Romany Police Officer Jim Davies marks Hate Crime Week for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers
Since the EU referendum, racial abuse and hate crimes have risen dramatically. In the last two weeks of June alone, there was a 42% increase of recorded hate crimes on last year. Mark Hamilton, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said this was “probably the worst spike” of such incidents.
The rise in hate crimes and incidents has been condemned across the political spectrum and civil society, but despite this dominating much of the media over the summer, there are incidents which have been happening on such a scale, long before the Brexit debate even started. Incidents that are almost never reported; either by the media or indeed by the victims. These are incidents and offences against Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people in the UK.
A ‘Discrimination survey’ conducted this year by the Traveller Movement, completed by Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, found that 98% of respondents had experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity and 81% had experienced hate crime or hate speech.
Many of the stories shared by the respondents make uncomfortable reading. People are regularly threatened with violence and arson and others have had their vehicles vandalized with abhorrent graffiti.
“lack of trust in authorities, lack of knowledge of rights”
Yet, the vast majority (71%) who experienced discrimination and hate offences did not seek legal advice or advocacy. The reasons cited included lack of trust in authorities, lack of knowledge of rights, or the length or perceived expense of the process.
Once we dip below the surface to see what is really happening we find a complex picture. Gypsies and Roma form the largest ethnic minority in Europe and along with Travellers, are amongst the oldest ethnic minorities in the UK dating back to before Elizabethan times.
Romani Gypsies have been recognised and protected by equalities legislation in the UK since 1989, Irish Travellers/Pavee since 2000 and Scottish Travellers since 2008. Yet despite this, there is widespread ignorance of the fact that we are ethnic groups with a rich history and culture of our own, who form an integral part of British Society and have added much to British culture and achievement in the process. Why is there so little knowledge of this?
Part of the answer can be found in the historical persecution of Gypsies Roma and Travellers that dates back to the times we first set foot on these shores. Hostility that over the centuries found expression in numerous anti Gypsy Laws, the consequences of which ranged from having ones property seized, to transportation to the Colonies, to being branded and enslaved and ultimately, the death penalty. By the time of Oliver Cromwell, it had become a hanging offence merely to be a Gypsy – or to be with one.
“77% of GRT people hide their ethnicity as a defence mechanism”
The primary coping mechanism then for Gypsies and Travellers has been, and remains today, to hide our ethnicity. The Travellers Movement Discrimination Survey found that 77% of GRT people hide their ethnicity as a defence mechanism against discrimination and persecution and as a means of securing employment. The Police Service being no exception. Having joined the Police Service in 1994, for years I was convinced I was the only Gypsy Police Officer that existed, and certainly the Service itself was oblivious to the fact that amongst its ranks were Gypsies Roma and Travellers carrying out all manner of policing roles. The formation of the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association in 2014 has done much to bring this to the attention of the service and the wider public.
Yet still, for most GRT Police officers and staff, just as for most GRT Doctors, Nurses, Teachers, Retails Workers, Self Employed Trades People and the like, the safest option is, if you can, to keep it secret that you are a Gypsy, a Traveller, or a Romani. For most GRT people though, whether you are able to hide or not, the sad fact of life is that all around you is a level of discrimination and hate that most members of public would be horrified at, were it directed to other more visible minority groups. Physical attack, Criminal Damage, Violent Hate speech in online media comments sections, openly hostile attacks from local and national politicians, refusal of service in pubs, restaurants hotels and shops are but just a few of the more serious examples. And then of course there are the casual throw away racist comments, often made by people who in all other respects would consider themselves fair, ethically minded reasonable citizens. Remarks that go unchallenged and probably unnoticed much of the time.
In response to the rise in hate crimes, the Home Office has published its new ‘Action Against Hate’ strategy in July. The strategy recognised the underreporting of hate crimes against Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people and the need to do more to engage and inform this section of the UK Population.
“a fundamental barrier which needs to be recognised”
Whilst this recognition of underreporting is welcome, as is the promise to engage with GRT people and organisations working with them, there is a fundamental barrier which needs to be recognised and dealt with before progress can really be made. The Police and Criminal Justice system itself, the very institution charged with and responsible for dealing with Hate Crime is currently in disorientation as regards Gypsies Roma and Travellers.
As the movement towards a greater recognition of the problem of Anti-Gypsyism grows, the Police and Criminal Justice System is having to acknowledge that up until now, it has been a large part of the problem itself. As far as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population are concerned the system is not an ethnicity neutral one. It has for a long time functioned on the basis that Gypsies Roma and Travellers are criminal groups rather than ethnic groups. Evidence of this is easy to come by. The National Crime Agency has in the past listed “Travellers” as a category of Organised Criminal Group. The National Intelligence Unit for Cross Border Criminality provides specific training on “the Gypsy and Traveller Criminal”. Numerous individual Forces in the UK record incidents as “Traveller Related” if they are known to involve Gypsies or Travellers, it is common practice still to flag up as worthy of Police attention such events as Weddings, Funerals and other family events, based purely on the ethnicity of the participants.
There are many more examples of such systemic discrimination and when such systems and procedures are shared with partner agencies and sometimes the general public, as the recent poster put out by Hampshire Police urging people not to do business with Gypsy and Traveller trades people showed, the results can be disastrous for us.
For Police officers and staff, having to work in such an institutionally biased environment for any length of time, leads to the internalisation of the idea that GRT are a criminal risk purely by dint of their ethnicity and this can’t help but be projected, no matter how unintentionally, in their interactions with GRT people. Being well aware of the biases held against us, having experienced years of negative interactions with authority figures, not just police, but extending to schools, politicians and even the courts, there should be no surprise in the lack of legitimacy with which many of us regard the authorities. Until this legitimacy and trust is built, it is unlikely that Gypsies Roma and Travellers will be rushing to the Police and associated services asking for help with issues of hate and discrimination, regardless of how badly they may need that help. Trust takes a long time to build and is easily lost.
“signs of change are there”
However signs of change are there. Small signs undoubtedly but they are there nonetheless. The recent independent review commissioned by Thames Valley Police on how it serves its Gypsy, Roma, Traveller population, and the work of the National Police Chiefs Council GRT Working Group, has provided a much needed positive momentum. There is similar work being carried out in the Metropolitan Police, West Midlands Police and others. It is hoped the government’s Home Office will soon insist on police forces adding Gypsy, Roma and Traveller to the list of ethnicities of service users and employees they are required to record and report on, which in itself will be a vital step towards ensuring equality of service for all of us. For example – the only way we know that a disproportionate amount of young Black men are stopped and searched on the street – and can try to do something about it – is because the police are forced to record their ethnicity. All of this points to the beginnings of a shift in attitude within the Criminal Justice System.
Will this amount to wholesale change in the way Romani and Travellers are regarded by the Police? I don’t know is the honest answer. But add to the mix the growing confidence of Romani and Traveller people to challenge injustice and discrimination when we see it, and I am hopeful. What I can say quite confidently though is that for all of us Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in the UK, people for whom hate and discrimination is a daily fact of life, change is long overdue.