of profiling. All the evidence points to a crisis of confidence in policing from the black community.
“By increasing confidence in policing, particularly among the black community you are more likely to secure cooperation and reduce crime as a result, and provide a better service for all.”
Fuller’s comments are challenging for the service he loves. In recent interviews with the Guardian former Met assistant commissioner Patricia Gallan, the most senior ethnic minority woman ever in policing, has also raised significant concerns about police’s past and current record on race.
Fuller said the stop of a car containing athlete Bianca Williams, her partner and baby, was troubling: “I think from the short video clip the officers look quite menacing. The officer held an asp [metal police baton] in a very menacing way, it would be quite frightening for anybody.
“I would have thought some of the officers had overreacted. If it had been a car full of thugs you could understand it, but it was a couple with a baby, it did not really add up. That raises a lot of question. It raises the question why were they treated so aggressively?”
He added: “People are not being treated with due courtesy and respect.”
He insisted the race crisis can be turned around and black youngsters do not want police defunded, but want protection from crime and gangs: “People want a say in how they are policed, they want police to be effective and legitimate, and to have more of them. The situation can be turned around.”
Having more ethnic minority officers in the ranks was crucially important he added. “Young people they want a service that looks like them and which they can therefore relate to.”
He was hopeful the plan to increase police numbers by 20,000 in three years will boost ethnic minority officer numbers and mean more officers are available to provide community policing.
Ian Hopkins, a chief constable who leads for the National Police Chiefs’ Council on diversity said work was underway with police leaders signed up to an action plan:“We are all committed to tackling the wrongs of racism, bias and discrimination wherever they are found in policing.
“Everyone in policing knows how important it is that communities can relate to and feel represented by us. It is important that we better understand people’s lived experiences, and focus on all aspects of diversity through the whole organisation if we are to truly reflect the communities we serve.”