The 348 square miles policed by officers in the West Midlands are among the most culturally diverse in the country.
Reflecting that ethnic mix in the force’s ranks is crucial in order to foster and sustain healthy relationships, engage ‘hard-to-reach’ communities and enhance cultural understanding.
Black and minority ethnic (BME) officers currently make-up 10 per cent of the force’s ranks − but around one in five of successful PC candidates from the latest recruitment drive are from non-white communities.
Birmingham Neighbourhood Officer PC Andrea Reynolds joined West Midlands Police in 1994 at a time when black faces in policing were few and far between…and amid rumbling racial tension following the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
In our latest WMPeople interview, Andrea speaks frankly about life as a black officer 20 years ago and how her experiences led her to become a founder member the West Midlands Black Police Association…
Tell us how you got into policing Andrea?
I graduated from university with a computing degree and was working in the aerospace industry until, like many professionals; I was made redundant during the deep recession that hit Britain during the early 1990s. West Midlands Police were offering an accelerated promotion scheme for graduates at the time and, though narrowly missing out, I was successful with my application to become a regular PC. It was the most unexpected career switch from my family’s perspective!
What do you mean by that?
There were very few black police officers back then and the Stephen Lawrence murder just a few months before, and the race row aftermath, were still fresh in people’s minds. In fact, in parts of my own black community there was a feeling anyone who joined the police was somehow a traitor.
How did you settle in as a new recruit?
It was tough…I don’t want to go into the detail of my experiences back then as it was a long time ago and police force have come on markedly − but safe to say I’m in no doubt I was subjected to discrimination.
Several black colleagues that I joined with left and at one stage I contemplated resigning…but I found the determination to stay, to make a difference and with each passing day my passion for policing grew.
It was hard to know where to go for support: my family and friends were questioning my decision to join and there were no support groups in the force for BME officers.
At the time I began speaking with black officers from other forces and heard how some felt they’d been subject to isolation, had been overlooked for improvement courses, were unsuccessful applying for secondments, and were generally afforded less autonomy and opportunity than other colleagues.
We started meeting each other for support and the seeds were sown for the Black Police Association (BPA).
How was your push for a Black Police Association greeted?
Initially there was considerable resistance…people would throw the line at us “well why isn’t there a white officers association"? The rationale behind the Association was not understood by many white officers because they couldn’t relate to the experiences of black officers.
It is fair to say that 1994 was not that long ago…but many officers who were long in service then would have entered policing in the 1960s and early 1970s and so potentially had entrenched views about black communities.
We had to find a way to challenge the police organisation in a cohesive, concerted way − and that vision led to the formation of the West Midlands Black Police Association in 1997.
The advent of the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry in 1998 gave us the momentum we needed to find a national voice and to push for support of officers in other forces who were resistant to the very idea of such associations, even labelling it ‘divisive’. I’m proud to have played a lead role in the launch of the National Black Police Association (NBPA) after the watershed of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry.
What has the Black Police Association achieved over the last 16 years?
It’s been able to influence policy, legislation, recruitment processes and police officer training with a focus on diversity. We’ve also successfully pushed for a review of the accelerated police promotion scheme for graduates (now the High Potential Development Scheme) after we raised concerns over the lack of black officers in the process.
But it’s not just inward looking; we’ve championed many issues facing the black communities we serve and been pivotal in setting targets for the recruitment, progression and retention of BME officers and staff. We’ve illuminated the need for debates on topics such as stop and search, deaths in custody, lack of BME officers in key departments, and disciplinary proceedings against BME officers.
But on a more day-to-day basis it provides support and guidance for black officers to raise and discuss any concerns.
How much progress has been made?
We have made huge progress…but there is still a lot of work to be done if BME officers and staff are to be better represented in the police. In-particular we want to see more in specialist roles like firearms, professional standards departments, traffic, surveillance, training and greater representation in senior roles.
The police serve the public and the composition of the force should reflect that…otherwise there’s a chance those communities will perceive the police isn’t serving its interests, view them with suspicion or, worse still, with hostility.
But numbers are not the only issue. The fact that the composition of the force mirrors the community it serves is the start, not the end point. Ultimately, it is about policing culture: this has to reflect the values of a multicultural society so that officers drawn from minority communities are respected and supported.
To help achieve this goal I also want members of the black community to see policing as a worthwhile and rewarding career.
As a neighbourhood officer in Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath, I work closely with schools and colleges pushing the agenda of equality for all and am actively involved in our Discovery Days where we promote careers in policing.
October was Black History Month and I featured in a video alongside BME police colleagues, talking about the experiences of black and ethnic minority officers, which was shown at the Birmingham young people’s centre ‘The Lighthouse’.
You’d clearly advocate a career in policing, Andrea?
Without a doubt policing has made me what I am today. I love policing because my character is to help, to serve, to try…policing challenges me to be the best that I can be.
I’ve had a varied police career that’s seen me work as a response officer − attending emergency calls for help − a community officer, crime prevention officer, family protection officer, trainer (and national trainer) and work in the criminal justice unit. I have had opportunity to work for Her Majesty’s Inspector of Police. I really enjoyed that role and I am very proud of my achievements in that role
I would recommend policing to any member of my community: it is a well-respected and trusted role and no two days are the same. It will bring out values and virtues you did not think you possessed.
My journey in the police has been a challenging but rewarding one. With seven years to retirement, I am not finished yet!
Name: Andrea S D Reynolds
Age: No comment!
Background: Born in London, raised in Jamaica, returned to the UK to study. Ordained Christian Minister
Police career: Sparkbrook Neighbourhood Team, WMP Black Police Association Executive and West Midlands Association of Women Police Executive
Awards: Queen’s Diamond & Golden Jubilee medals; NBPA Community Officer of the Year; International Association of Women Police Officer of the Year; accolades from the Sikh and black communities; WMP Chief Constable’s Special Award and Commendation; and a Commendation from ex-Home Secretary Jack Straw.
Other interests: Author, performance poet, guitarist, 1st Dan Black Belt (Wado Ryu)