As Police Scotland’s chief constable, Iain Livingstone, made a landmark admission of “institutional racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination” within the force, he pointed out that on becoming an officer, new recruits swear an oath “to do their duty with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality”.
Police Scotland is now the largest force in the UK to admit it has a problem and this is, somewhat, to Livingstone's credit. But given “institutional racism” was first identified as a major problem in policing by the 1999 Macpherson Report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in London, it has taken far too long for senior officers to face up to the issue. That report should have prompted serious action in all forces.
Livingstone is due to retire later this year and so will largely avoid the backlash from those officers who, as the Scottish Police Federation said, “feel let down by the words that are used”. This may be one reason why he waited until near the end of his six-year stint in charge of the force to speak out.
However, he is not solely to blame for the delay. Scotland’s politicians have also failed to tackle the problem with sufficient vigor. Humza Yousaf said that, as a person of colour, the chief constable’s admission was “monumental” and “historic”. But given he previously served as Justice Secretary, some will question why Yousaf and others who have held the post did not do more.
It is important not to traduce the many hard-working, honest and fair officers who keep us safe on a daily basis, who run towards danger when we run away, and who do one of the most difficult jobs with great skill and dedication. And it is important to stress that Livingstone was in no way seeking to do that. “I have great confidence in the character and values of our people,” he said.
However, the independent report that prompted Livingstone’s remarks found “instances of ongoing discrimination against minoritised communities, including first-hand accounts of racism, sexism, and homophobia”. It also “heard of people being ‘punished’ for raising issues or concerns”.
So it is also important to face reality. And that reality is not simply a problem for the police but for society as a whole. In recent years, social media has made it impossible to deny that racism and sexism are alarmingly widespread.
Martin Luther King’s hope was that his children would “not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” and this is how we should all be judged. Racism, sexism, sectarianism, extreme nationalism and other forms of prejudice all seek to deny the truth – which we each know with 100 per cent certainty about ourselves – that everyone is an individual. Far too many people have forgotten this fundamental liberal tenet and that it is wrong to judge anyone based on ideas about their supposed ‘identity’.
If Scotland is to address its demons, it must become a more liberal nation. Achieving this requires leadership, not just from politicians but civic society as a whole. And as a fundamental part of the justice system, the police are in a special position and should be held to the highest standards. Officers should take pride in being required to be the best of us.
The obvious conflict between the chief constable’s admission of “institutional” discrimination and new officers’ promise of “fairness” and “impartiality” means there can be no doubt action must now be taken. Police Scotland must become institutionally opposed to all forms of prejudice.