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June: Celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month

Wednesday, 08 June 2016

By Dave Bamber, PFEW lead for Gypsy, Roma, Traveller Police Officers

Gypsy, Roma and Travellers (GRT) have been part of the ethnic make-up of Britain for many centuries and form one of the largest ethnic groups in the UK.

Alongside a history steeped in a rich culture and heritage comes a history of persecution and ill treatment both at home and abroad; nevertheless, these groups have survived, thrived and adapted.

So why is it such a surprise for some to discover the existence of the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association (GRTPA)? Why wouldn’t there be members of those communities working in the police service as in every other walk of life?

Maybe it’s because people just don’t notice and don’t realise, or perhaps due to stereotyping or unconscious bias, people just don’t think. But one thing is certain: members of the GRT communities have been and are members of our police service.

These officers and staff members have worked in an environment that has often been hostile to their heritage and at times dismissive of their issues.

But formed over recent years by Jim Davies and Petr Torak, and soon joined by others, the GRTPA has created a voice both within and outside the police service, for people who often went unnoticed, whose existence was simply not on anyone’s radar.

These people were at times made to feel disheartened and were often frustrated by widespread cultural stereotyping. The police service has enforced action against these cultures, often the action being of a civil nature which would not have been given a policing response were it not for the fact that the matter involved people form the GRT community.

These members of the policing family give first-hand accounts of policing deployments prompted by their own backgrounds and policing responses being based not on the nature of an incident or crime category, but based upon the perceived ethnicity of those involved.

Jim and Petr took a brave step: They identified themselves in the workplace, a workplace that they knew to be at best complacent and perhaps at times hostile towards their heritage.

They also identified themselves on a broader platform; making a stand for both their communities and for the benefit of policing, they led the way, and their initial stand has made it easier for others who share a similar background and set of experiences – I say easier, by no means is it easy.

The GRTPA has been a surprise to some, an inspiration to others and in the short time it has existed, a vehicle for positive change. The group now consists of 135 members – not all of whom are from a GRT background, in fact the majority aren’t – with just under 50 identifying themselves as from a GRT background.

But all share the same values – we are a police service of the people for the people, we should be a service that values difference and welcomes openly and fairly all members of our society.

It is estimated that there are hundreds of GRT police officers and staff working in the service, but the large majority fear the repercussions of declaring their heritage.

Indeed, many GRT members of the association request that their background remain anonymous, and most – if not all of them – will tell us that they know of numerous other officers throughout their force who are from a gypsy, Roma or traveller background but are not yet willing or do not feel able to disclose this information.

How can this be the case in 21st century Britain, where police officers and staff fear the repercussions of being themselves and of letting their colleagues know their true identity? Sadly I would hazard a guess this is not unique to policing and that it is common across all sectors.

The struggle for members of GRT communities working in the service still remains, and there is still much to be done. The GRTPA will continue to work with senior officers and PCCs to ensure Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are afforded the same rights, courtesy and respect as any other ethnic group. This is still far from the case and until we get the basics right, change is going to be a slow process.

The GRTPA has won many friends, helped to breakdown some stereotypes and diminish unconscious bias. Jim Davies has challenged personally the views and approaches of policing and has achieved great success, with policy changes now coming to fruition. However, the struggle for members of GRT communities working in the service still remains.

What both Jim and Petr have also done is form a link between the police service and the wider GRT communities, bridging a gap that has existed for many years. For it has also been a surprise to many in those communities that the police did have staff who could genuinely identify with them and who could empathise and not just sympathise with their issues.

I have learnt a lot from Jim over the short time I have known him. He has done a great job in creating a better working environment for colleagues and has broken down barriers that have been in place for many years.

What the GRTPA has done is let their colleagues know that they are not alone, that others share their experiences, that support and assistance is available when required, and it has provided a voice for a group of people that many thought did not exist in policing.

Learn more about the work of the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association at www.grtpa.com/

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