Case study: Improving ethnic diversity at Surrey Police

Surrey Police has taken a new approach to the employee lifecycle to boost BAME representation

The organisation

Surrey Police is one of 43 police forces across England and Wales, encompassing the region bordered by London and two international airports and containing the M25. The force employs around 4,000 people, of which 1,865 are police officers. It has three operational divisions and a headquarters in Guildford.

The problem

It comes as no surprise to hear that BAME representation in the UK police force is poor. It’s a historic issue; with just 4% of police officers nationally being BAME despite BAME people making up 9.5% of the population. This disparity widens among supervisory and senior roles.

According to Hermann Trepesch, a police constable in Surrey Police and chair of its BAME staff association SPACE (Surrey Police Association of Culture and Ethnicity), at Surrey Police representation stood even lower at 3.7%. While it’s no secret that this lack of diversity means the police doesn’t represent – and in turn struggles to engage with – the communities it serves, stretched public resources meant the issue was largely neglected in the past. So SPACE decided to take matters into its own hands.

The first step, back in 2015, was to diagnose the maladies behind such poor representation. “We did a survey across the country of officers, staff and BAME individuals interested in policing to find out what the barriers had been for them and what they had found tough about joining or working for the police,” he explains.

Three key challenges emerged: cultural, stakeholder engagement, and budget.

The method

The first was a particularly complex one to overcome. “It’s a historic problem in this country going way back to Stephen Lawrence, to the Brixton riots in the ‘80s, to BAME and especially black communities being targeted by the police for stop and search, and there’s still some problems today,” admits Trepesch. “Cops have been an oppressive force in history for these communities so you’re talking about generations of people who don’t trust the police and who see the uniform as a tool of oppression.”

The SPACE team decided to go into BAME communities and “get to know people”, Trepesch explains. They particularly targeted young people by attending community events in schools, colleges, universities and faith festivals.

“Mythbusting” was key to overcoming the negative perceptions the community held of policing as a career. “We’d talk to young people and ask them why they’d never considered policing as a career and they’d say things like ‘I hate the cops’ or ‘there’s no money’ or ‘I want a degree’, so we’d show them starting salaries or I’d say I have two degrees and the police paid for them,” says Trepesch.

For the former complaint “[the force] threw a bit of the challenge back on the communities, that we understand they aren’t happy with how some things are done and mistakes have been made in the past but that you can’t change things if you’re not part of it,” says Trepesch. In some cases it was also critical to visit the families of potential recruits to win their support. “I understand the culture as I come from it myself,” he says. “It was important as you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Then in 2016 SPACE launched a mentoring scheme, with Trepesch and a colleague identifying talented individuals in the BAME community and acting as mentors to these potential recruits. With lack of confidence being a factor observed among BAME individuals, he asserts that “simple things” like mentoring can make a big difference.

The team also came up against the challenge of stakeholder engagement, which, in a largely non-diverse traditional establishment that is “set in its ways”, posed some difficulties initially at least. “We had to get buy-in from senior allies who realise that diversity is not a flavour of the month thing but is something that adds value,” explains Trepesch.

In the early days this meant challenging and even “shaming people” into action, “not because they’re racist but because in the midst of all other things the police have to do they didn’t always see this as really important”, he says. “If someone has 10 999 calls and paperwork to do before their shift ends they’re not going to care about and have time for this.”

This required changing the force’s mindset, something that is an ongoing focus: “We hold board-level meetings where we talk straight about issues and sort them out… and also talk to staff and ask what they think we could do better.”

After senior leaders bought into the idea, the focus was then middle management who needed to be brought on board so that SPACE could deploy BAME officers to recruitment fairs.

“If we want to recruit BAME people it helps to have BAME officers on the stalls but managers could say the officer is missing work by doing so,” says Trepesch. “It’s about getting the hearts and minds piece and showing that recruiting BAME staff is still important work.”

Budget posed another hurdle, with the crux of the matter (as Trepesch puts it) being that in the force “we have none”. SPACE presented a business plan to the organisation to show that satisfaction among BAME communities is linked to a rise in BAME police officers, meaning this would bring value to the force. But, as Trepesch says, “we can’t make money out of nothing” so to overcome the fact that budget allocation to this project was scarce we secured a commitment that staff would have paid time to work on it.

While much of these efforts focused on the recruitment of BAME staff, action was also taken at all stages of the employee lifecycle: recruitment, progression and retention.

A new promotional framework was launched for the BAME talent pool. Professional Action Learning Sets (PALS) is a year-long course for a cohort of 10 to 14 talented, visible, BAME officers to help prepare them for promotion season and equip them with the tools they need to progress. Each officer on PALS also gets a superintendent-level police mentor. “I went on the first cohort and, of the 10 of us who went on it, every one of us was promoted,” says Trepesch. “Now we didn’t just suddenly grow talent through PALS – it’s about that ladder being lowered to give us the opportunity to pull ourselves up.” This then helps with recruitment and retention too, as junior officers can see senior BAME role models and promotion opportunities.

The result

The rewards of the SPACE team’s efforts are already beginning to be reaped. Between January and December 2017 Surrey Police saw an average 8.4% BAME application rate (compared to zero applicants seen between April and December 2015), and 23 BAME officers joined via the SPACE scheme.

But Trepesch is keen to assert that it’s about more than just chasing numbers. “We need to be mature about things as it would be easy to go and recruit 50 BAME people, but if they’re not right they won’t last,” he says. This maturity also means being open to losing talent. “Now we are showing talented people they are talented they have the confidence to move on so it’s a double-edged sword, but it doesn’t matter whether they work for the MET or Sunderland or wherever if there’s BAME police in the UK we’re doing well,” he says. Meanwhile organisational buy-in is now well secured, with January 2018 seeing two positive action officers being made into full-time roles, suggesting diversity is now “business as usual”. And, most importantly, the BAME community the force represents is better engaged. “We have an independent advisory group with people from diverse backgrounds and they talk to us about how we are policing them and their feedback has improved,” says Trepesch.

Clearly the force has come a long way, but it’s not a done deal. “Moving forwards we need to keep it on the front page all the time,” says Trepesch. “It’s only on the front page because we don’t stop talking about it. The minute we stop talking about it it’s yesterday’s news, and we’re not prepared to do that.”