British police leader discusses reform efforts across the pond
Sept. 29, 2022
LONDON – Janet Hills, as the head of the Metropolitan Black Police Association, worked to rebuild fractured trust with marginalized communities.
Her work started early in her years as a police officer, fresh out of a previous job as a revenue inspector for Transport for London, the city’s transit system. She was assigned in 1991 to Brixton, a predominantly Black district of London, where people have a strained relationship with the Metropolitan Police Service.
Brixton was unfamiliar to Hills, who grew up in Croydon as one of the few Black people in the mostly white, middle-class South London suburb, where Blacks weren’t always welcomed, she said.
Her brother and other family members became police officers, so she joined, too.
“I didn’t grow up getting into any problems with the police, so I didn’t have a relationship, view, or opinion of the police,” Hills recalled. That changed.
Hills, 54, retired in August 2021 after three decades of an active career. She served as the first female chair of the Metropolitan Black Police Association from 2013 to 2021 and was president of the National Black Police Association from 2015 to 2017.
According to its website, the National Black Police Association seeks to improve the working environment of Black officers by protecting their rights within the service, as well as enhance racial harmony and quality of service to the Black communities in Great Britain. The Metropolitan Black Police Association came at a time where Black and Asian officers and employees were rare and underrepresented in police ranks.
Hills spoke of her past (the dizzying experience of growing up in a white suburb, then policing a Black community), the present (the controversial treatment of people in police custody) and the future of police reform in Great Britain. (Hint: It will take time). The conversation also covers how British police leaders regarded the impact George Floyd’s 2020 murder in Britain. And she spoke of her country’s own George Floyd – Stephen Lawrence, 18, who was killed in 1993 in an unprovoked racist attack by white youths, which led to an examination of policing in the country.
Q: What was it like growing up in Croydon?
Janet Hills: We were like the only Black family on our road because it was a new kind of development they had done. My mom was a single parent, and my father died when I was 3. She was bringing up five of us, and as kids, we were noisy. Our white neighbors would always racially abuse us. Call us names, tell us to shut up. We didn’t have a good relationship with them, and it was horrible, actually.
Here, we have the National Front. It was very, very prominent in Croydon because it was an outer (suburban) borough. They used to have marches along the high street saying “Blacks out! Blacks out!” It was quite scary, really, if I’m honest. You always felt a little bit nervous knowing that they were going to be marching.
Q: Can you tell us about your experiences with the National Front at an early age?
JH: They would post their propaganda to your door. They didn’t care if a Black person lived there. It was like the sort of advertising who they were and why you should be part of their group. A lot of them were skinheads. I associated skinheads with being part of the National Front whether that was the case or not because most of them had shaved heads. They also wore quite tall Doc Martens boots with jeans, and the jeans would be tucked into their boots, and had these green bomber jackets. That was their style, and it was quite scary when you saw a skin because you knew you had to run.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience in policing? What made you pursue this career?
JH: As a revenue inspector, I used to go to inspect people’s tickets, and potentially if there was a criminal offense, we would call the police. There was one element where some revenue inspectors left to become police officers, and I was told I should consider becoming one. The other element was my older brother, who was policing during the ’80s. Again, because he was in policing, I thought I could do it as well. There were those two things of familiarity, which made it feel OK without any of the politics of going in and becoming a police officer.
Q: What was it like to be a Black female officer policing an area like Brixton?
JH: Going to work in Brixton was a bit of a culture shock for me. If I’m honest, I’ve never seen so many Black people. One of the bad things about it was that there was a lot of negativity about this place because there were so many Black people there. So, you think ‘Oh, this is not a good place, then’ because you don’t know any better. You’ve never been there yourself, and now, you’re now having to work there and all of the information about it is quite negative about the people that live there about the area, about the drug dealing, about the violence, about the robbery.
I was the first Black female that had been there in a good couple of years. Even though it was quite a diverse area, there were a lot of people from the Caribbean living there, and still, there still are a lot of people in the Caribbean and living in Brixton in terms of the workforce. I was the only Black female police officer at Brixton at the time I joined, not saying they’d never had one. It had been a while since they had, so that was interesting.
I really enjoyed policing Brixton, if I’m honest. I felt at home. Even though I was wearing the uniform, I was a bit apprehensive about the way people saw me.
I think they were pleased to see me, and I was pleased to be there. I had a very positive experience in Brixton. When I left after about 15 years, I came back three years later, but on promotion. I was desperate to come back because I enjoyed myself so much. I wanted to come back as a sergeant, which I did, and again had a really fulfilling time.
Q: What are your best or worst memories of the Metropolitan Police?
JH: One of my apprehensive memories from when I joined was how you weren’t allowed to police the area you came from, meaning you had to police another area. When I was looking for an area to be allocated, I didn’t want to travel too far, so I chose to go to Stratham, or at least I thought. But when I was allocated, I got Brixton.
After I got allocated and I was like “Oh my gosh” because you can’t let it be known how Black people feel about the police. I’m thinking, ‘I’m a police officer, and they are going to hate me.’ All of those sorts of things. That was one of my apprehensive memories.
To be fair, one of the best memories I have about being in Brixton was the welcome I got from the people there. It was amazing. On the first day out on the street, people would just say hello to me, and I was walking along with my white colleague, a white female colleague, and she asked, ‘Do you know these people?’ and I was like, ‘No.’
The community was nice and welcoming. The two things, the one not wanting to go there because of the fear of how I was going to be treated, and when I got there, it was completely different.
Q: How did you manage to break out of this mindset and police the community?
JH: It boils down to authenticity. I had this view of who I was. I am a Black female, and there were no airs or graces about it. There was no opting out, saying I am mixed race, light skin or anything like that. I am a Black female, that’s it.
I never grew up in a Black area. In Croydon, there weren’t many Black people in our streets, and I didn’t know what it was going to be like working in an area with so many Black people, but it was an education. One of the things that Black folk does is hang around on the roads. I never really got it, and it wasn’t until I went to Jamaica where that is what everyone did. It was nothing different from what I was seeing.
From a policing perspective, it was for my white colleagues. They would ask: ‘Why are these people hanging around? They are obviously up to no good. Let’s go stop them.’ I did not see it like that at all.
Part of this authenticity is knowing who you are, and the fact that these people look like you, you’re policing them, and they’re not happy with policing. I’m only going to do my job, I’m not going to come after you for no reason.
As a people, I understand we’re loud and when we’re talking our hands flying around. When stopping people on the road, people would ask “Why are you stopping me?” I would calm them down, talk to them quietly and bring them to a space where I could have a conversation with them. Then, I got it. I’m policing a predominantly Black area, and I understood why they were upset with the policing and why there was community tension.
In policing, it is primarily white men. Thinking about where they are coming from to police these areas is the issue because they don’t understand or want to understand.
George Floyd hits British shores
Q: Can you talk about all that happened in London with the Black Lives Matter movement? How has policing changed, in your experience, toward these communities?
JH: Before George Floyd, there was awareness, but I don’t think they (police leaders) understood that if it happens to one, it can happen to all. When the incident with George Floyd was put around the world, I remember raising it with the commissioner, saying, “Look, this is going to be an issue here.”
She responded, “Janet, we’re not like that here in the U.K. It happened in America. Why would that impact here?” I answered, “Because people feel oppressed by the police, and it’s been Black people who have been oppressed by white officers.”
The Metropolitan Police is predominantly white and about 14 or 15% of officers are from African, Caribbean, or Asian backgrounds. They (government officials) love to use the term BAME.
Q: I’ve researched that term and heard there’s some attempt to change it. Why?
JH: BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. What they’ve done is pulled everyone in there and anyone who self-defines under that umbrella. One of the things I always push for is for them to break BAME down. Find out how many people are of African heritage, how many are from the Caribbean and how many are from Asia. Then you will get a true figure and know it is nowhere near 15%. If you’re looking at the Caribbean people in the U.K., it’s around 3 or 4%, so when the 15% was presented, it was not what I saw or felt. BAME is used to make it seem like we are progressing.
So, there was an awareness, but that was all it was. The whole event with George Floyd and the impact it had in the United Kingdom, in particular, made (police officials) think we are not doing as good of a job as we thought. Though there has been movement, in my opinion, there hasn’t been much action. But that’s what we want to see.
In terms of anti-racism, it is not the conversation we want but it is the action we want. We want things to change, and I think people are frustrated because there’s going to be more chatting for another five, six or seven years before there are plans. With Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, the anti-racism aspect is a real sort of conversation piece that requires them to do more action than policy and talking.
JH: The murder of Stephen Lawrence happened in 1993. The impact of the murder itself did not hit me for a good couple of years. In terms of that, it was a tough time because McPherson (Sir William McPherson, who headed an investigation that led to a nearly 400-page report detailing police failures) came out with his definition of institutional racism, and the individual officers took it as, “Oh, you’re saying I’m racist.” If they hadn’t read the definition of what he is saying about the problem, they all took it personally.
Years after that, it got difficult because you were seen as the enemy within. … You felt you had to take sides when you really wanted it to be (about) policing. So, Stephen Lawrence did create a problem. As a Black officer in policing, just having to defend your position all the time and having to prove whose side you were on, it was a weird scenario. I think the biggest issue was the fact that white people never embraced the idea to do better.
Q: How did George Floyd drive activism in the U.K. in terms of protesting against BAME deaths in police custody?
JH: You usually have the community activists that are pushing the fact that you’ve got deaths in police custody. You’ve got disproportionality, the things like stop-and-search and looking at all of those issues that impact on Black communities in particular. I know when they use the term BAME, what you’ve found is that it is African and Caribbean people that are most affected in terms of police policy and practice.
In terms of George Floyd, it resonated with communities over here because that death in police custody is so high and it’s similar to how we are dying in police custody.
To people, it was like, “Wow, this is happening here. It’s happening on our doorstep and we need to make an issue.” It was people coming together saying, “This is not happening in America, it’s happening here, and we need to raise our voices with it,” whether that be a Facebook community or social media community or whether it be, you know, neighbors, universities, schools. People came together to say enough is enough, and we feel your pain but also recognize we are fighting the same injustices that are happening in America here on the shores of England.
Becoming an activist officer
Q: Would you mind sharing a little about your experience as the president of the National Black Police Association and the first female chairperson of the Metropolitan Black Police Association?
JH: I became the first female chair in 2013. The Metropolitan Black Police Association started in 1994 after the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It came about because the Metropolitan Police wanted to understand why Black and Asian communities were not strong in policing (as officers) back then. The Met then ordered all of their Black and Asian staff to go to Bristol for a week to have these conversations and do a massive report to learn how they could best recruit from those communities.
Since the Met is so big, some officers had not seen there were other Black officers because you wouldn’t see anyone, so it was a shock. After they had this, they wanted to keep this relationship going, so they began to do social events. Then they realized there was a strategic way this could operate in terms of helping the organization with these ongoing issues with recruitment, retention and progression.
In terms of this lived experience and cultural competency, we were the association people would come to get an idea of what they were doing right. We were also involved in some policy decisions and got policy documents to look through and look into misconduct cases, especially those who disproportionately face misconduct.
We talked about the broader issues of sexism and misogyny, but this was my reality going in as the chair. In terms of my single role as chair, that was all I did. I was a Black female at the head of an association that was all Black and Asian. I’d never experienced sexism until I became chair of the association.
It was difficult because there weren’t any mentors or anyone I could go to for help. The association did provide help with providing mentors, but they were white females, and our agendas weren’t the same. It was like I understood sexism and fighting for women’s rights, but you are a white female and that’s your privilege. For me, I have a double whammy in terms of doing that, and you only have one aspect.
When I retired last year in August 2021, I tried to empower women to step into that space but, unfortunately, it went to a man. I don’t think we do enough empowerment for women because we have that imposter syndrome. It’s all well and good that you go up in the ranks, but being in that real leadership spotlight and holding the organization to account and challenging not only the members but your community is a tough gig.
Layla Brown-Clark is a Myrta J. Pulliam Fellow.
This story is edited and condensed from two interviews conducted in April and July.
Come back on Oct. 3, when we start publishing the main News21 “In Pursuit” project.