Thames Valley Police and their Race Action Plan- all talk and no action?
Has the Thames Valley Police force really done enough to justify a bronze status from the Race Equality Matters board?
There has long been a feeling of mistrust between the black community and the UK’s police force. Is that mistrust justified? In previous years, decidedly so. Headlines such as ‘Black people in Thames Valley more than three times as likely to be arrested as white people’, and ‘Thames Valley Police officer 'made racist and homophobic remarks’’ make for grim reading, and the issue has reached a point where charities such as Runnymede have had to be set up to try to help the situation that, so often, goes up like a tinderbox.
The Metropolitan Police Force draws the largest amount of criticism- and rightly so, given it has been described as 'institutionally racist, sexist, and broken' - but this means other force’s shortcomings are often missed or lost in the noise that is the Met Police’s woes.
Thames Valley Police (TVP) cover 11 Local Police Areas, including cities like Oxford and Milton Keynes, more rural, farmland areas like Vale of White Horse and Aylesbury Vale, and the middle ground (such as towns like Reading). This makes the force an interesting one, as it must cover this diverse range of areas. The region it covers makes the force an interesting one, as it must cover urban city areas, rural countryside, and everything in between. The force sometimes struggles to fairly police its population, coming under fire from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in 2011, which said ethnic minorities were being unfairly targeted during stop and searches. Whilst TVP implemented a £270,000 re-training programme of 3,000 officers and issued new guidelines to its front-line staff, it has since had further troubles with discriminatory policing.
In 2021, TVP underwent a PEEL assessment (PEEL stands for police efficiency, effectiveness, and legitimacy, with the assessment covering how well the force performed in ten areas of policing). The force failed to receive any ‘Outstanding’ grades, instead scoring mainly ‘Adequate’ judgements in the nine different categories assessed. The assessors also noted that TVP hadn’t fully met their recommendation from 2017 to analyse disproportionate use of stop and search powers, nor had they published an action plan that met PEEL’s criteria. Then, that summer, several media outlets revealed that, during an internal force meeting about stop and search powers, TVP had found itself disproportionally targeting the BAME community anew.
However, TVP seemed to use the debacle to turn its behaviour around. After the rollout of a nationwide Race Action Plan in 2022, the force finally announced their own for 2023-25. It promised to tackle ‘disproportionate treatment of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic by the police and across the Criminal Justice System’. TVP even became the first police force to be awarded Race Equality Matters Trailblazer Bronze status, in recognition of its work to address racial inequality within the organisation. But was this award justified? Has the force really worked to tackle its issue of discriminatory policing?
On one hand, it seems it hasn’t. Minutes from another internal meeting in February 2023 stressed that one group within the force needed to ‘look at their stop searches carried out on black individuals due to the disparity ratios being significantly higher than other ethnic backgrounds’. This would suggest TVP has not managed to get to grips with the recommendation from the PEEL assessment to gain ‘comprehensive knowledge of all causes of disproportionality in its use of powers of stop and search’, leaving it stuck in its old and biased ways.
On the other hand, data released by the government from the last 10 years paints a slightly more positive picture. There has been a dramatic fall in targeting of people belonging to black backgrounds since 2010, just before the EHRC gave their stark warning to TVP to change their practices. Since 2019, the force has seen further gradual reductions in the proportion of stop and searches on those who belong in the black community.
Whilst this is certainly a step in the right direction, it may only be a baby step. Figures from the Home Office for 2021 showed that in Thames Valley, 20.9 stop and searches per 1,000 black people were carried out, compared to 5.0 per 1,000 white people. Therefore, if you were a member of the black community in Thames Valley in 2021, you’d be four times more likely to be stopped than if you were white.
In a statement made in 2021, Thames Valley Police's Thematic Lead for stop and search in Thames Valley Superintendent Gavin Wong said:
‘Stop and search is a crucial preventative tool which allows officers to allay or confirm suspicions about individuals without having to utilise the power of arrest.
‘This is important because the decision to take someone’s liberty away shouldn’t be taken lightly’.
The force has evidently built on Supt Wong’s sentiments, though there is more work to be done. March 2023 marked the TVP’s fairest use of stop and search powers to date, with people from black backgrounds making up 11% of stop and searches, compared to 17% in 2019/20. The new Race Action Plan has clearly been embraced, but there is undoubtedly more work that must be done for the force to say it has fulfilled its mission in its Race Action Plan. The proportion of black people stopped is still above the proportion of the black population residing in Thames Valley. One academic from Oxford Brookes University said:
‘It looks to me like the Race Action Plan is lots of talk and window dressing but has not necessarily resulted in real change’.
During the stop and search meeting in February, one Officer said the ‘strategic aim is not to get disproportionality to zero. We will always have disparity if we are effectively policing to keep our communities safe’. He gave the explanation that some areas within Thames Valley have organised crime groups that are from a black background, which would make the disparity ‘acceptable’. This does sound like the force is trying to balance being aware of its biases whilst still effectively policing its area.
However, it was also brought up during the meeting that some Officers were failing to record ethnicity during stop and searches. It’s possible that this missing data could be hiding discriminatory behaviour, and until TVP improves its collection of data, we won’t know if it is meeting the standards it has set itself in its Race Action Plan. Is this a sinister plan to hide racial biases in their policing or just basic human forgetfulness when trying to do a demanding job? That remains to be seen, but with the Met Police now undergoing huge reform, TVP and its Race Action Plan may find itself under tighter scrutiny.
Thames Valley Police were contacted for comment.