Merseyside police commissioner sparks row with force over ‘institutional racism’


A police and crime commissioner (PCC) has become the first to call her area’s force “institutionally racist”, a statement quickly followed by a categorical rebuttal from the chief constable.

In a roundtable discussion between three elected PCCs on Policing TV’s Talking Crime programme, Emily Spurrell, the Merseyside commissioner, was asked if she accepted that Merseyside police were institutionally racist.

“I do, I do,” she replied, “and I’ve had this conversation with my chief because I think when you look at the definition of institutional racism, it is not about individual officers.

“I know that Merseyside police has got some absolutely … the vast majority are incredibly dedicated, not racist. They are absolutely committed to serving the public whoever they are.”

Spurrell said the definition of institutional racism was not one which involved calling individual officers racist.

She said it was about saying the institution, like many across the country, had been designed by a certain group of people “and it does not take into account how black and ethnic minority people might experience things and how they might get treated and the systems you design, the tools that you use, the policies you’ve put in place”.

She said the sooner police forces accepted the term “we can move on to putting it right. But it isn’t about calling individual officers racist.”

Asked whether the chief constable of Merseyside police, Serena Kennedy, agreed with her, Spurrell said: “No, she doesn’t.”

That became abundantly clear when Kennedy, late on Wednesday evening, released a statement in which she said: “I categorically do not believe that Merseyside police is institutionally racist.”

She continued: “The history and impact of racism across policing and the harm this has caused to communities and colleagues is clear. There has been a lot of work done nationally and locally to understand and address this.

“We know that policing, like society, is not free of racial discrimination, bias and disproportionality. It still exists in some policies and processes, and we are taking action to change this.

“We collectively want to improve, we want to progress, we want to be better. We are not institutionally racist.”

Kennedy said she saw every day how committed her officers and staff were to helping communities and playing an “active part in ensuring we are anti-racist”.

Spurrell’s comments also brought a rebuke from the Merseyside police federation. A spokesperson said the allegation the force was institutionally racist was “deeply disappointing” and added: “We refute this statement.”

The Guardian revealed in December that Britain’s most senior police officers were considering making a public admission that their forces are institutionally racist.

The National Police Chiefs Council appointed the barrister Abimbola Johnson to chair an independent board scrutinising reforms. She said any plan to make policing anti-racist needed to accept institutional racism.

“If the idea is to win the trust of black communities, policing needs to start by acknowledging both the historical and current manifestations of racism in policing,” she said.

Police chiefs were said to be split on the question and by February it emerged that it had been decided not to accept that forces were institutionally racist.

In the Policing TV debate David Lloyd, the PCC for Hertfordshire, said: “I think it is really unhelpful to talk about a police force being institutionally racist.”

It was beyond the power of individual police forces to take a decision on whether they were, he said. “I’m rather concerned that they feel it is for them to make that decision but they have painted themselves a little bit into a corner around it, I’m afraid.”

Policing was first officially labelled as institutionally racist in the 1999 Macpherson report on failings that allowed the racist killers of the black student Stephen Lawrence to escape justice for so long.