Police Scotland: Why racism and sexism is down to failures of leadership at every level - Euan McColm

Bleakest thing about admission of racism and discrimination at Police Scotland is how unsurprising it is

Perhaps the bleakest thing about the chief constable’s labelling of Police Scotland as institutionally racist and discriminatory is how unsurprising it is.

Over recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to the publication of reports that find major institutions similarly flawed. It would have been a shock had the audit of Scottish cops found no issues.

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The establishment of an independent review group, two years ago, was a wise move. No organisation can afford to become complacent on the issues of racism and sexism.

First Minister Humza Yousaf visits Nova Innovation. Picture: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty ImagesFirst Minister Humza Yousaf visits Nova Innovation. Picture: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images
First Minister Humza Yousaf visits Nova Innovation. Picture: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images

What’s more, there was clearly enough public concern about the force to merit this probe. The case of Sheku Bayoh, who died after being restrained by police in Kirkcaldy in 2015 was, perhaps, the most significant red flag but there were other matters, too, including allegations from female officers of sexist bullying.

But, though we should welcome a thorough sweep of the national police force’s standards, there are problems with the way this report is being presented to us.

The Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Sir Iain Livingstone, said prejudice and bad behaviour within the force was “rightly of great concern”. Acknowledging these issues existed, he added, was vital for real change to happen.

Then came the twist. Livingstone said an admission of institutional discrimination did not mean that individual officers and staff were racist or sexist.

Can this possibly be true? Can an organisation become institutionally racist and sexist without at least some of its staff being racist and sexist? How does this racism and sexism manifest itself if not though the words and actions of human beings?

When Livingstone told us people from different backgrounds “did not always get the service that is their right”, how did he think this situation had arisen if not because of the attitudes of officers with whom these individuals were dealing?

Addressing a meeting of the Scottish Police Authority on Thursday, Livingstone said it was the right thing for him to do to clearly state that institutional racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination exist. Police Scotland was both institutionally racist and discriminatory and publicly acknowledging this was essential to its absolute commitment to championing equality and becoming an anti-racist service.

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Shorty after the Chief Constable spoke, First Minister Humza Yousaf welcomed his words. Speaking in the Scottish Parliament, he told MSPs Livingstone’s statement was “monumental” and “historic”. Yousaf recalled being stopped and searched more than a dozen times in his youth. Whether driving his car, walking in the street with friends, or visiting airports, Yousaf had seen the ugly face of the police service.

But Yousaf was not harassed by an institution, he was harassed by individual police officers. It took actual human beings to decide that. actually, this young, brown-skinned man should be searched.

It’s 24 years since Sir William Macpherson’s report into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the investigation into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence found the organisation to be scarred by institutional racism. That report should not have been a watershed moment solely for the Met but for every force, for every major institution across the country.

Senior officers in Scotland should have been learning from Macpherson almost quarter of a century ago. Clearly, they were not.

Livingstone is soon to retire from his role as Chief Constable of Police Scotland. The problems uncovered by the independent investigation into the force will be for his successor to tackle.

It’s hardly surprising that some who served under him feel he has thrown a grenade over his shoulder as he walks towards the exit,

The former chairman of the Police Federation – the body that represents serving officers – Calum Steele accused Livingstone of “an act of sabotage”. The departing chief had kicked policing “into the gutter”.

In Steele’s view Livingstone’s words would devastate morale and haunt the force for a generation. The damage caused by Livingstone’s comments would be long-lasting; they would be thrown in the faces of officers for their entire careers.

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It’s tempting to dismiss Steele’s remarks as a classic example of cops sticking up for their own regardless of the facts of the matter. But he makes a point which is not so easy to ignore.

It’s telling, said Steele, that there is absolutely no acceptance by the Chief Constable that he or his leadership team are responsible for these failings.

This gets to the heart of the problem with Livingstone’s statement. Institutions such as police forces are not sentient. They do not simply decide to be racist or sexist. Rather – and it seems extraordinary to have to point this out to Livingstone – they are shaped by those who lead. For Police Scotland to have become institutionally racist, there simply must have been failures of leadership at every level. There must have been actively racist officers and there must have been enablers, those who – through fear or complacency – never challenged the inappropriate behaviour of others. I can’t imagine anyone who has suffered racism or sexism in their dealings with Police Scotland would agree that officers had nothing to do with it.

And so where is the accountability? Livingstone has been Chief Constable of Police Scotland for almost half of its decade-long existence. Before that, he was the deputy. Since the birth of Police Scotland, Livingstone has been in the top tier of management. How can he bear no responsibility for the culture that thrived under his leadership?

If the chief executive of major business admitted the organisation had been institutionally racist and sexist on their watch, they’d be out on their backside.

In contrast, Sir Iain Livingstone is heading for a cosy retirement and we are to accept nobody is to blame for the toxic culture of Police Scotland.

This article has been updated to clarify that it was the chief constable who labelled Police Scotland as institutionally racist, not the report



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