31 October 2009

Cultural & Communities Resource Unit: Diversity and efficiency in practice

Yesterday I learnt about a fabulous project run by the Metropolitan Police Service. Established some years ago now - the project runs a database of officers and staff with specialist skills. The skills include understanding languages and cultures of the various (and many) communities of London. But the database does not stop there, members of the database offer any information about themselves that they think could help with an investigation or other police operational matter.

The Cultural and Communities Resource Unit is clearly offering an enormously helpful service to the Met. Below, using extracts from a variety of sources, I have outlined more of the detail. My purpose for doing this is to ask you two questions
  1. Should all police services have such units?
  2. And secondly - should all public services have such units?
I would suggest that the answers to both these questions is a resounding yes. Any public service organisation that is committed to diversity (in its widest sense) will be assisted if it has wide access to the diversity of the talents, interests, and insights of its staff.

One website describes the database: Staff submit their skills on a voluntary basis and are encouraged to list details of their lifestyle, knowledge of specific communities, extra languages and hobbies. The process is managed 24 hours a day by dedicated CCRU staff and co-ordinators, who also provide strategic advice for operational commanders. The theory behind the unit is that officers with a certain cultural background will be used more effectively in difficult investigations within minority areas. Similarly, staff with an unusual hobby or interest could prove vital if information on that subject is lacking during an investigation. (Thanks to InsideKnowledge for this quote)

In another article (thank you Personnel Today) it is explained that the concept was first used during the investigations of the Soho nail bombing and the murder of Damilola Taylor. Gay and black officers helped to build vital links with their respective communities to further police enquiries.

The value of the unit is put in another context in the 2006 Demos Report Bringing it Home - Community Based Approaches to Counter Terrorism which gives an example of how the Unit's database was used to tackle a particular policing problem: An early example of the success of the unit was when Inspector Steve Biollo, who was in charge of policing the predominantly Algerian community near Finsbury Park Mosque, turned to it for help. The area was home to radical cleric Abu Hamza, and had been the scene of several police anti-terrorism raids; there was a high degree of mistrust of the police among the Algerian community, many of whom did not speak English. The CCRU found Biollo a constable of Egyptian origin from another borough who went to work in the area for two to three days per month, and slowly introduced other officers into the community. Although not Algerian, the constable spoke Arabic and had an understanding of North African politics and culture; as Biollo put it, he ‘even went and prayed in the mosque’. The outcome was increased trust of the police among the Algerian community: local people began reporting crimes to the police, and some even made enquiries about joining the police service.34 The unit was successfully supported by the Muslim Contact Unit (see case study 2), which played a vital role in negotiating the relationship with Finsbury Park Mosque.The success of the unit meant that Fraser soon began to receive enquiries from other police forces around the country, and plans have been made to expand the scheme nationally, although this has not yet happened.

In the same case study, the CCRU’s founding director, Detective Chief Inspector Keith Fraser, is reported as saying "This database allows us to match up the ‘life skills’ – as well as the professional skills – that officers have with the needs of a particular case. The database contains all sorts of information, not only about an individual’s race, ethnicity, faith or cultural experiences, but also things like experience of child abuse, black magic, hostage situations, and so on. It is a really rich resource and allows us to bring new and subtle understandings to our work."
Setting up, sustaining and making the most of such a database is a complex task where issues about access, trust and confidentiality clearly need to be resolved. However once this is done - such a resource could help achieve three potent results:
  • A better, more diverse and sensitive service is delivered to citizens
  • Staff are valued and acknowledged for all of their talents
  • Operational practice is more effective and efficient (with less use of costly external expertise & more efficiently conducted operational business)
I wish the Unit well in the future and I hope the practice spreads.

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