“I would never call the police again”: an interview with ex-police detective Kevin Maxwell
Kevin Maxwell didn’t think being Black and gay would hold him back in his dream career with the UK police. But, as his book Forced Out reveals, his experience was soured by racism, homophobia and the shocking behaviour of his colleagues from day one.
Joining the police force had been Kevin Maxwell’s dream since he was a kid. Growing up on a working-class estate in Toxteth, Liverpool in the 80s, he was fascinated by “the iconic blue uniform”, requesting toys and Lego which were police-themed, and reporting an obsession with American cop shows and long running British drama The Bill. He was, by his own description, “a little boy who wanted nothing so much as to protect and serve”.
While managing the legendary Manchester gay club Paradise Factory, Maxwell was accepted into the police – much to the dismay of the white liberal friends he’d made at university. But although he was old enough to remember the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the police’s mishandling of the Stephen Lawrence case following his racist murder in 1993, Maxwell was optimistic that the police could be a force for good in Britain. He felt that interventions like the MacPherson Report (an inquiry published in 1999 which examined the circumstances of Lawrence’s murder, and diagnosed the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police Service) would encourage dramatic change in policing that might repair its relationship with Black and working-class communities.
But in his debut book, Forced Out, Maxwell argues that no such progress has really occurred.
“My life began to fall apart the day I joined the police – the biggest regret of my life, and I was 23. That’s when the problems started for me.”
From working as a uniformed police officer on patrol to a becoming a detective constable working in counter-terrorism, Maxwell’s experience was soured by relentless racism, homophobia and the shockingly unethical behaviour of his colleagues.
His experiences, detailed in Forced Out, range from being called a “poof” and targeted by his sergeant after coming out to another officer, to a night shift in June 2003 where a group of officers found Black male suspect Deblo King, pepper-sprayed him, dragged him, kicked him repeatedly while handcuffed and laughed at him despite his bruised genitals and broken teeth. Manchester City Council CCTV captured the incident, which was described as “gratuitous violence”, but an officer involved was later named a “diversity champion”.
In July 2009, Maxwell first privately complained to his seniors both about racist and homophobic treatment against him, and the abuse of stop and search powers by white officers. But he describes being punished for speaking out, and went on to endure a three-year legal battle which concluded in an employment tribunal in 2012 finding the Metropolitan police responsible for 44 counts of harassment and discrimination against him. Forced Out tracks this legal odyssey, and the extent to which the Met were trying to “silence” Maxwell’s voice, “and close ranks around the problem of the discriminatory culture”.
Forced Out’s conclusions feel even more potent in light of the second wave of Black Lives Matter activism and anti-police protest following George Floyd’s murder. Calls for police abolition are gathering momentum and entering the mainstream discourse, police reform is seen as an ineffective way of ending state violence. As has been claimed by Maxwell and Black Lives Matter activists alike, countless reports, inquiries, and investments in diversity and unconscious bias training have not produced the paradigm shift which the police claim is their goal.
How immediately would you say the issues of racism and homophobia in the police force became apparent to you?
Straight away. It’s entrenched. It’s weird. In the first couple of weeks I was called an ethnic, then a coconut. From the beginning to the end it was just consistent. It happened as soon as I joined at 23, and it ended 11 years later, and I was still fighting them in the courts even after that. I served early enough to be there at a time when people were verbal – using the “q‑word”, “the n‑word” – but over time people started getting smarter, because they knew they could get in trouble. You can make a black person feel like a n*gger without using that word – it’s how you treat them.
Do you think you would be speaking out against the police now, were it not for how badly treated and discriminated against you were on a personal level?
Wow. No one’s ever asked me that. That’s a really powerful question. I mean, for eight years I said nothing. Or, when I did say something, it was dismissed as me being sensitive, or it not actually being serious. I think being pushed to the edge is what projected me to speak out – so I do wonder if I wasn’t discriminated against in such a way, whether I would’ve just kept quiet. I lived through The Secret Policeman – when there were exposures of racism at the Bruche National Training Centre in Cheshire. And I’ve heard it all – my supervisors telling me to “stop playing the race card”. N*gger, coon, wog – there’s not a word I haven’t heard in the police. Or it’s being passed over for promotion, the microaggressions, the “we don’t mean you, we mean the others, you’re not like them”. I guess all of that together made me say to myself: “Actually, you have to speak out.” For us I don’t think it ever is just one incident, I think it’s a build-up. Each day in the police was building on the heaviness of racism and homophobia. And for me, I wasn’t just black, I wasn’t just gay, I’m a Black, gay man. I was always on my own, there was no one else around me. The more I think about it, maybe if I were just Black, or just gay, I wouldn’t have spoken out.
In your recent interview for The Guardian you said that the force needs to do more to recruit Black, brown and gay officers for it to improve. How strongly do you stand by that statement?
When I saw that, I was like, “But you missed off the most important part!” The headline stuck with me for a while, because recruiting Black, brown and gay people for the sake of it is never going to work. You need to recruit people who want to be cops. But the most important thing I said to The Guardian, what I do stand by 100%, is you don’t want to recruit people just to look different. You want to recruit people to think different. More black and brown or LGBTQ+ faces isn’t alone going to solve the issues of racism and homophobia.
Why should people “want to be cops”? In Forced Out you write that the creation of the Metropolitan Police by the then Home Secretary Robert Peel in 1829 was to “serve the people and not the state”. I would reject this. The historian David Whitehouse argues that the police were created to quell working-class rebellion through protests and strikes without “sending in the army” and creating martyrs. At the moment, Black Lives Matter activists are scrutinising the origins of policing and moving towards a liberation politics of defunding and abolitionism, instead of reform and diversity. Do you think that your pursuit of reform and diversity of thought in policing contradicts these aims?
Right now I have Black friends, and even white friends, talking about this idea of defunding the police. Ultimately you and I are not enemies – we’re on the same page, we want the same equal treatment for our people. I just think for me – and I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, and I’m not trying to varnish over the awful police brutality and oppression of Black and brown people – but I think we need to have a conversation about how the police need to be… I was going to say “reformed” but you and a lot of people don’t seem in favour of reform. I suppose “real reform”, but what does “real reform” even mean? We’ve all heard that before, we’ve had so many inquiries and commissions, and what’s really changed? As I said, in the 40 years that I write, it’s the same old nonsense.
The idea of defunding the police has been around for a while – when I was at university, my white liberal friends were all for it. I think the problem for me is that I‘ve seen people call for defunding the police, but I’ve not seen any alternative plan for how it may look. If my nan is burgled tonight, who comes to her assistance? That said, me personally, I would never call the police again. I was threatened the other day, and in anyone else’s reality they should’ve called the police, but I didn’t – I called an external organisation. I do not trust the police, I have no faith in them. I will never trust them again, I would never call them. That sounds very strong, so I don’t think I’m as far away from you as you think I am, I just don’t know the alternative. It may take me awhile to see it. It took me nearly 11 years of being in the police to understand that it is institutionally racist. That’s not to say you’re a smart arse and I’m not, I was just at a different pace. I really believed that it was going to be different, and it wasn’t. I don’t rule anything out, but I think why I don’t publicly advocate for defunding the police is because I don’t publicly advocate for something I don’t understand. So maybe there’s lessons I need to learn with regards to how we should see the police or what the alternative to policing is.
I find it interesting that you’ve said both that if something happened to your nan you don’t know who you could call other than the police, but you’ve also referenced a recent situation where you refused to call the police. Do you ever think it’s strange that the police are the default answer for so many issues? If we have any kind of problem – from domestic violence to talking a suicidal person down from a roof to a relative going missing – the answer is always the police. It means if we have existing progressive methods and strategies which we know to be successful, these are marginalised in favour of increased policing. Instead of focusing on reform, should we not be making clear where policing is unnecessary?
I don’t know how the police came to be a one-stop shop for everything. With the book I’ve written – I wasn’t writing a palatable book for white people, but I thought if I didn’t ease them into the problems I saw in policing, the message wouldn’t get out there. But for the second book I’m working on, I’m starting to question all the things I thought, because I don’t know how the police became a one-stop shop.
We don’t even think of the alternative now, we just call the police. The fact we’re recruiting 20,000 more police officers – the police love that, they just think the police are going to solve everything. More police is not the answer. A lot of us are conditioned. One thing you’re told from school is that if ever you have a problem, you pick up the phone and call the police. We’re not told to think of the alternatives – where do we get this teaching? Only by my experiences and knowledge of some external agencies did I know there were alternatives, but most people don’t. They think that whenever you have a problem, the police can resolve it, even if it’s a non-police matter, or a civil matter. That’s why so many young people get caught up in the Criminal Justice System, because the police are getting involved in things they shouldn’t be. So more police, and more police powers, is not something I support.
Since George Floyd’s murder, people are now having these conversations more. I’m starting to read all these great voices now like Angela Davis and I’ve followed people on Twitter who talk about abolition. I never in my life thought I would write a book on how awful the police is. I never thought I would never call or trust the police again, so for me now it’s like, “What’s next?” It could be this conversation about abolition. We evolve don’t we? I’ve gone from someone who idolised the police as a force for good to someone who sees the police and crosses to the other side of the road. It’s not even trauma, I just don’t want to be around them.
Also read: The lasting effect of digital surveillance at Black Lives Matter protests