‘Macho’ culture self-perpetuating in armed police units in England & Wales

A strong macho culture amongst armed police officers in England and Wales is impeding diversity and impacting on standards, according to a new independent report.

Researchers found that toxic, 1970s-style attitudes to women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ officers is a barrier to recruitment, a significant factor in poor retention rates and a “bullying, elitism” which perpetuates the dominant role of the macho male.

The report by Liverpool John Moores University found a “substantial body of opinion across all gender groups within the force that firearms work is associated with a macho culture” and that officers too often see themselves as a “brand to encourage such a culture”.

The report was commissioned by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) to examine why less than 10% are women and only a tiny fraction are non-white.

Across the service as a whole, 7.3% of police officers are Black or Ethnic Minority and 31% are female, yet just 29 out of 6,584 armed officers nationwide identify as Black and 14 out of 43 forces have no non-white officers in their firearms units.

'Calling out the "Old Guard" would lead to being ostracised' - report

Dr Adrian James, a reader in Police Studies at the LJMU’s Centre for Advanced Policing Studies and lead author admitted some of the report’s content made for “disquieting reading”.

Firearms units are overwhelmingly, white, male and exclusionary; a fact that appears to be a major obstacle both to attracting a more diverse range of recruits and retaining those men and women in that role ”.

“We heard a lot of voices say that they had not seen any real attempt at dismantling the macho culture and that calling out the "Old Guard" would lead to being ostracised.”

As part of the research, more than 4,000 officers were surveyed on their perceptions of armed units and the attractiveness or otherwise of working in them. They found a range of issues, including uniforms (body armour not suitable for women), equipment (guns often too heavy for women) and training.

However, the  most significant obstacle was the firearms  culture. Quizzed by the research team, 82% of female and 68% of unarmed  officers associated the units with a macho culture. Within the units themselves an even higher percentages of of female officers thought there was a macho culture (against 54% of males). Some armed officers argued that the macho attitude could, on occasions, translate to discriminatory behaviour.

Overall findings, from surveys and focus groups: 

  1. Attractiveness of role – a high proportion of unarmed officers wouldn’t join regardless of gender or ethnicity, as around 50% of those surveyed said that they do not want to be armed.
  2. Pay and rewards: Many armed officers believe they should receive higher pay than unarmed officers, arguing that they deserve the additional payment because are fitter and work longer hours.
  3. Uniform and kit – women are frequently issued with male kit – not giving them the tools they need to do the job
  4. Work-life balance – many women couldn’t reconcile being an armed officer with fulfilling family responsibilities and many have left after not being able to agree a work plan.
  5. Macho culture – endemic and highly resistant to change – lots of female officers felt this at heart of their disadvantage and it perpetuated an us and them attitude.

The research team made a number of recommendations, including that the NPCC initiate a cultural audit of staff, overhaul its system of exit interviews and take a fresh look at the retention measures in place.

“Males are staying twice as long as females in the job for structural reasons, structures which are well overdue a change,” said Dr James.

Chief Constable Simon Chesterman, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Armed Policing said: "We commissioned Liverpool John Moores University to conduct this independent research to support our ongoing commitment to increasing diversity amongst armed officers. The UK has the best trained firearms officers across the world; however, we know that there is a negative image and culture around being a firearms officer which is very male dominated.

“We wanted to gain greater understanding of this and other barriers which are stopping women, ethnic and other minority officers from applying for armed policing roles. Whilst this report makes difficult reading, it was essential for us to commission the independent research so that we can address the issues in order to enable increased diversity within armed policing.

“I am committed to using this research in our ongoing efforts alongside armed policing leaders and commanders across the country, to make armed policing more reflective of the communities we serve.”

This research has been reported on in The Conversation


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