October is Black History Month. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve ever really paid any attention to it, but it is a movement that started more than 30 years ago to challenge racism and to highlight and celebrate the history and contribution of Black Britons to life in the UK. 2020 has been an extraordinary year for many of the wrong reasons – from the devastating impact of the COVID 19 pandemic to the killing of George Floyd in the US that has rightly brought policing everywhere in the world under increased scrutiny. But we have also seen incredible acts of duty, community spirit and kindness. From our frontline NHS workers many of whom are from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, to our police officers and staff who have been out on our streets and keeping the custody suites open, to Captain Tom’s phenomenal fundraising efforts for the NHS.
Why, you may ask, is Black History Month relevant to independent custody visiting? We know that people – men particularly – from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are over-represented in the use of stop and search, police detention, in prisons and in the youth justice system, so you are likely to encounter them in your visits to the local custody suite. However, as an individual, you may live and work in a less diverse area of the country or perhaps you don’t personally know many people from different backgrounds. This might mean that your only direct encounters with people from different races, faiths and ethnicities are in the context of a custody visit.
This may be unavoidable, of course, and you will always encounter people from different backgrounds during your visits. That is why Independent Custody Visitors are drawn from the local community and why we strive to increase the diversity of the volunteering base, so that you can bring your many and varied experiences of life in the United Kingdom to the role. But we know that we all hold unconscious biases – social stereotypes about certain groups of people that we form outside our own conscious awareness – and this is more prevalent than conscious prejudice and is often incompatible with one’s conscious values.
You may be familiar with the concept of moral panics; an instance of collective public anxiety in response to a problem perceived as threatening the moral standards of society. You will most certainly have witnessed one; be it the Teddy Boys of the 50s or street crime in the 80s. These moral panics are more often than not driven by the mass media, colouring our understanding and experience of different communities. Some might say we are in the midst of a modern-day moral panic about knife crime. Of course, this has an immense impact on the families and communities that are affected by it, but most of us are very unlikely to ever experience such violence, but with national newspapers constantly highlighting these issues using terms that signify race such as ‘drill music’ and ‘gangs’, it is easy to develop a disproportionate level of fear. When you think about that ask yourself what kind of imagery does that immediately conjure up? It’s quite likely it will be one of young Black men committing violent acts against each other on the streets of London.
However, you may be less familiar though with the stories of John Kent, one of the first Black police officers serving in the Carlisle area from 1835 to 1846. Within the space of one generation, Kent, the son of a man who’d been ‘considered’ a slave, became a pillar of the community, upholding the law. But it wasn’t until 2004, over 150 years later, that Michael Fuller QPM was appointed as Britain’s first and to date only Black Chief Constable. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dame Linda Dobbs, the first female ethnic minority high court judge appointed in 2004 or Grace Ononiwu, the First African Caribbean Chief Crown Prosecutor appointed in 2009.
Skip forward a decade or so and we come to the experience of the Black Barrister, Alexandra Wilson, who, despite standing on the shoulders of such giants, only last month was challenged as she went about her business in a Magistrate’s Court by a security guard, a solicitor and a clerk, who all assumed she was a defendant. Now how can that happen in this day and age? Well, there’s that unconscious bias again and that happens because our brain shortcuts and categorises people based on previous information and experience be that true or false, direct or indirect.
I am the child of Jamaican parents who came to the UK as children in the 1950s. I have been schooled all the way to university and my education in history like every child in the UK, featuring The Tudors, The Romans and stories of slavery and the US Civil Rights Movement. But where were the stories of the Black Roman Emperor, Septimus Severus, who fought back invader forces and restored Hadrian’s Wall, paving the way for a century of peace; and what of John Blanke, a Black trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII, or Paul Stephenson who led the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 in protest against the colour bar blocking Black workers from higher paid roles in the bus company?
Until quite recently, I, like many other Britons, had never heard of any of these people. And yet, this is my history; it’s your history; it’s British history. Dignity and respect are central tenets of custody visiting and we cannot truly respect each other without understanding our shared histories. That is why it’s so important for us all to learn about our collective British history, so that we can see each other for all that we are and can be, and not simply through the narrow lens of the media or superficial interactions at work or in the gym.
The point of all this, is that in many respects, the people you visit in custody could so very easily be you, me or one of our children. ICVs are drawn from the local force area as are the detainees, so they are your community and you are theirs. We rely on you to use your training and judgement to make sure that whoever is in the suite is treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with their legal rights and entitlements. And you do this week in, week out and you make a difference.
With Police and Crime Commissioners and Police Chiefs up and down the country taking action to improve trust and confidence in policing, we must also do our part as individuals, Independent Custody Visitors and Scheme Managers – and many of you are already on this journey. For my own part, I have taken more time this year to educate myself and to work with others to see how we can make a difference. As Independent Custody Visitors I would urge you to open yourself up to understanding our many and varied experiences of life in the UK; try to appreciate our differences, but also the things we have in common. As Scheme Managers take a fresh look at your recruitment practices to ensure they are fully inclusive, refresh your ICV training on diversity and inclusion and redouble your efforts to diversify your local Scheme to ensure it fully reflects the diversity of your local communities.
I started by saying how extraordinary 2020 has been. One of the things that has struck me in recent weeks is just how much more prevalent matters of Black identity and history have become in recent months with so many different opportunities for learning and appreciation, from print media, to film, to television, to radio. I hope that the lasting legacy of 2020 will be that we no longer talk about Black History Month, because it has been fully integrated into British history and more importantly, that we are no longer talking about systemic racism and injustice in 10, 20- or 30-years’ time. So, let’s keep up the momentum and keep learning and growing. As ever, the ICVA team will be there to lead, support and represent you every step of the way on this journey.