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Burnley Journal: U.K. Police Look to Young Recruits to Help Shed an Image as ‘Male, Pale and Stale’

Constable Wheatley, who studied social policy at the University of Birmingham, joined the police last summer, one of more than 150 officers farmed out across England as part of an initiative by the British Home Office that started in 2015.

The program, Police Now, recruits university graduates and assigns them for two years in the country’s most troubled areas, where they walk the streets and provide a public face for the police.

With police forces in the United States facing accusations of racial bias over shootings involving officers and unarmed black men, the British initiative focuses in particular on the recruitment of women and minorities, looking to diversify a corps often derided as “male, pale and stale.”


Burnley, population 87,000, was a cotton mill town for a long time, but it has fallen on harder times: A 2015 government report said the town was among the most deprived areas in Britain. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In Burnley, Constable Wheatley’s supervisor, Inspector Catherine Platt, has seen the changes to the police’s composition firsthand.

When she joined the force in 1993, Inspector Platt was required to wear a skirt and stockings and was given a police-issued handbag. (Her baton was smaller than that of male colleagues so it could fit inside.) Her only pair of trousers was for use on night shifts.

“Seven gents and myself,” Inspector Platt, 45, said of her cohort of officers at the time.

“We’ve still got a way to go,” she said. “But we’re always making progress.”

The diversity initiative, called Police Now — trumpeted by Prime Minister Theresa May when she was home secretary — is explicitly modeled after Teach First, a British version of Teach for America. As in Teach First, participants have the choice of staying on or leaving after two years.

It is a significant change in a law enforcement tradition that traces its roots to 1829, when the Metropolitan Police, the force responsible for London, was established, thanks in part to Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary at the time.

Police Constable Rhian Samuda, another participant, has no plans to leave.

After joining Police Now in 2015, Constable Samuda, 24, was assigned to Tottenham, among London’s most violent boroughs. Knife crime is a persistent threat, and a police shooting in the area in August 2011 set off riots across the city.

Constable Samuda, however, is familiar with it all: She was born in the neighborhood.

The granddaughter of immigrants from Jamaica, she went to college in Nottingham, a city 100 miles north of London, before returning to live with her parents in the capital.


Constable Wheatley seeking witnesses to a crime in Burnley. Like most of Britain’s police officers, she patrols unarmed but wears a flak jacket, with a radio, a nightstick and a set of handcuffs. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“I love the fact that I used to live here,” she said, sitting in the Tottenham Police Station canteen. “And now I give back to this community.”

The program aims to address lingering allegations of excessive violence and complaints that efforts to diversify have not gone far enough.

Around 28 percent of police forces in England and Wales are made up of women, while about 6 percent of officers are members of minority groups, according to figures released in March. That is up from 16 percent women and 2 percent minority members in 1998.

Police Now graduates, though a small proportion of overall forces, are more reflective of population statistics. So far, 176 officers have been hired since the program started in the summer of 2015, and around 250 more are set to join this year. Of those who are already on the beat, 49 percent are women and 18 percent are members of minorities.

Deadly violence at the hands of law enforcement remains rare in comparison with other major Western countries, particularly the United States. Police Now graduates are encouraged to resolve issues without arrests or violence.

Several challenges remain, though, for police forces and for Police Now.

As Britain has sought to curb government spending in recent years, the 5.3 million pounds, or roughly $ 6.4 million, guaranteed to the Police Now program over the next two years has been criticized by police unions.

Experts also note that policing has become more complex in recent years, as officers sort through data and evidence from an increasingly wide array of sources. It is too much for anyone to learn in two years, critics of the Police Now program charge.


Constable Wheatley, right, and Constable Ahmed discovered cannabis plants in grow tents during a search of a property where a small amount of the drug had been found. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The program’s organizers say that it has attracted a diverse cohort of officers and that many will follow a career in policing, though there are no explicit retention targets. David Spencer, a Police Now founder and program director, added that those who did leave would become “ambassadors” for Britain’s police forces in whatever industry they joined.

Having grown up nearby, Constable Wheatley wanted to patrol Burnley. The town, population 87,000, was long centered on a number of cotton mills, but has fallen on harder times: A 2015 government report said it was among the most deprived areas in Britain.

That feeling is not lost in the town itself. As he walked through the office, one of Constable Wheatley’s colleagues jokingly asked when Burnley looked its best. “When you’re leaving it.”

On a recent patrol, Constable Wheatley was accompanied by Police Constable Mark Bewley, her “mentor” — an experienced officer assigned to team up with her in the early weeks of her career. The pair drove through the areas they are responsible for, and Constable Wheatley sat in as the police representative in a meeting of officials discussing recent episodes at a local care home.

They later walked down a nearby street where three windows had been shattered by bricks. Around the corner, the pair walked by the house of a resident who was suspected of breaking the windows, and briefly stopped to chat with him.

“It’s always good to know not just the nice people in the neighborhood, but also the people who might commit crimes,” Constable Bewley said.

At the end of the working day, back at the police station, an army veteran approached them. After saying he had been drinking, he added that he was considering overdosing because of his marital problems. The man broke down crying as Constable Wheatley comforted him.

“I can’t do this again,” he said. “I’m scared.”

Constable Wheatley and Constable Bewley drove the man to his brother’s house, sat with the men in the living room and calmed the situation. As the officers left, the men thanked them and said they would try to resolve the marital difficulties before approaching law enforcement for help again.

But earlier in the police station, her arm around the man’s shoulder, Constable Wheatley had reassured him. “You don’t need to be scared, she said. “You coming to us was the best thing you could have done.”

Source: NYT > World

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