Thursday, 29 October 2009

The ghost of Macpherson still haunts the British Police Force

Both the Mail and the Telegraph run with this idiotic story about a lesbian police officer who has labelled the police force as (wait for it..) "insititutionally homophobic." Remember that little phrase? Used first to describe the police force as "institutionally racist" by Macpherson and a whole line of cowardly higher-ups in the force? Well now its mutated! Of course the fact that she gets the meaning wrong (institutionally homophobic would means the rules, structures etc of the police would be homophobic, while all she is saying is that a large number of officers 'discriminated' against her) doesn't matter. After all it goes on with the continual narrative set up by MacPherson that police are racist, bigot, sexist homophobes, so it must be true!

The story itself is a relatively typical discrimination case, and to be fair, we don't know if some of the jokes and comments she refers to happened or not, and certainly if there was real discrimination against Sgt Stewart, then it would be inappropriate and need dealing with. Yet there are a couple of elements to the story that tweaked my ear, and made me think that this is more down to complete idiocy and the soul-destroying influence of the MacPherson report than due to any actual discrimination. The first thing that should be ringing alarm bells is the main accusation of homophobia that Sgt Stewart makes. The main accusation she makes isn't a joke, a comment, but instead the decision to refuse her request that her and her partner work on the same team, something that she was eventually allowed to do after she threatened a grievance procedure, to which her superiors soiled themselves and backed down.

If you are like me, you are probably wondering where the homophobia is in this incident? In the story, all we are told to justify this claim is Sgt Stewart's 'knowledge' that heterosexual police officers worked together, and some vague comment by her inspector that people wouldn't like it if they knew they were a couple - which could mean a million different things. Anyway, lets deal with this, and lets take sexuality out of it.

Imagine you are an inspector, and one of your sergeants comes to you and asks for someone that they are going out with to be transferred to your team. Lets assume the person they are asking to be transferred is not a fellow Sgt but a lowly PC. This means that first of all there is a risk of bias - surely not a coincidence that this sergeant is asking for their partner to be moved? This bias, perceived or otherwise, may also present itself by other members of the team, "She has only been given that cushy assignment because she is sleeping with the Sgt" they might say. "Have you noticed how much of a clique they are?" etc etc. In fact, if this was a male sergeant in a relationship with a female PC, it would open itself up to a harassment claim - "In order to get anywhere in this place, you have to sleep with the boss!" So this move could be very risky for morale.

Second of all, there is the risk of a lack of productivity. Anyone who has been in a working environment with someone they are dating knows that this can affect productivity. Its very easy to get distracted, depending on the personalities there might be jealousy issues, or simply "we are a couple in love and can't keep our hands off each other" issues. Also, what if there is a break up? Will they be able to work together productively? Will Sgt Stewart then demand (because lets face it, she demanded the move, she didn't ask if she wasn't prepared to take no for an answer.) that her partner is kicked back to where she came on, and the latest fling brought in?

Finally there are issues of professionalism in the field, and in a way these are the most important. If Sgt Stewart sees her partner being hurt, is she going to react reasonably, or is this going to affect judgement? With the rise of pro-criminal legislation, and also camera phones, there would be a great risk to the force's reputation if Sgt Stewart lost it and started beating the hell out of some criminal! Or would she instead choose to hold her partner back, and send other officers on those risky assignments?

There are many problems to making this transfer, and if I was the Inspector in question, I'd definitely refuse permission, not because I'm not raving homophobe, but because of the morale and safety of that team that could be damaged by such an irresponsible move. Yes, there may be people in different stages of relationships in teams for a number of reasons, and it is certainly not up to the Inspector to pry, unless a problem was brought to his attention. But it is also not for him to actively encourage such behaviour, which is of course what Sgt Stewart wants. Yet it is the ghost of Macpherson that haunts the force now, not the spirit of common-sense, and sure enough the inspector folded on the issue, and is still being claimed against.

Finally, I look at her accusation of other comments and jokes, and notice the subjective element to them. She appears to admit that there might be nothing in them objectively but then comes the lines that make me think the police will actually lose this case. "I felt the way it was said was because Mhairi and I were gay." So, nothing that was actually said was homophobic, just the way in which it was said. Then the classic line, referring to an insubordinate PC, "Every time I asked him to do something it was met with resistance. He would comply in the main if one of my male counterparts asked. My perception is that he had an issue with my sexuality and my sex."

The obvious reposte to this is, "Or maybe it was because he just didn't like you?" But of course it doesn't matter. MacPherson defined a racist incident as one that was perceived to be racist by any party involved. Surely it is a logical step to apply this to homophobia as well? She perceived the incidents to be homophobic, therefore they are. Case closed. It is for this reason that I think Sgt Stewart will win, and why the already rock-bottom morale of the police will be kicked around some more. Sad isn't it?

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