Police sector: Attracting recruits from different BAME groups

Author: Graham Brown

We look at what police forces are doing to attract recruits from different black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups and consider if positive discrimination is necessary to increase the number of BAME police officers.


In 2019, the Government launched Be a force for all, a national campaign to recruit 20,000 new police officers over the following three years. This drive has been described as representing a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to increase the representation of BAME officers in police forces across England and Wales.

So what are forces doing to attract different BAME recruits, and is positive discrimination the way forward for achieving a significant uplift in the number of BAME police officers on the streets?


People from BAME groups are significantly under-represented in the UK's police forces.

According to the 2011 census, 86% of people in England and Wales identify as "white", with 14% identifying as being from other ethnic groups. But these numbers are not reflected in the make-up of the police service in England and Wales. At the end of March 2019, according to the Government's police workforce data, more than 93% of police officers were white, with just 7% from other ethnic groups. Moreover, just 4% of senior officers were from BAME groups combined.

This is a situation that has remained relatively static over the past decade. While the percentage of officers from Asian and mixed ethnic groups increased slightly between 2007 and 2019, the number of black officers and those from other ethnic groups barely increased at all (see Police workforce data: By ethnicity over time).

"Once in a lifetime opportunity"

In September 2019, the Government announced plans to recruit 20,000 police officers to new posts in England and Wales over the next three years, with the aim of enrolling a first wave of up to 6,000 officers by the end of 2020/21. The Government announced in July 2020 that it is already over 4,000 recruits into its target.

According to Andy George, Acting President of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), this recruitment drive provides a unique opportunity to increase the percentage of BAME police officers in forces across the country.

"The uplift of 20,000 new police officers offers us a once in a lifetime opportunity to recruit officers that reflect the communities we serve and increase the representation that we have so far failed to achieve," says George.

And many forces have pledged to make the most of this opportunity.

The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), David Jamieson, for example, has committed to recruiting 1,000 new BAME police officers over the next three years. He says (on the West Midland PCC website): "Presently only 10.9% of our officers are from BAME communities. That is an improvement from when I became PCC, but it is still not good enough.

"After a decade of shrinking officer numbers, there is finally now the chance to properly address that. Over the next three years, the number of police officers [in the West Midlands Police force] is set to increase by at least 1,200 - that will require 2,750 people to be recruited to fill the gaps left behind by retirements and those leaving the force. I am committed to ensuring 1,000 of those new officers will be from BAME communities."

Finding potential BAME police officers

To deliver on these promises, police forces will need to find potential BAME candidates and persuade them to apply for officer roles, and many police forces across the UK have traditionally struggled to attract these applicants. But some forces have recently had success with recruitment initiatives specifically targeted at BAME candidates.

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South Wales Police, for example, has achieved a steady, year-on-year increase in the number of BAME candidates applying for police officer roles since it introduced a dedicated BAME recruitment team in 2015.

"The team was set up in response to a period when we received no applications from BAME candidates, to provide a more refined approach to recruitment and to give more focus and put more energy into community engagement," says Inspector Matthew Rowlands, of the BAME recruitment team at South Wales Police.

"We reach out to the community by attending careers fairs, visiting schools, attending religious ceremonies and giving presentations, all with the aim of showcasing the work that the team does and the support that's available to people from BAME backgrounds if they want to join the force."

For example, in 2019, the team attended the 30th anniversary of Sri Dasmais Singh Sabha Gurdwara - the Sikh temple in Cardiff - when the team marched with the congregation and were given complimentary turbans to wear by the Sikh community.

The team then held a stall at the event so that they could interact with members of the congregation and discuss why the force is trying to achieve a more diverse workplace and what they can offer new recruits should they choose to join.

They also regularly attend local mosques, where they take part in services and then address the congregation to discuss any issues within the local area, with a focus on engaging with the community and building strong relationships.

The team advertises all current vacancies at its events, but it also publishes them online via the South Wales Police website and social media channels, including a Twitter account dedicated to recruitment and BAME events.

Over the past three years, the percentage of applications for police officer roles at South Wales Police coming from BAME applicants has increased from 3.5% in 2018, to 4.2% in 2019 and 5.2% in 2020.

"The introduction of the BAME recruitment team has been a visible success since its beginning," says Rowlands. "The force saw immediate success in attracting and recruiting more BAME candidates and we have achieved a steady rise in both BAME police officers and staff."

Engagement and community events

Surrey Police has seen similar results through its program of recruitment activities designed specifically for those identifying as BAME.

... The recruitment and progression of our black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues is a force priority ...

Farhan Hayat, Surrey Police

These include engagement and community events, one-to-one and group mentoring sessions, recruitment information workshops, careers talks, community partnerships, job surgeries and careers fairs. Surrey has areas with large Asian communities and the force attends events at mosques, temples and gurdwaras to engage with different groups, understand the challenges they are facing and attempt to address any misconceptions they might have about a career in policing.

The force also attends events outside Surrey. In 2019, for example, it attended two large Korean festivals and a Filipino event in neighbouring counties, and it has engaged with African-Caribbean societies in local universities.

"The recruitment and progression of our black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues is a force priority," says Farhan Hayat, Diversity, Inclusion and Positive Action Advisor at Surrey Police. "As we've continued to increase our engagement with our BAME communities, we've seen an increase in our BAME police officer representation. Just under 5% of Surrey's police officers now come from a BAME background - and out of more than 700 applicants currently in process for police officer roles, 13.4% come from a BAME background."

Reaching out to BAME communities

According to Andy George of the NBPA, targeting BAME communities through recruitment activities such as these is important, because they reach candidates who might otherwise never consider a career in policing.

"Trust and confidence in BAME communities is generally low in relation to police services and this has historically led to a low number of officers being recruited from these groups," he says. "There are a number of barriers to recruitment. These can include hostility from BAME communities to joining - but it is also centred around any connections they may have to policing. BAME applicants often do not have any relatives or friends in policing who they can reach out to and gain knowledge about the application process or what it is like to be a police officer."

... Those from BAME backgrounds tend to have little knowledge of what is involved in joining the police, as they will not know many people within the force ...

Inspector Matthew Rowlands, South Wales Police

Inspector Rowlands of South Wales Police echoes these thoughts. "Those from BAME backgrounds tend to have little knowledge of what is involved in joining the police, as they will not know many people within the force - unlike those of a white background," he says.

"That lack of knowledge can sometimes be daunting to those wanting to apply. There is also the stigma that the police are racist - but we combat this by offering our positive action sessions where we explain that whilst racism does exist, it is absolutely not tolerated within the force. These sessions also provide a time where BAME candidates can ask all of their questions to other BAME officers in a safe space."

Supporting BAME candidates

Finding BAME applicants is just the first hurdle. The police selection process often involves several stages, and many forces have found it useful to provide support to candidates from BAME backgrounds to ensure they remain engaged throughout. Essex Police, for example, operates a "buddy" scheme for BAME candidates, in which a trained police officer or member of police staff becomes a point of contact at all stages of the recruitment process to offer moral support and guidance.

Schemes such as these, which provide additional encouragement for job candidates from BAME groups, are permitted under the positive action provisions of the Equality Act 2010. These allow employers to provide support for job candidates from groups that are under-represented within their organisation. In the case of the police service, this permits forces to provide additional support for BAME candidates - and to recruit a BAME candidate over a white candidate "of equal merit" based on their race.

A 2014 survey of police forces by the College of Policing found that half of all forces in England and Wales have used positive action, with three forces stating they found this strategy "very successful".

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Again, Inspector Rowlands of South Wales Police is a firm advocate of this approach. "South Wales Police is proud to operate under a 'positive action' approach in order to get the best out of BAME candidates," he says.

"Should a BAME candidate wish to apply to join the force, they can work with our BAME recruitment team on mock situations that take them through both the application form and interview process, for example. However, it must be stated that success is still based purely on merit and positive action does not change this."

A role for positive discrimination?

Positive action is not the same as positive discrimination, which involves recruiting a candidate because they have a relevant protected characteristic, or setting quotas to recruit a particular number or proportion of people with protected characteristics.

Positive discrimination is unlawful in the UK (other than where an occupational requirement applies), but some groups, such as the NBPA, have called for it to be legalised to help the police recruit more BAME officers.

"Positive action has been around for a number of years, but for a number of reasons it has failed to increase representation for BAME officers," says Andy George, Acting President of the NBPA.

"Positive discrimination is a short-term fix, but I do believe that legalising it in line with the current recruitment drive would create representative police services that understand all their communities and their individual needs."

... I do believe that legalising [positive discrimination] in line with the current recruitment drive would create representative police services ...

Andy George, National Black Police Association

Louise Haigh MP, Labour's former shadow police minister, also supports a change in the law to allow police forces to have quotas.

In an article for the New Statesmen in early 2020, she wrote: "We simply cannot afford to rely on a recruitment drive alone to improve diversity because the lessons from the last surge under a Labour government show that it will be too slow. That's why I believe that positive discrimination is now needed. Nobody claims this would be without its difficulties or that people from BME communities would rush to join the police; it is not a silver bullet. But I believe this would be a generational opportunity to transform the face of British policing, and above all improve policing."

And Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation, a policing think tank, agrees.

"My own view is that positive discrimination is necessary. If we really want to accelerate the representation of BAME communities in the police force, we need to do something quite bold," he says.

"You wouldn't have to do it permanently. If you did it for a decade or so, you could reach a tipping point where there are enough BAME police officers to change people's perceptions of the job and to help people in BAME communities view policing as a career in which they could see themselves succeeding."

However, views are divided within the service on the potential use of positive discrimination to help increase the percentage of police officers from BAME groups. In 2014, a second College of Policing survey of black and ethnic minority officers from every police force across England and Wales showed they were evenly split on the benefits of positive discrimination in increasing representation in policing, with a third (34%) supporting its introduction, a third (34.5%) against and a third (31.5%) undecided.

And police chiefs are not currently looking for positive discrimination to be legalised within the service.

... A number of forces are having considerable success in attracting new talent into policing through positive action. ...

Ian Hopkins, NPCC

"A substantial uplift in officer numbers gives us a generational opportunity to increase the diversity of our workforce," says Ian Hopkins, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) lead for workforce representation. "A number of forces are having considerable success in attracting new talent into policing through positive action. Therefore, we are currently focusing on maximising the benefits of positive action rather than calling for a change in law required to move to positive discrimination."