December 9, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Police recruitment ad from the riot torn 80s

2 min read
Police recruitment in the 1980s was forced to address racism after the 1981 riots but by the 1999 Macpherson report it was clear not enough had been done
80s police ad

This is a police recruitment ad from 1980, the year of the Bristol St Paul’s riot and a year before the entire country sank into riots from Brixton to Toxteth. As youth unemployment soared, a career in the police or even the army was increasingly attractive.

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But – the police were failing to diversify and reflect the changing ethnic composition of the United Kingdom. Depressing to think that in 1999, the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence murder was still having to bang on about the police not having enough BAME officers.

That said, many black youth regarded joining the police as anathema. It was like working for the enemy. This was the state law enforcement arm that enforced stop-and-search laws – what was called SUS in London – which impacted disproportionately on black youth. And oh dear – that debate is still going on today.

I may be wrong but I think even the situation in apartheid-ruled South Africa influenced attitudes among young black Britons at the time. We had film footage on the TV news of ‘collaborators’ in South African townships being ‘necklaced’ to death for working with the apartheid state and betraying their communities.

Did this help to create an attitude of non-cooperation with the state in the UK, viewed as being institutionally racist? I don’t feel qualified to answer that but happy to get your insights.

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In the post-war era, many black Britons who had fought in the Second World War or did National Service did attempt to join the police after their military discharge. According to the Metropolitan Black Police Association, there was always a sense of embarrassment when the ‘John Smith’ who had applied to become a police officer turned out to be black. They were always turned down.

There were more BAME police officers in the 1970s and 1980s but from a base of zero – so still pretty low. And from studies conducted in the years after the 1981 riots, these officers reported a culture where black officers were viewed as “tokens” and victims of racist attacks were not supported properly.

A lot of racist abuse within the police force that encouraged black officers to leave was dismissed as ‘canteen banter’. I know people who joined the police in the 1980s and left because even their thick skins weren’t prepared for the swirl of racist views within the force.

Well, it’s certainly all come back to haunt us today. If only we’d resolved these things forty years ago!

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