Three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, on a cold December morning, I reported for duty at GMP’s training school in Bury, a looming brick structure with long iron gates. At twenty-three years old, with my recently issued uniform in bags, I was about to cross the threshold of the Sedgley Park training school and fulfil that dream to become one of them.
The British prime minister Sir Robert Peel was born in Bury in 1788. When he founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829 (when he was Home Secretary), he said: ‘The police are the public and the public are the police.’ The police were there to serve the people and not the state. Scotland Yard, as the Metropolitan Police is also known (after the street on which its headquarters was once situated), was the world’s first modern police force. It was the blueprint for others across Britain and around the globe, especially those in the British empire and the US. An institution that old has highly symbolic traditions, starting at training.
After meeting our peers and trainers in the school canteen, the new recruits were sent off to change into our brand-new uniforms before meeting in the chapel, with orders to leave our shirts unironed, to signify that we were of the lowest rank. We were then issued with our shoulder numbers. From now on I would be known by a number, to my colleagues and the public alike. Stage 1 of a two-year-long probationer training programme had begun. To become a fully fledged police officer, I would have to complete six stages, which included initial training at Manchester, then National Police Training, then tutelage on patrol, and then independent patrol combined with various two-week courses.
The first week of my induction included learning the rank structure and phonetic alphabet, two things I had memorised with great enthusiasm as a child and which therefore didn’t present a challenge to me. I was also issued with my Official Pocket Book. This notebook is a police officer’s gospel and his Bible. A7-sized, with a black cover, it is used by an officer to record the details of the incidents they attend; its contents are admissible as evidence in court. The details I wrote down in it would become absolute truth in a court of law; they were unquestionable, because my status gave my word more weight than that of ‘mere’ citizens. A serious piece of the kit, as long as you didn’t look too closely at all the penises officers drew in one another’s books.
Printed at the front of the notebook was the caution we would iterate during every arrest: ‘You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something that you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’
With this notebook came the power to take a person’s liberty and detain him or her against his or her will.
Immediately following the caution was the legal definition of a racist incident: ‘Any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ Victim. There was such humanity in this belief in the word of the victim. If anyone perceived an incident to be racist, it was. Simple as that.
In the second week of my initial police training, a memo was posted around the classes, asking for all the ‘ethnics’ to report at the school chapel the next morning before class. I smiled, cringing from second-hand embarrassment at the bad joke.
The training school normally took in new recruits every five weeks. My intake was one of the biggest in GMP’s history, as a direct result of the Labour government’s drive to recruit more officers of colour, which meant that a larger number of ethnic minorities than usual had been recruited.
There were a handful of us out of sixty-plus recruits, and I made friends with each of the new officers of colour: one South Asian, one East Asian and the three other black and white mixed-race recruits.
The memo about gathering the ‘ethnics’ proved to be serious. The leadership wanted a photoshoot for a media campaign, to show the public they were committed to equal opportunities. I could see why this might be an instant public relations hit, but I didn’t want to be part of it. I hadn’t joined the police to have my face plastered around train stations and shopping centres. The publicity could have put me in danger and jeopardised any future operations I was involved in. I told the press and publicity department that I wasn’t doing it and I left, returning to my class.
The photoshoot marked an immediate racial divide between the cops. The police chiefs calling the minority officers for duty half an hour earlier than everyone else led to white officers feeling excluded, especially those who had already perceived the photo op as special treatment. Some were furious. Back in my class, the tension was tangible. Though I had declined to take part in the shoot, I was not excluded from suspicion. I couldn’t ignore the quiet exchanges taking place between my white peers in Class A, where I was the only black or mixed-race officer out of approximately fourteen students, and the heaviness that hung in the air. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to be singled out. I had been asked to be part of something and they hadn’t.
The first two weeks of my training focused on procedural inputs and the Police National Computer (PNC) warning signals, used to identify those potentially carrying firearms (FI), ‘mental’ people (MN), those ‘impersonating’ a male or a female (IM or IF) and those carrying contagious diseases (CO), HIV amongst them. The warning signals were used to help officers know who they were dealing with after a stop, and if that person posed a threat.
We also had to learn the Identification Codes. These codes are used by officers to describe the apparent ethnicity of a suspect, including IC1: White European and IC2: Dark European. IC3: Afro-Caribbean was the one most frequently used.
We also received equal opportunities training, learnt the procedure for a grievance – for example, the procedure to follow if you experienced racial discrimination in the Force and how you would go about resolving it – had a presentation on appropriate language, and were given a talk by the internal affairs department suggesting subtle ways to keep ourselves out of trouble.
To become police constables we had to attend the attestation ceremony, presided over by a magistrate on behalf of the Queen. Ours took place in the training school’s chapel, as was customary. My colleagues and I stood in smart rows facing the judicial officer and the Union Jack, taking it in turns to swear our allegiance to Her Majesty and all her heirs apparent. We had our police application forms in our hands, which confirmed our status as constables, and showed them to the magistrate whilst being attested. We couldn’t speak to one another or sit down during the ceremony. There was nothing to do but stand and wait. Idly, I read over my completed form. On the back were details about my family, including my siblings. By the name of one of my brothers were some notes in pencil. I hadn’t written them; they could only have been added by HR or some other department at police headquarters. I squinted at the grey words to make out the note, and my stomach dropped.
My brother had not long ago been arrested for disorderly conduct and police assault.
My cheeks started to burn and I lowered my head, not wanting to betray any emotion. I was about to be sworn in as an officer of the law, yet here was written testimony that my brother had assaulted someone in the same uniform I was proudly standing in. I tried to make sense of what I had just read. My brother was a quiet, passive, unaggressive, small man, not the sort to attack anyone, with or without provocation.
Could it be possible that the police had made a mistake, or mixed him up with someone else? My turn to be sworn in came, and I solemnly approached the magistrate. My colleagues were beaming, but I couldn’t share their excitement. I just wanted to leave the chapel and go home.
When I returned to Liverpool that evening, I sat with my mum in the dimly lit family room at the back of our house, for one of our regular chats. I told her what I’d discovered on the back of the form. She just nodded. She knew what had happened.
A month before I had sent off my application to join the police, my brother had been out walking when he was arrested by police in what the paper described as a ‘case of mistaken identity’. An officer shouted, ‘Steven!’ Ignoring the shout, my brother continued walking. The officers, believing that he had been involved in an incident nearby, arrested him, breaking his thumb in the process. Then the officers realised they had made a grave error. Not only was this man not guilty of anything, including the nearby incident they had been investigating – after checking his identification, they learnt his name wasn’t even Steven. No wonder he hadn’t responded.
My brother wasn’t a criminal, or someone threatening in any way. He was a BT engineer who had been with the company for seventeen years at the time of his arrest. He did, however, have brown skin. That was enough of a resemblance to ‘Steven’ for the officers.
One of the many unwritten rules I learnt soon after becoming a constable was that if an officer lays his or her hands on someone and acts unlawfully – because, say, he or she has the wrong person – the officer should arrest that person anyway, charging them with something like police assault or a public disorder offence. This is to mitigate against any future claims of liability on their or the chief police officer’s part. In the eyes of the leadership, this is showing strength on the streets. My brother was duly arrested.
The police had hurt my brother so badly that it took several months for him to recover. Both BT and my brother received damages from Merseyside Police. My brother was compensated for the distress caused to him, and the telecommunications giant was compensated for having one of its employees off work (his broken thumb meant that he didn’t have full use of his hand). Had I not glanced down at my form whilst I was waiting to be attested, I might never have found out. The thought of my brother’s suffering was upsetting, but it was far from a unique experience.
I later found out Manchester Police had stalled my application to join the service because my brother was in dispute with Merseyside police, seeking justice for what they had done to him. The police had been accused of false imprisonment, assault and malicious prosecution. Merseyside Police never did apologise to my brother, and it was only after reading about him in a local newspaper after I had joined the Force that I learnt that he was dismayed by his ordeal. He never spoke to me about his experience or about my joining the police, and our relationship was never the same.
On the final day of my two-week induction at Greater Manchester, we were given a lesson in the abuse of the warrant card. The warrant card is the gold card for police officers. Without it, we had no power; with it, we could do things we couldn’t ordinarily do as citizens, like jump queues, gain free admission to nightclubs, and receive free meals at restaurants like McDonald’s.
The card wasn’t actually designed to grant the police those powers, but the proof of identity and the authority held by officers when they presented it to a doorman or cashier was intimidating and formidable. Not every officer used it to demand free food. But some did, knowing they could get away with it.
When the first two weeks were over I needed to take my first police procedural exam, in order to progress to Stage 2 of the two-year compulsory training. Those two years would see me in uniform. In those days all officers had to walk or ride the street beats in uniform for the first twenty-four months before they were allowed to move up the ranks or specialise (this is still the case for the majority of today’s recruits). Because I scored 80% in my first police exam, I was allowed to move on to the next phase of my training.
I was sent to complete Stage 2 of the police training programme: the fifteen-week compulsory residential course at Bruche, the National Police Training Centre in Warrington that trained all recruits in the North West England police (Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside, and West Yorkshire) and others like the Isle of Man Constabulary. There were always three intakes at the Cheshire training school, with about a hundred and fifty officers in each one. Officers moved up an intake every five weeks until they completed the fifteen-week cycle.
The site was a former American army facility hidden amongst suburban housing. I was on intake 10/01, along with another 140 students, divided into eight classes. It had opened its doors in 1946, and was the largest (in terms of student population) of the six Foundation Training Centres in England and Wales. The Probationer Foundation Course was introduced nationally in 1998, and its purpose was to develop the skills, abilities, knowledge and qualities of judgment necessary for the effective performance of the police in our society. The working facilities included an assembly hall, classrooms, a mock courtroom, a mock station, a training support unit, a gymnasium, a recreation hall and a swimming pool. There was also a training village called Sandford – a mock village designed specifically for trainee police officers to role-play routine police activities. Upon arrival at the government training site, each recruit was allocated a private room in the residential blocks, with male and female officers separated. The label on my door read: ‘This room is allocated to – Name: K Maxwell, Class: A6, Force: GMP.’ However, someone had flipped it over and written: ‘Name: Bradley, Class: A6, Force: S Club 7 (after Bradley McIntosh, the sole black member of the British pop group). There was no toilet in the room, but there was a sink, which most recruits used as a urinal as well as the place where they brushed their teeth.
The other seventeen trainees in my class were white, thirteen men and four women. I had two class trainers, both female, and one of them a woman of colour – the only one.
We had to call our trainers ‘Staff ’ – ‘Yes, Staff, No Staff ’ – and stand when they entered the room. In the canteen, as we prepared to start our careers, two of my peers complained that they didn’t like women teaching them: as far as they were concerned, training officers was a man’s role.
We were welcomed to Bruche by our trainers, then given a rundown of the rules of the centre, like wearing our hats outside the class at all times and walking around smartly dressed. My fifteen weeks at Bruche were crammed with new lessons. We watched Police – Roger Graef ’s 1982 fly-on-the-wall television documentary, in which the BBC followed Thames Valley Police, showing how badly officers treated a victim of rape, to learn about sexual assault investigations and how not to treat victims of sexual violence.
We were given a lesson in conflict resolution; for example, when attending domestics, the partner who called the police would often turn on officers when they tried to arrest their other half. We were told not to call women ‘love’, or any other patronising endearment, unless we wanted a thump. We attended thefts at the mock shop, road traffic accidents on the mock street and practised giving evidence at the mock court. The victims and witnesses were played by police and civilians.
There was more equal opportunities training too. We had to cover community race relations, racism awareness, and the controversial stop and search power introduced under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. PACE instructed the police on how to treat people fairly, especially visible minorities, with respect and within the law. The police had resisted PACE coming into law because, as they saw it, it got in the way of them doing their job effectively, that is, arresting the ‘bad people’. The leaders said stop and search was targeted and intelligence-led, but the reality was very different. It exerted social control. Section 1 of PACE was about the police suspecting you had drugs on you, or a weapon, or stolen property, or something used to commit a crime; the officer would have to have ‘reasonable’ cause to believe he or she would find something. But it targeted and marginalised black and minority ethnic people, like the sus law had done previously, through what the police called a ‘fishing trip’: that is, when you stop and search people in the hope of finding something. Police officers (mostly white) relied on a ‘gut feeling’, which often manifested around people of colour.
There is a fundamental difference between intelligence-led policing and racial profiling: one is specific and the other is not. But when officers are taught that dangerous knife-carriers are overwhelmingly black, and that potential terrorists are overwhelmingly brown, the two tend to blur.
For many minorities, their first interaction with the police is through stop and search, either from their own experience or that of a family member, and for many of my colleagues, policing was their first real interaction with people of colour. Many came from the shires. For some, their only experience of ‘ethnics’ was at the local takeaway on a weekend. They understood they had to arrest ‘bad people’, but a lot of them came with a preconceived idea of what a bad person looked like.
At Bruche, we learnt about the torture and murder of the young black girl, Victoria Climbié, who was failed by the police and other authorities, like the social services, in the lead-up to her horrific death. We learnt about the Human Rights Act, and how it affects policing. We had lesson after lesson about equality, diversity and social cohesion – which sounds good, but many officers were annoyed and irritated by the very fact that they were being told how to police non-white people, which then undermined the very training they’d just had. Race is a highly emotive subject, particularly in the police. So when officers see the word ‘race’, they become resistant to it.
The training had the accidental result of teaching white officers that black and Asian minorities were different and would cause trouble. Minorities, especially black people, were the reason there were all these equality laws and policies for the police to deal with and implement. Minority people were an ‘issue’ that needed controlling.
The personal protective equipment we carried, like the baton, was vital to our survival, but we were also taught unarmed hand- to-hand combat, and other self-defence techniques. The macho cops went in fists first, but I was more restrained. I thought that words were our best weapon. Some officers had to be pulled back by our self-defence trainers (also cops), as they got too ‘hands on’.
When we were taught where on the body to hit someone, our instructors divided the body into zones using the traffic-light system: red, amber and green. ‘Red’ was any part of the body that could receive a fatal blow, i.e. the head and vital organs. Police officers are taught about deadly force and its use as part of standard self-defence training, and we were taught specific lines to include in statements after using force on a member of the public. For example, if we had intended to kill a person with a baton, then we had to say so. This sounds astonishing, but if an officer hits someone and they die and the officer later claims that they didn’t mean to kill the victim, it is seen as undermining their actions, and leaves them open to criticism. Instead, we had to say that we had used deadly force because we were in fear of our life or the life of another.
There was psychological training too, to prepare officers for a career dealing with high-pressure situations. One of the exercises involved jumping into the school’s swimming pool to save a brick which had sunk to the bottom, as if it were a person. Other physical training included running down streets, and standing for a long time hobbled together with our riot shields. There were regular beep test runs, which I enjoyed. I always placed first or second in these runs, my colleague from the Cheshire Constabulary being the only person who could keep up with or beat me.
We were taught how to arrest people, file reports and give evidence: the backbone of policing. We practised radio terminology, ‘urgent assistance’ (backup) being the most important phrase we’d learn. We continued to role-play traffic scenarios – both accidents and the issuing of tickets for motoring offences – in which our trainers acted as the complainants, injured persons or witnesses. We’d assess the situation, gather all the witness statements and work out what had happened.
We learnt how to write up our notes in the pocket notebook, which was regularly assessed. At any incident, the officer would have to write up the time of day, the location, what had taken place, and the personal details of any victims or witnesses, together with any action taken, such as an arrest. Since the information entered is admissible in court, officers could use the notes in the pocket notebook to ‘refresh’ their memory whilst giving evidence, and to support any statement they may have written down.
Finally, we learnt drill, with lots of boot-bulling (a military term for polishing) to make our boots shiny. I was familiar with drill from my two cadet forces, but in the police it was very militarised, as if we were being prepared for war. Having lots of ex-military and prison-service types in my class and intake, like my ex-army peer drill instructor (a student nominated by our class to lead the informal drill training, something which all classes did), must have helped.
Some of my colleagues in the accommodation blocks would stand in front of the mirror in the evening in their underwear and their body armour, with baton and cuffs attached to their belt, and say: ‘Who’s the daddy?’ Some meant it tongue-in-cheek, but others were clearly experiencing a thrill of power from the uniform and equipment.
As I only lived twenty miles away from the school, I often travelled home after our daily law classes to see my mum in Liverpool, and returned late at night to sleep. On one occasion I opted not to go home, staying in my room to revise for my weekly law knowledge test. It was early evening, and my colleagues had entered the communal landing after a trip to the training school bar, whilst one white cop blasted out R & B music in the next room to mine. Someone shouted: ‘Turn the coconut music off!’ There was an outburst of laughter, some slammed doors, and a few voices started whispering.
Coconut. I’d heard the term before. Black people who joined the police were known as ‘coconuts’: black on the outside, but white on the inside. Though the officer who shouted it didn’t know that I hadn’t made my usual trip to Liverpool and that I was still in my room, some of the officers who hadn’t gone to the bar knew. Someone knocked on my door, and when I opened it, the white officer who’d shouted the word was standing outside. He took a step towards me, and said: ‘You heard what I just said, didn’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I said, and closed the door.
I didn’t know what else to do. Was I supposed to hit him? Shout at him? I heard him walk into the room to the left of mine. I sat at my desk staring at the lamp, and listened to him and some others burst into another fit of hysterics. Uncomfortable and unsettled, I left the floor.
I went to sit in the classroom to think. En route, I saw my white class trainer. I sat down with her, to tell her what had happened. Taking solace in the privacy of the room, I confessed that I didn’t know whether to quit the police then and there and return home to Liverpool, because I didn’t feel comfortable in such an unaccepting environment. I had gone from being an ethnic to a coconut.
One of the officers laughing in the next room, an ex-army man, had once told a group of us that a former army colleague of his had accepted the nickname ‘black bastard’. It was just banter, he said, everyone had a nickname in the services. I knew I couldn’t be protected from this behaviour that was seen as normal, but felt I shouldn’t have to subject myself to it for the rest of my career.
My trainer suggested that I spend some time with a female officer I had joined with, whilst she sought some advice herself. This officer and I had bonded not long after joining – she was glam and I was gay. I followed my trainer’s suggestion and went to find my friend, feeling a little better about having got things off my chest.
Several hours later, it was suddenly becoming campus news that the two male officers – the one who had shouted ‘coconut music’ and one of the ringleaders from the group laughing in the bedroom – had been ‘marched off ’ the police training site and sent back to their respective Forces, at Manchester and Cheshire, a process known as being ‘back-classed’.
Those living in my accommodation block were questioned. The spotlight was on me, the black cop that other officers were starting to suspect was gay. People wanted to know what had gone down and why all the others who had laughed at the ‘joke’ weren’t sent packing. I didn’t know. It was as much as a surprise to me as it was to them.
One day not long after, early in the morning, an internal affairs inspector and a sergeant from GMP arrived at Bruche to interview me in the company of my class trainer. Internal affairs are meant to investigate wrongdoing by officers. After pulling me out of class in front of my peers, the internal affairs officers told me that if I proceeded with a complaint against my colleagues it would be my word against theirs, and I would have to deal with the consequences. I hadn’t filed or even suggested making a complaint. My trainer called a halt to the meeting and sent me back to class.
Later that day, I learnt that my trainer, wanting to do the right thing, had reported the internal affairs officers’ conduct to GMP’s headquarters, without my knowledge. The assistant chief constable for personnel and training, Vincent Sweeney, personally took charge of the matter and instructed a female police superintendent and Paul Bailey, a member of the Force’s Black and Asian Police Association (BAPA; a GMP-specific association operating separately from the national Black Police Association based in London), to visit me. It was unheard of for a superintendent to visit a new recruit. Although the police superintendent displayed some empathy, she made it clear that the onus of sorting this situation out was on me. She said I had to make a decision about what to do, as she and the others weren’t going to ‘lose any sleep over it’.
I knew that a complaint from me wouldn’t make a difference for the better, but it would mark my police career. I didn’t want to be isolated any further. My white classmates were agitated about the predicament of the two officers who had been sent back to their Forces, and I knew that if I wanted to survive as an officer of colour in the police and complete the residential training, I had to keep my mouth shut and head down.
I could have accepted BAPA’s support and made a stand, but I would have been ostracised by my class. The black staff association was seen as militant by my white colleagues. Signing up for ‘black help’ would have been a nail in my coffin.
I was asked to sign a ‘negative statement’, confirming I was making no complaint against any person or the Force, and that I just wanted to get on with my training and work hard towards becoming a successful police officer. After my statement was signed, the two officers were reintegrated into the next intake, though the back-classing was undoubtedly a blow to their egos.
After the ‘coconut’ incident, my class held an open forum. These existed for people to express their opinions in a ‘safe’ space, and no opinion or observation was invalid.
The class challenged our trainers on why staff associations for women, black people and gay people in the police even existed. Why, they argued, wasn’t there a straight white man’s police association? I rolled my eyes, but the white class trainer was quick in her rebuttal. She pointed out that my colleagues were already in one, and it was called ‘the police’. This was the mindset of white, straight male police officers in an overwhelmingly white, straight male organisation.
During another forum, our class trainer asked us whether we’d be able to arrest our mothers, if we knew that they had committed murder. As she went around the room, asking each recruit the same question, each answered yes. When it came to my turn and she repeated the question, I said no. My peers stared at me. My tutor asked me why. ‘If my mother committed murder, as her son, I personally couldn’t arrest her. Of course she would have to be arrested, but I would be lying if I said I could do that, because of our relationship,’ I explained. The room was silent as they chewed this over.
Many of my colleagues went about their duties as though they would say anything to be accepted and to defend the system. But this was expected by the leadership. We were to identify with the uniform, power and authority, like good soldiers; in fact, internally, a ‘group’ of police officers was known as ‘troops’. The leadership wanted unthinking loyalty and, above all, obedience. Many of these officers had fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who were cops. (The glam cop I joined with for example, was the daughter of a seasoned detective.) Before joining, they had already been told how things rolled in the Force. They’d been taught that those shared values, ideas and attitudes were what policing is meant to be about.
In just short of four months, I completed my fifteen-week residential training. I had my end of stage review, and was finally passing out on 19 April 2002. I put on a smile for the last photo, as I had for my first class photograph at the beginning of my training. As I marched around the parade square with the Merseyside Police band playing and horses trotting, I saluted the Union flag and stood to attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a proud Mum, sister, niece and boyfriend. I hadn’t told any of my colleagues that he was my boyfriend, but I am sure they guessed it.
Although my start in the police had not been quite what I had wanted, I tried to remain focused; after all, this was my dream job. My pass rate on all the evidence files I had submitted in preparation for my career – which included the national MG (Manual of Guidance) forms like the MG5 (case summary) and MG12 (exhibits list) used in prosecutions – was 100%. I was a natural investigator. I was made for the Force.
Kevin Maxwell’s Forced Out is available now from Granta Books.