We need to talk about homophobia in the police

This article was originally published in the Independent.

Last week marked a year’s anniversary since Royal Assent was granted to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, the final stage of achieving equal marriage in the UK. Yet whilst the Act, a result of over twenty years of campaigning efforts, may mark an end to homophobic discrimination in law, government legislation has only gone so far in improving the lived experience of the LGBT community.

Last year, 4,267 homophobic crimes were recorded by the police. And whilst hate crime as a whole dropped, the proportion of hate crimes that were homophobic increased. In other words, while the measures put in place to stop hate crime driven by racism or religion are showing some success, crime prevention strategies for homophobia are failing.

Moreover, the situation is likely worse than these statistics reveal. Recent research from the equality group Stonewall describes how more than three-quarters of victims of homophobic hate crime don’t report the incident to the police, often because they fear it wouldn’t be dealt with seriously. Such disturbing data raises a significant question about the work of the police – what has gone so wrong that our law enforcers are deterring exactly the people who they should be protecting?

An obvious problem is the composition of the Police Service itself, and the lack of LGBT representation within it. Whilst “reasonable” government estimates suggest that around 5-7% of the UK population identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, the police consistently fail to meet this figure when employing staff. A police service so overwhelmingly dominated by straight men is clearly incapable of representing the policing needs of our society, and it’s no surprise that the organisation fosters a “macho culture” concerned  more with intimidation and aggression than helping those in need.

And the situation isn’t going to improve any time soon. A recent report found that almost half of lesbian, gay and bisexual people believe they’d “face barriers” if they tried to join the police. Thanks to the current government, the situation has become even bleaker – in April of this year, the Gay Police Association was forced to close after reportedly losing its Home Office funding. The organisation was the only national body set up to deal with LGBT issues within the Police Service, and operated a helpline which responded to concerns of distressed police staff. Now, many of these calls will go unheard.

The police’s disregard for diversity and representation has clear consequences when considering that a lack of trust in the police prevents thousands of homophobic crimes from ever being reported.

And, speaking from personal experience now, it appears that these perceptions are well-founded. After receiving homophobic abuse at a UK airport, I was faced with dismissiveness, disinterest and victim-blaming from the police. Despite the incident being captured on CCTV and the attacker’s details being accessible on the flight check-in system, the police refused to investigate. I was told that it wasn’t “worth” taking witness statements because the police officer wasn’t “good with words”. Perhaps most insultingly, we were asked whether we “regularly attracted this kind of behaviour”, as if the LGBT community are to blame for the abuse they receive. Considering the indifference the police show towards homophobic incidents, it’s unsurprising that a study found 31% of gay and bisexual men deliberately alter their behaviour to avoid being “perceived as gay” in order to remain safe.

Only when I returned home did I discover that the incident was indeed a crime, and had breached sections 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Our attacker could’ve faced a fine and prison sentence of up to six months. Yet, despite the ease of identifying the criminal (the airport staff even offered the individual’s details to the police), the homophobic crime we reported was met with only derisory attention.

Depressingly, this story is not unusual. Half of LGBT people who report crime are dissatisfied with how their report is handled, homophobic crime often isn’t recorded as such, and there has only ever been one conviction resulting from the type of offence I witnessed.

Of course, the problem isn’t solely down to a lack of willpower – the police are having to prioritise the crime they target due to government budget cuts. However, crimes against the LGBT community are exactly the ones that should be prioritised. Homophobic crime, whether physical or otherwise, has a palpable effect on the lives of so many and is almost certainly a contributing factor to the fact that 44% of 16-24 LGBT people have contemplated suicide. The consequence of ignoring hate crime cultivates a culture of endemic homophobia, a culture which the police officers who refuse to investigate such crimes must accept responsibility for.

This problem isn’t a recent phenomenon either; amidst changing legislation there has long been a history of hostility between the police and the LGBT community. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the police spent vast amounts of money trying to catch and entrap gay men meeting to have sex in parks and public toilets. In one case, £500,000 was spent on prosecuting seven men for having intercourse which would’ve been legal if they were heterosexual. The culture of the police was so in opposition to LGBT equality that in 1999, when investigating the terrorist bombing of a gay pub in Soho, the Metropolitan Police had to search through Cumbria, Northamptonshire and Scotland to find officers who “understood the gay community”.

To have to draft in special officers from afar to deal with gay people, as if the LGBT community is a bizarre sociopathic spectacle with whom ordinary staff are incapable of communicating, is an indictment of the police’s past. Yet when, just last year, police were found to be collecting DNA samples from men for having consensual gay sex, Greater Manchester Police ordered a report to be rewritten to cover up its homophobia and staff were subject to homophobic abuse from colleagues, it’s questionable how much the Police Service has changed.

In 1999, a public enquiry found that the Metropolitan Police Service was suffering from “institutional racism”. Perhaps it’s time for a national investigation to look into whether the police has a problem of institutional homophobia.

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