Natricia Duncan, Voice Writer
THE NEWLY APPOINTED chair of the Metropolitan Black Police Association (MetBPA) says her first priority is to help "bridge the gap between the police and the public".
And Janet Hills, 46, who has become the first woman to lead the association, will certainly have her work cut out for her. She has come to office at a time when the integrity of the police is being called into question in a number of high-profile cases such as the Mark Duggan inquest, allegations of a smear campaign against the Stephen Lawrence family, and a stop-and- search consultation which brought to the fore concerns about how officers are interacting with the black community.
Addressing the issue of public confidence, Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe recently declared: "I want Londoners to love, respect, and be proud of the Met." And Hills is on a mission to try and make it happen. But she said the black community was still healing from the abuses it had suffered over the years.
"The community doesn't forget," she said. "The Notting Hill Riots [of 1958], and everything that happened since, is still fresh in their memory, and when the police do something wrong, that has an adverse effect. The attitude is: 'They are always going to be like that, they will never change', when actually there is change, slow though it may be."
The detective sergeant was born in Croydon to Jamaican parents and spent all her life in south London. Her police career spans more than 20 years, starting in Brixton in 1991. She recalls: "I still have a vivid memory of my first day on the beat. It was amazing! People on the streets were saying hello. My white colleague beside me was like, 'Do you know these people?' And I was like, 'Never met them in my life'."
The officer spent the bulk of her career in the area dealing with domestic violence and homophobic and race crimes. She moved on to the CID hoping to become a detective but struggled to pass the exam.
She later discovered she had dyslexia but was able to overcome this barrier and progressed with her career. Despite this, Hills claims she has experienced racism. "A lot of it was indirect by the way of name-calling by colleagues. Sometimes it may not even be personally directed to you, but it still has to be challenged," she explains.
"Also, you always seemed to be underperforming when you were working at the same level - if not a better level than your white colleagues - and your annual appraisals would be marked down without any real explanation given."
Hills said she "soldiered on" but then decided to act by becoming active within the MetBPA.
Starting out as a support coordinator, Hills moved up the ranks until filling the chair when Bevan Powell retired in May this year. She says: "Up until now, it has been a boys' club. Having a woman as MetBPA chair represents a change of mindset. I think as a woman, I can have a wider viewpoint and a more inclusive outlook."
The association is membership based and exists for the benefit of black officers in the force. Its remit is to improve working conditions and offer support to colleagues who face discrimination or other issues at work. But Hills said the organisation also has an "external" focus. "One of our aims is to improve the quality of the service the police provides for Londoners. Part of that is ensuring that officers are happy and productive in their roles, but the other side of that is to be actively engaged with the community.
"At the moment, there is a massive mistrust of the police that has to be addressed, and part of the solution has to be a proactive outreach programme that will bridge the gap between the police and the public." Hills said in addition to internal measures such as recruitment drives to increase its membership and working with police unions, the MetBPA was also devising an outreach project. "We are starting with information sharing," said Hills. "Knowledge is power. Every single person should know their rights. If people know their rights when they are stopped by the police and know how to complain when they are unhappy or they feel they are being victimised, it will speed up change."
website under way
The association is rebuilding its website to act as an information and data-gathering tool.
"We live and breathe in our communities and we can be a voice that puts the difficult questions to police chiefs. But if the community doesn't tell and if we don't have the data to make our case, then we are less effective."
The site will also highlight reforms and improvements in the police.
Retired Police Superintendent and former MetBPA chair, Leroy Logan, described the challenges facing the police today as "seismic" compared to 10 years ago.
"For Janet, it is about making sure the MetBPA is positioned to be the honest broker, standing independently and challenging, if necessary, the organisation - as we have always done in the last 20 years," he said. He expressed his confidence in Hills' ability to take the work of the association forward. According to Logan, Hills' first priority should be to stamp her leadership credentials as the first female chair. "I think having a female chair is well timed, historic, and an opportunity for a renaissance of the MetBPA in terms of its profile and impact."